In an increasing number of countries, including both closing contexts as well as those with historically open political processes, citizen observer groups now face more sophisticated attempts to restrict or prevent their efforts to promote electoral integrity. Barriers to the right to observe may include repression tactics that are used more broadly against civil society groups, such as laws and regulations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for groups to gain and maintain legal status, to access key parts of the electoral process, or to collect and publicize information about the elections. Bans on foreign funding or even technical assistance to CSOs in several countries have hampered observers from being able to organize, and some groups are increasingly at risk of intimidation, harassment, arrest, and violence.
In other countries, observers face restrictions on their ability to effectively observe key aspects of the process, for instance growing threats of internet outages and restrictions on the use of mobile phones on election day. The accreditation process for observers is overly cumbersome, prohibitive or opaque in many countries, and in some places providing PVT results estimates is banned or restricted.
In response to these increasing and evolving challenges, the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM), convened a group of citizen observer leaders from four continents for a dialogue to discuss ways to address the growing threats and restrictions being imposed on citizen observer groups, in April 2022. During the event, citizen observation leaders shared experiences of restrictions on their right to observe and innovations in addressing these issues.
During the dialogue, observer organizations identified key takeaways from the discussion including,
- Restrictions on observer rights are electoral integrity issues and should be incorporated into election assessments by citizen and international observers, including in public statements.
- It is important to build strong working relationships with the EMB to help groups overcome barriers to observe and better sensitize election officials regarding the needs and objectives of nonpartisan observers.
- Reform can take a long time, and civic groups should be constantly looking for windows of opportunity to engage in the reform process. Be prepared with advocacy strategies, reform agendas, and even draft legislation to be able to take advantage of an opportunity at a moment’s notice.
- Observer groups need to be prepared to respond to intimidation, violence, and surveillance and should develop contingency plans and safety and security strategies for activities.
- Credible observers should invest in strategic communications to inform citizens, the media, and the international community of their efforts and to compete with propaganda from bad-faith observers.
- Advocacy to improve observer rights must take place at international or cross-regional levels given the rise of authoritarianism globally. Building cross-border linkages between CSOs, especially in closed or closing spaces can help promote solidarity and reinforce messages across borders, especially when engaging international and regional bodies to get observer rights on the agenda.
GNDEM remains committed to protecting and advancing the rights of observers, and elevating this human rights issue. Building on the takeaways from the dialogue, GNDEM leadership hopes to move advocacy on this issue forward through peer-to-peer learning, guidance and future research.