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OSCE Parliamentary Assembly takes unilateral decision to withdraw from the 1997 Cooperation Agreement with ODIHR: A blow to OSCE election observation?

Calista A. Latour
Analysis 15 January 2013

The Dublin Ministerial Council (MC) meeting held last December agreed on a roadmap for the OSCE until 2015 but failed to adopt decisions in the human dimension for the second year in a row. This negative trend was aggravated by the unilateral decision by the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), announced at the opening session of the Dublin MC, to withdraw from the 1997 Cooperation Agreement on election observation with the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The timing of this decision couldn’t have been worse given the general “crisis” of the OSCE human dimension as well as the number of sensitive elections taking place in the OSCE region in 2013, such as in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Albania and Tajikistan.

Both the ODIHR and the PA have engaged in various aspects of election observation since their establishment following the 1990 Charter of Paris. While the ODIHR was initially established as the “Office for Free Elections” to “facilitate contacts and the exchange of information on elections within participating States,” the PA was created because of “the important role parliamentarians can play in the CSCE process.” Both institutions have established a broad base of experience and knowledge of various aspects of election observation over the years. Indeed, election observation is considered one of the most important aspects of the OSCE’s work.

Yet, ODIHR and PA have had their differences about how election observation should be carried out and have sometimes stepped on each others’ toes in the field. Therefore, a Cooperation Agreement was decided upon on 2 September 1997 under the auspices of the then Danish OSCE Chairmanship in order to “avoid overlap, redundancy, unnecessary expense and confusion” […] and “to enhance the capabilities and effectiveness of both of these OSCE institutions.” The Agreement spells out a number of points which should be addressed in order to improve cooperation during election observation, such as the needs assessment missions, exchange of information, observer briefing, logistical support, the deployment plan, the designation of a special coordinator, briefing and de-briefing, the preliminary post-election statement and the final report. The spirit and letter of this agreement have been tested in the past. Now it seems to have broken down completely.

To make things worse – after its announcement at last December’s MC – the PA sent a letter to the President of the European Parliament, informing Mr. Martin Schulz of its decision to withdraw from the 1997 Agreement because “ODIHR has continuously failed to implement the 1997 Cooperation Agreement […] and to acknowledge the leadership role of the elected parliamentarians.” The letter furthermore explains that the PA “will therefore continue its election observation programme independently from the ODIHR and without asking for future appointments from the OSCE Chair-in-Office […].” This is a very questionable approach that brings discredit on the work and the objectives of the OSCE. In fact, it undermines the credibility of the entire OSCE. It also provokes some practical questions like how will the PA organize its missions without ODIHR’s support, and how will its missions be linked to the OSCE if there will be no joint statement or no coordination with the Chairmanship? Indeed, among the plethora of election observation teams, how would parliamentarian election observers from OSCE states be any different than say parliamentarians from the CIS or other international organizations?

Election observation is part of the OSCE human dimension and is one of the OSCE’s core activities. Indeed, the OSCE is not only known for its experience in organizing large-scale election observation missions, but also for its professional knowledge of election laws, pre-election media campaigns, election procedures, democratic standards, ballot counting and ballot secrecy. The OSCE’s preliminary statements on elections as well as the final election reports are frequently quoted in the media and the recommendations that are attached to it are considered as important steps in improving democratic and electoral standards. It is therefore irresponsible – especially in the current climate – to put these activities at risk because of the inability of two institutions to agree on a division of labor. Indeed, the PA’s decision to end the cooperation agreement discredits one of the few remaining aspects of the Organization that give it added value, and plays straight into the hands of those who seek to undermine the OSCE’s election observation role. We have become used to undemocratic regimes criticizing the OSCE’s election observation activities, but it is strange when parliamentarians start doing the same thing.

To view the original PA statement delivered at the MC, click here.

To view the 1997 Cooperation Agreement, click here.