Noom Hotel, Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
23-24 November 2021
The objective of this symposium is to look at ways in which international election observation missions (IEOMs) can better contribute to credible elections through a critical examination of current practices and how they may be remoulded to improve IEOM's performance. To achieve this the symposium will address the following:
Election observation has a proud history of supporting the democratic processes in many new, transitional, and post-conflict states on the African continent. The value in inviting international observers to an election is underpinned by the belief that they play a vital role in ensuring that the elections are transparent, free, and fair, and that the outcome is accepted by voters, political parties, and candidates.
In recent years a growing number of critics argue that international election observation no longer serves the purpose for which it was initially intended. The statements issued by International Observer missions, following the 2017 Kenya elections, later contradicted by the courts in that country, thrust many of the issues raised by critics into the fore.
Emerging technologies provide new opportunities for stakeholders in the democratic landscape, but they also undoubtedly present a new array of human rights challenges. Strong protections for democratic freedoms are necessary to ensure that the internet will not be used by oppressive regimes to undo democratic gains.
A common complaint laid against international observation is that it has become or perceived to be "electoral tourism". Observer teams are composed of either politically important, or professionally inexperienced, observers arriving a short period before voting. These persons visit several polling stations, watch the start of a count, and then return to their hotel in the capital to issue their findings and prepare their departure.
The value of citizen observation lies in their presence in-country throughout the electoral cycle; their work on electoral reform advocacy; the strength of their geographical coverage offered by large deployments; and their robust assessment of different thematic aspects of the electoral cycle. The role that citizen observers play as watchdogs, keeping authorities accountable, often means they are political targets and constrained by the political context in which they operate. Over the past decade, several countries (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and others) passed restrictive laws to constrain the civic space for civil society organisations (CSOs). During elections, clampdowns are more common. In Kenya in 2017 and Tanzania in 2020, for example, police raided CSO offices and others were threatened by the government(s) with deregistration.
International observers are better positioned to hold states accountable and mediate conflicts. While international observation is an expression of the international community's support for the promotion of democratic norms and an assessment of compliance with international human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for citizens, it is also an expression of citizens' right to participate in the public affairs of their countries as enshrined in Article 21 of the UDHR and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
One of the biggest criticisms of IEOMs has been the tame/under-critical/non-offensive nature of their mission statements following the election. The fact that the AU did not issue statements during controversial polls in Tanzania (2020) and Uganda (2021) and recalled its observers from Guinea could suggest a recognition from the organization of the damage an uncritical mission statement could have. African inter-governmental organizations struggle to balance their role as election observers with their political and diplomatic commitments as regional authorities. Increasingly, citizen/civil groups, opposition parties are demanding more from international election missions.