Briefing: Understanding International Election Observation Missions

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Last week, we heard about the European Union’s (EU) decision to cancel its election observation mission (EOM) to observe the sixth general election of Ethiopia. EU stated that it was forced to cancel the mission due to a lack of independence and communication systems (European Union External Action, 3 May 2021). On the other hand, the Ethiopian government claimed that some of EU’s request to send the observation team is against the country’s sovereignty (Fana Broadcasting Corporation, 4 May 2021; The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, 4 May 2021).

Before analyzing this issue, we need to understand the duties and obligations of international EMOs. According to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (2005), “international election observation is the systematic, comprehensive and accurate gathering of information concerning the laws, processes, and institutions related to the conduct of elections and other factors concerning the overall electoral environment; the impartial and professional analysis of such information; and the drawing of conclusions about the character of electoral processes based on the highest standards for accuracy of information and impartiality of analysis.”

Elections can be observed by local, partisan, and international groups. Local observers are usually volunteers who are trained and accredited through their local organization to observe elections within the country. Partisan observers are observers who monitor the electoral process on behalf of their political parties or candidates. International observers are organized by an international organization. The local and partisan observers monitor the election and ensure the election process is being conducted as per the country’s electoral rules. While the EOMs monitor the election process as per the local electoral rule as well as international electoral standards. Furthermore, each international organization which dispatch EMOs has their own code of conduct. For instance, the EU has the “Code of Conduct for EU Election Observers.”

An election observation mission consists of the head of the mission, deputy head of mission, different experts, long-term observers (LTOs), and short-term observers (STOs). The mission consists of experts like legal analyst, election analyst, political analyst, security analyst e.t.c. This team of experts provides analysis in assessing various aspects of the election process. The experts and the head of the mission are known as the core team of the mission. LTOs are responsible for observing the various stages of the election process in their assigned region of the country, which conducts the election (the host country). Hence, most of the time, they are deployed five to six weeks before the election day and depart one week after the election day. This will allow LTOs to monitor the pre-election period like the campaigning and voter registration period. LTOs are the EOM’s eyes, ears, and face in the host country. Thus, the mission will have the necessary information for assessing various aspects of the overall election process. STOs are deployed one week before the election day and depart one week after the election day. STOs monitor the voting process on election day. They are assigned to different selected polling stations of the country to observe the voting and counting process.  

Figure 1. Election Observation Mission Structure

EMOs observe elections to assess the compliance of the election process with the local laws and international standards. However, it is not the observers’ duty to certify or validate the results of an election. The mission has to offer an informed and impartial assessment of the election process and then, if necessary, make a recommendation to improve the election process. For this purpose, the EMOs must respect the laws and sovereignty of the country which is holding elections (Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation,2005). EMOs have to be invited by the host country in order to observe the election process. If an EMO accepts the invitation, the mission should announce its presence in a country, including the mission’s mandate publicly, make periodic reports as necessary, and issue a preliminary post-election statement of findings and a final report upon the conclusion of the election process (Ibid).

Now that you are familiar with EMOs’ basic duties and responsibilities, what is your opinion about EU’s decision to cancel its EOM to observe the sixth general election of Ethiopia?

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