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“Electoral assistance provided by the UN is the outcome of the mobilization of the whole system”

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The UN plays an important role in the organization of various elections throughout the world. Simon-Pierre Nanitelamio is, since February 2017, the Deputy Director of the Electoral Assistance Division (EAD/DAE) of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (DPA/DAP). In this interview, Nanitelamio explains how and what  types of assistance the UN provides to Member States organizing elections.

What is the role of the UN Electoral Assistance Division (EAD)?

The EAD was set up in 1992 with a view to ensuring coherence and coordination among UN electoral assistance providers on the ground. The Division works on ensuring coherence of activities related to the processing of electoral assistance requests made by the member states; coordinating and considering electoral assistance requests with all due care and transmitting them to the relevant office or the appropriate program; building on the already gained experience to build an institutional memory; maintaining an updated database of international experts able to provide technical assistance; and finally maintaining the relations and developing partnerships with regional organizations and other intergovernmental entities, in order to establish appropriate working arrangements with them.

In concrete terms, how can a country benefit from UN assistance? Are there any conditions?

Before the UN provides any technical assistance to a member state, two conditions need to be met. First, this assistance must be fully based either on a mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly, or on an official request from the country or territory. Second, a needs assessment must be conducted by the Deputy Secretary-General in charge of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), who is, under his mandate, the Focal Point of the whole United Nations system for electoral issues, in consultation with the relevant UN entities.

Which are the UN bodies involved in providing electoral assistance?

More and more countries are requesting the United Nations assistance in organizing elections. What are the major changes in this assistance?The electoral assistance provided by the UN is the outcome of the mobilization of the whole system, which builds on the specialized knowledge and complementary capacities of many UN family members. These include the following: Department of Political Affairs (DPA/DAP), Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO/DOMP), United Nations Development Program (UNDP/PNUD), Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR/HCDH), United Nations Volunteers (UNV/VNU), United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), and International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Notwithstanding that the UN electoral assistance has actually changed over the years to adapt to changes in the needs and the situation of member states, it is still based on the principle established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that the will of the people, expressed through periodic and genuine elections, shall be the basis of the authority of government.
In the past, the UN used to provide various types of assistance it has abandoned for many years and considers now only in a very few cases. Two types of assistance, including supervision and observation of elections require a mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council. The UN currently provides electoral assistance mainly in six forms, with the first two ones requiring a mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council: organization and conduct of elections, validation, technical assistance, deployment of groups (panels) of experts, operational support to international observers’ missions. The technical assistance provided to election stakeholders, including national electoral commissions, is currently the most widespread type of assistance.

What is the impact of the UN electoral assistance?

The UN electoral assistance, which is based on compliance with international law and applicable international standards, is guided by a number of principles, including national sovereignty and promotion of national ownership, objectivity, impartiality, neutrality, independence. It contributes to increasing public trust in the electoral administration and the process itself, by emphasizing that the elections are only one part of larger and more inclusive political processes. In many cases, the UN assistance has also helped the member states create an environment conducive to peaceful and credible elections, including through good offices, facilitation of the political dialogue between national actors, often in collaboration with regional organizations or other actors, or even through increased transparency in the conduct of electoral operations. The UN assistance is provided in a long-term perspective, stressing the need to put in place sustainable and credible institutions and processes at national level and for the future electoral operations to be fully administered by the requesting state. It facilitates and fosters understanding by both electoral authorities and other stakeholders of the more general nature of electoral operations, including all their components and phases, the relations between political, social, and economic issues, the role of all stakeholders, and both short-term and long-term considerations and objectives. By also focusing on the development of national capacities and institutional and political stability, the UN assistance has gradually reduced dependence on foreign assistance.

What do you think about good offices or conflict prevention missions in electoral processes?

Good offices contribute to creating a climate conducive to holding elections or even calming down conflicts arising from disputed electoral processes. In particular contexts, including countries in transition or where the risk of violence is high, the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), under its preventive diplomacy approach, can provide assistance in the form of mediation, conflict prevention, and good offices, through regional political offices like UNOWAS or UNOCA. As stressed by the Secretary-General in his first address to the Security Council on 10 January 2017, in a debate on international peace and security, conflict prevention “is not merely a priority, but the priority.” Anywhere the “good offices” of the Secretary-General and his representatives or special envoys are used in diplomatic actions undertaken to contribute to bringing the parties to a conflict back to peace or to prevent political and armed conflicts from escalating, the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) is generally working behind the scenes to prepare and plan missions as deemed appropriate to provide guidance and support to the mediators.

A great number of elections have been recently held in West Africa. How do you assess the Division’s support for these processes?

The period 2015-2017 has been very rich in terms of elections on the African continent, with about fifteen (presidential and legislative) elections held every year in 2015 and 2016. In West Africa, 11 countries held major elections in 2015 and 2016, some of which, including elections in Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Nigeria, or even Togo, were major challenges to national and sub-regional stability. In comparison, 2017 is a rather calm year, with only three countries holding elections: The Gambia, Senegal, and Liberia.

The United Nations have provided technical assistance in organizing most elections in 2015-2017. The Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) has been directly involved in the preparation of these elections at many levels: by conducting needs assessment missions to some of these countries, which have led to the determination of parameters, type, and duration of the support to be provided by the UN, and also by identifying the appropriate expertise to provide to the member states and their election management bodies, then by supporting the UN entities in charge of implementing the assistance on the ground. The support provided by the United Nations, including the Electoral Assistance Division, has certainly contributed to improving the quality of these elections and, therefore, to holding them in a peaceful climate.

What are the potential challenges for the next cycle?

The next electoral cycle (2017-2022) represents a great opportunity for sub-regional countries to show the entire world that they are democratically mature and, with very few exceptions, the region is a model in this regard at the continent level. In West Africa, as almost everywhere on the continent, the main challenges, which are not new, are related to weak national institutions and the perception of their partiality and lack of independence, political interference with the work of election management bodies, restrictions of fundamental freedoms, the use of security forces by the governments to intimidate and muzzle the opponents, the public authorities’ attempts to remain in power through rather unorthodox political or legal tricks (including controversial attempts to modify term limits), refusal by contestants of outcomes that are generally considered to be legitimate. The greatest risk in irregular elections is that they can lead to violence, especially if the possibilities to use legal means to resolve the disputes are very limited. As the UN Secretary-General has consistently noted, a genuine election is one in which the result reflects the freely expressed choice or choices of electors and is therefore broadly accepted.