Press Releases International Election Observation: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Annual meeting of the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation

International Election Observation: Speech by High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the Annual meeting of the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation

Pues muchas gracias, Nacho [Sánchez Amor, Member of the European Parliament]. Muchas gracias por tus palabras, por tu introducción.

Thank you to all of you. It is a pleasure for me to participate in this high-level panel.

This is one of the most important tools that we have in our foreign policy. We have a lot of words, a lot of communication and statements and, from time to time, we do something concrete and, in particular – very concrete, involving a lot of people – it’s our Electoral Observation Missions (EOM).

We have done a lot of them. I suppose you know very well where and how many times we have been observing elections. I am very proud of what the European Union is doing in that field.

Today, I am particularly struck – or touched – by the part of your [Nacho Sánchez Amor] speech when you talk about [how] the election observers are risk-taking people, people at risk. Certainly, in many missions, there are risky situations. I think that electoral observers deserve very well the title of “human rights defenders” because, at the end, it is what they do: to defend a basic human right which is to choose your government freely through processes which are well organised and can be evaluated from outside.

I, myself, have seen many countries where local [electoral] observers have serious limitations on their work by the authorities – even to the point of facing serious threats and intimidations. In some countries, it has also resulted in violence and, sometimes, casualties among local observers. So we have to pay tribute to them. [It is] very good that they are classified as human rights defenders, because that is what they do.

Thank you, Nacho [Sánchez Amor], for your introduction.

As you know, we live in a climate of increasing political polarisation across the globe. The conditions in which democratic elections are being held are becoming more and more challenging. This issue is becoming more and more difficult.

To start with a word that is familiar to this house, which is disinformation. Elections [are] about information: if you go to buy something at the supermarket, you want to have information about the product. Well, I am not saying elections are the supermarket of parties, but, in a certain way, [they are] about choosing. “Election” comes from “to choose”. And, in order to choose, you have to be aware of what is going on: who is who, what have [people] been doing, [and] what they propose to do.

Information is the “sabia” of democracy: the engine of democracy works with something which is called information. Without good information, it is impossible to believe that citizens can behave as citizens – fully informed and ready to choose.

Today, information is being contaminated by disinformation. There is nothing new. It has always happened. But, today, disinformation travels at the speed of light through the networks and it is pushing for rhetoric, even violence. The whole electoral process is being contaminated by the lack of information and, [even] worse, by disinformation.

Then, to see how candidates and political parties [running for] elections present a broad range of proposals, coming from the extreme right to the extreme left, with new formations presenting proposals which look good. But they have to be passed through the checks of facts – and many facts that, in the electoral process, are being presented to the electoral body are in fact not true.

This is not the purpose of the Electoral Observation [Missions] to say and to demask what is true and what is not true. But I want to say that the electoral process, the democracy, is facing a big problem today, which is the quality of information.

On the second rank, what we have is attacks against observers. Attacks against observers range from harassment to false accusation, defamation and threats and even to limit their right to free movement, detentions, expulsions and physical violence.

Some have even been killed while carrying out their work. In a number of cases, the harassment, the assaults and killings are perpetrated by members of the States’ security services. So, it is not someone that is out of the system, it is the system itself who attacks the Electoral Observation Missions.

This creates an environment of uncertainty and insecurity, which undermines the work of the observers, and limits their capacity to act as observers. [It] limits their capacity and ability to do their work and threatens their physical safety.

I think it is very positive that the United Nations Special Rapporteurs have chosen to remind Member States of their responsibilities within the framework of international law: to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, to ensure that all persons under their jurisdictions are able to have access and enjoy their rights and freedom in practice, and to protect the civic space.

From our side, in our institutions, we have done a lot. I am not going to bother you with a long list of how many [Election Observation] Missions we have done, where, and when. But I know that you are aware that our [European Union] Delegations across the world have instructions to consider local election observers – them, also – as human rights defenders and to apply to them all relevant measures in case they ask for assistance and support from the European Union. And we hope that this practice of asking the Delegations and embassies to protect the local electoral observers will expand to other organisations. But even [until] intimidations and attacks against election observers stop, we cannot say that we are playing a role in order to protect democracy. It is as important as that.

