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The conference brought together election observers, electoral stakeholders, donors, civil society and conflict prevention practitioners to take stock of these new challenges including the increasing use of social media for electoral campaigning, the use of ICT in the conduct of electoral processes, and electoral violence. In addition, the conference explored the role and best practices of Parliamentary observation, and how to enhance collaboration between the EU, African Union and United Nations in this area.
The Conference participants highlighted issues around the use of ICTs and social media in electoral contexts. The digitalisation of elections to streamline their management, from voter registration and identification to voting and counting of results, raises concerns about the integrity of the process as well as affects trust among politicians, voters and electoral authorities. Similar questions arise around the role of social media, sometimes involving complex disinformation operations. While the debate on Internet governance has so far centred on the respect for freedom of expression, these new trends have revived the questions of its limits when it comes to hate speech and the role of social media in opinion formation, and whether that requires regulation. Still, the red line between regulation to prevent interference and restriction of freedom of expression is very thin and needs to be carefully thought through. In this challenging context, observer's teams also face difficulties in keeping up with fast technological progress. Their technical capacities and methodology need revision and updating if they are to properly monitor digital systems and social media, and to assess their impact on electoral processes.
Understanding and addressing the complex processes that make violence or the threat of violence a concern during elections requires collective multi-disciplinary perspectives and efforts should be made to identify potential conflict triggers well in advance. During the Conference, the debate focused on the need to develop long, medium and short term strategies for preventing violence and conflict. Long-term strategies of strengthening state institutions including through a systematic approach to implementing the recommendations of observer missions can generate more trust and credibility in electoral processes, which can in turn help to ensure peaceful and smooth political transitions. Short-term strategies include mediation, the promotion of dialogue and dispute resolution. There is a need to integrate the existing tools of preventive diplomacy, conflict prevention, peacebuilding and mediation together with election observation and assistance. Mediation and prevention work should not only be focused on political leaders but also on the grassroots and the role of women, youth and minorities is vital. Election Observation Missions’ long-term presence and their independent and impartial assessments often play a key role in enhancing the credibility of electoral processes and have a mitigating role against violence and conflict. By improving the transparency of the electoral process, they make an election less prone to escalate into violence.
The participation of parliamentarians in election observation missions, most of the time in the framework of regional organisations (EU, OSCE, NATO, the Council of Europe, OAS, Pan African Parliament etc.), brings further credibility and political visibility to the observation process including the recommendations presented afterwards. Their participation, as elected representatives of the people with experience and expertise in campaigning and the diversity of backgrounds and, particularly, political affiliations of parliamentarians also further reinforces the impartiality and the independence of the conclusions and recommendations from their observation. However, in recent years some parliamentarians' behaviours have been seen as problematic. Part of the discussion during the conference focused on how to address these issues and the need for the OSCE and NATO parliamentary assemblies and national parliaments participating in international observation missions to join the Common code of conduct agreed by the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The importance of better integration of national staff in international EOMs and of reinforcing their cooperation with domestic observers, to achieve for example better consistency of EOMs' reports, were also discussed.
Another important debate of the Conference was how to enhance EU-AU-UN trilateral cooperation on electoral processes and observation, especially in supporting elections over the whole electoral cycle, before, during and after elections. The EU and AU's partnership in this area can be further strengthened through capitalising on the recommendations of their observer missions to encourage consolidation of democratisation processes and institutions throughout the continent. The UN, the EU and AU already cooperate closely on election observation within the “Declaration of Principles for International Observation” launched at the United Nations Headquarters in 2005. The AU and the EU have also been cooperating closely at the political and technical levels on electoral processes, including on long-term observation methodology, and expressed their commitment to strengthen and broaden this cooperation, notably on the follow-up to EOMs recommendations. Participants concurred that, in view of the experience of the three organisations and the challenges ahead, an enhanced triangular partnership in the area of elections would be welcome. For many participants, implementation of recommendations, especially those relating to electoral reforms, would also benefit from enhancing dialogue on cooperation with and between Election Management Bodies and CSOs.
The "High Level Conference on the Future of International Election Observation" brought to the event a range of different expertise and experiences and, through keynote presentations, panel debates and informal discussions in the margins, identified a number of important points for further action and a substantial agenda for future work together.