I would like to thank the friends from the Declaration of Principles for pushing for this recognition of [the] observers’ rights.

Let me say something about some concrete [Election Observation] Missions that we have been performing with some background on election observers.

I remember, for example, in Zimbabwe. Following the 29 March 2008 elections, and against a backdrop of ongoing electoral violence, leaders and staff of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network were detained and interrogated by the police, their offices raided, and their observers attacked. One observer died.

In Georgia, in October 2016, while monitoring the Parliamentary elections, three representatives of an international NGO Election Observation Mission deployed by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, were beaten and their mobile phones confiscated.

In Afghanistan, in October 2019, two election observers were killed, 20 [were] injured, 26 [were] arrested and others threatened during the last Presidential elections.

Getting closer to our time, in Mozambique in October [2022], Anastasio Matavele, a leading known participant citizen observer and community activist was assassinated [during] a drive-by shooting by officers of the country’s police services.

I can continue. I can continue but I think that you know better than I the risks and the cases where the observers are suffering these risky situations.

Today, we are not just complaining about what is happening. We want to face this challenge with a positive answer.

I am very happy that here there are the representatives of the international civil society organisations, electoral observers and practitioners. Thank you for coming here to Brussels.

I see representatives from the United Nations, the Organización de Estados Americanos, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Commonwealth, the Carter Centre, the National Democratic Institute, and many more. Thank you to all of you for coming here, to the house of the European Union’s democracy.

Special thanks to the European Parliament, dear Vice-President [of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili], for hosting and co-organising this event with the European External Action Service.

I, as High Representative, being at the lead of our [Electoral Observation] Missions, I am happy to share this session with you, Eva [Kaili], with Laura [Chinchilla], former President of Costa Rica.

I want to mention the situation in Ukraine, how [can I] not?

I know that yesterday the representative from Ukraine was very much applauded. Thank you. Thank you for being here with us. I know that you were very much applauded, that you explained your particular personal case, with your husband and your sons being where they are – in Poland and in Ukraine.

I was just this weekend visiting the [EUMAM] Training Mission in Poland with your brave soldiers. I think that you deserve all kinds of support.

You were asking for support for your next electoral process, next Autumn. Let’s hope, by then, the war will be over, and Ukraine will be able to hold an electoral process in peace and freedom. I know that a lot of Ukrainians will be [outside] of Ukraine: millions of Ukrainians had to leave. Certainly, we will have to see how we can support in order for them to be able to participate in the electoral process.

Ukraine is fighting [for] their freedom and democracy. But the fight for democracy goes far beyond Ukraine.

As I said at the beginning – I think I said [it] already but, if not, I am repeating it: we are living a “democratic recession”, unhappily. We believed that democracy was going to be – after the end of the Cold War – “the” system. Today, we see that democracy is declining, the number of non-democratic countries has been increasing and no continent has been spared by this trend.

Today, across the world, more people live in autocracies than in in democratic countries. We are back to the levels that we have not seen [since] before 1989, before the end of the Soviet Union. So certainly, there is a big risk for democracy. We have to work much more in order to make people restore [their] confidence in the public institutions, in the electoral process, and continue to show that democracies deliver; that it is not just one act of going one day every X years to vote but is a matter of fighting effectively against social inequalities and to protect fundamental rights.

That is true at home, here in Europe, and abroad. But, at the same time, we have to recognise that there is a diversity of paths towards building democracy. We have a Western model, and some could believe that this is the only model – no. The request for democracy is a global issue. It is not limited to any geography, or religion, or age. Sometimes, people say: “Oh, this kind of people, in fact, they are not well fitted for democracy. Democracy is a cultural thing”. No, it is not a cultural thing. It is not the “West”. It does not respond to our way of understanding how to organise the life of people in structured societies. It is a universal value. And there are wider principles that we have to defend. That is why these [Elections] Observation Missions participate in electoral processes all around the world.

The Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, that gathers us today, is an old Declaration. It was consolidated in 2005, if I am not wrong. It was endorsed by 55 [intergovernmental] and international organisations, including us, the European institutions. I think it is a good symbol of what we call the “multilateral approach” and we have to support it.

This Declaration was first endorsed only 17 years ago but it has raised its profile and, today, it is a way of highlighting the importance of this process.

But apart from saying that we have done a lot of things and we are facing challenges, the important thing of this meeting would be: how to implement improvements in our electoral processes? Not only, how do we make our recommendations to be implemented – because, in the end, this is an important part of the job. We say: “Look, this, this and this was not enough; next time, it has to be improved.” Our implementation has to be implemented. Otherwise, it is climbing the desert. And this is an important part of our activity: to follow up on the implementation of our [Election Observation] Missions recommendations.

The second thing that has to be taken into account is the famous digital transformation – everybody talks about it. You cannot have a meeting without saying “digital” and “green” at least once. We are all “green” and “digital”, but what does it mean in practical terms? What does the “digital transformation” mean?

When you see that one of the most rich and advanced countries in the world still has difficulties in counting votes – it should be much easier, but it looks very difficult. In some countries, they have to wait a lot of days in order to count the votes, and then there are still a lot of troubles on whether the count was done well.

In other, the digitalisation of the process has advanced much more. This has to be done, but digital should not be a shadow for electoral manipulation.

What is happening inside the computer is not observed by the eyes. So, we have to be able to face the technological developments, and to have the skills and capacities to control a process that more and more is being controlled by a machine. It is not just counting the ballots on paper with everybody looking around but something that happens inside the bits and bytes, and our observers should be able to control also this process.

I would also like to stress the need to support the domestic observers. We come, we deploy our capacities, our people but we cannot do everything by ourselves. We have to rely on people on the ground, people of the country where the electoral process takes place. I think this is one of the core values enshrined in our Declaration of Principles.

I am jumping from one page to another, because I want to go to the core issues, and for me the core issue is the methodological ones: the digital transformation – I already mentioned [it] – is something positive but it may have a negative impact, including the risk of foreign interference. Take very much into account that today, more and more, old electoral processes have been interfered from outside, from abroad. I do not want to point to anyone, but I am sure you have in mind what I am talking about.

All electoral processes are being interfered [into] from the outside. The modern technological capacities of [spreading] information [widely are] a very important tool for this interference.

We need democracies which are supported by independent media and by civil society organisations. It is not just the governments. It is the society, it is the media. Freedom of media and a vibrant and strong civil society that produce organisations that take care of the public good without having a public job. It is not just people [doing] politics as a way of living, but ordinary citizens that do not want to be in politics [as a] full-time job, but [to have] a way of contributing to the public good.

This is our most important strength, to be in touch with this kind of people.

I, myself, have been participating in a couple of [Election] Observation Missions. I remember one of them, in Nepal. By the way, the first thing I did was to go to the Palace to say “hello” to the King and, after the elections, the King [had] to leave. Sometimes, electoral processes are very much transformative of a reality. That is why they are so important, because elections determine the way a country is being governed, and by whom, with which commitments, and with which accountabilities.

Be sure that you are doing an important work. Be proud of this work, as I am very much proud of the work that we are doing from the European Union and, in particular, from the European Parliament and [European] External Action Service.

We have a new [Head of Division] for the [European] External Action Service’s Electoral Observation Missions [Neal Mac Call], welcome. Patrick Costello has done a fantastic job – now he is in another task. You will follow the same way of working.

Thank you also to Cristina [Maestre Martín De Almagro] from the European Parliament, to the people who are in charge of these processes. And thank you to all of you for your attention.

I am ready to spend some more time with you – because I have to leave, but not before 3 o’clock.

Thank you.

Link to the video (starting from 03:30):

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