"We will have an expert mission." Human rights activists explained how they will conduct an election monitoring campaign
In Belarus, February 25, 2024 is officially declared a Single voting day for the elections of deputies to the House of Representatives and local Councils of Deputies. This is the first electoral campaign after the crisis of 2020 and after fundamental changes in the social and political life of the country. The Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign has stated that it will monitor this election campaign. Representatives of the campaign and its expert Pavel Sapelka answered a number of topical questions: whether the campaign will legitimize the elections by its activities, how the monitoring campaign will be conducted, and what challenges human rights defenders face.
The Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections is a campaign of independent observation and monitoring of elections in Belarus, which has been conducted by the human rights center Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee since 2008. The purpose of the campaign is to assess the electoral process from the point of view of Belarusian legislation and international standards of free and democratic elections, to inform the Belarusian public and the international community about the course of the election campaign and the results of observation. The company's representatives emphasize that because of the risks of repression, an expert mission will assess the elections instead of "classic" observes that carried out the monitoring during previous campaigns.
Why did human rights activists decide to organize a campaign, and how will it take place?
"First of all, it should be said that since the last election campaign of the deputies of the House of Representatives in 2019, a lot of events have occurred that have radically changed the human rights situation in Belarus. Despite the fact that it seems that "everyone already understands what kind of "elections" we will get", it is nevertheless important to make a comprehensive analysis of how the first electoral campaign in Belarus will take place after the crisis of 2020.
Viasna and Belarusian Helsinki Committee have extensive experience in monitoring elections in Belarus, since 2008 we have been monitoring within the framework of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign. During this time, we have become a professional team that can adapt to any conditions. For example, now we cannot and will not set up a network of observers. Firstly, the authorities have dissolved the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which has always sent observers to election commissions and polling stations. There will be no such opportunity now. Secondly, and this is the main thing, we believe that in these conditions there is a great risk for observers to face reprisals for participating in the observation, so we will not use the help of observers during this election campaign. Now we will have an expert mission that will collect and analyze information about the election campaign, through a public anonymous form for reporting violations of electoral rights among other things. We are preparing appropriate instructions for active voters on how to safely send information to the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign", — representatives of the company say.
Human rights activist of Viasna Pavel Sapelka adds that this format of the campaign has actually been tested during the referendum on amendments to the Constitution in 2022 and has shown its effectiveness. In addition, he also names several reasons to conduct the campaign:
"First of all, there is a demand from international organizations, political and public structures for an expert assessment of the situation in Belarus before, during, and immediately after the elections, the influence of the political context and the human rights situation on the possibility of exercising the right to vote. It is also necessary to assess how changes in legislation and in the composition of the Central Election Commission will affect the processes related to the electoral campaign. We know that for a quarter of a century the Belarusian authorities have been using administrative resources and imperfect legislation, powerless before manipulation, as tools for seizing and retaining political power. We know that the scale of fraud has long deprived the electoral process of many of its core features, that we often call this process elections out of habit and for brevity of definition, but we see it as our duty to state our point of view in a reasoned and evidential manner."
Is it even possible to monitor the electoral campaign in the current conditions of Belarus, when the public sector is almost completely destroyed, any public activity is stopped by repression, and independent observers and electoral law experts are kept in prisons?
Human rights activist Pavel Sapelka draws attention to the fact that in today's conditions it is impossible to send observers to the commissions, since repressions are likely to be applied to them:
"Based on the experience of previous campaigns, we can assume that those who still want to become an independent observer will not be allowed into the commissions. The task of the campaign will include recording these facts and evaluating the processes of creating election commissions, nominating and registering candidates for deputies, opportunities for campaigning, expressing one's will at early voting and on a single voting day. We cannot by our silence allow the authorities to hypocritically declare that the electoral rights of Belarusians are observed."
Won't human rights activists legitimize the elections in Belarus by their activities on monitoring the electoral campaign?
"We do not consider our activities and our plans to be the legitimization of the elections in Belarus, although this is also a challenge for us. The decision to conduct monitoring was quite difficult for us. We can summarize our arguments as follows: we have always monitored the elections, because it is important to record what is happening," the representatives of the company note.
Human rights activist of Viasna Pavel Sapelka adds:
"I know for sure that there are two ways to legitimize the elections, willingly or unwillingly: by stating that they were held in full compliance with accepted standards, or by leaving their assessment to propagandists. I have concerns that in the absence of another reasonable opinion and assessments, such statements from the Belarusian authorities will cause a desire to ease pressure on the regime and soften the position on the release of political prisoners."
At the OSCE Conference on the Human Dimension, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged the OSCE "not to waste time on monitoring the 2024 elections in Belarus." Do you agree?
"From a political point of view, election observation seems to many to be a kind of evidence of recognition of the authenticity of this process. If we are talking about the participation in election observation of such influential actors as the OSCE ODIHR in a country where the political opposition was destroyed during the pre-election period and the most important rights and freedoms were eliminated, then I am ready to share this point of view. However, at the same time, the reasons to refuse monitoring by an international organization should be expressed clearly, leaving no room for ambiguous explanations. At the same time, the main thing for me is what specific measures on the part of the Belarusian authorities will be named as a condition for the mission's participation in the observation, and the direct content of the conclusions of this mission if it is sent," Pavel Sapelka says.
How will the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign–2024 differ from the previous ones? What innovations are planned in connection with the challenges?
"The methods of collecting information will change drastically. During this election campaign, we plan to appeal to ordinary voters for help in collecting information about violations during the elections. We are developing a simple and clear form for collecting information about violations, as well as clear instructions on how to use it safely and share information. At the same time, there will be several alternative ways to send information: through a Google form, as well as through the secure contacts of Viasna. After verification by analysts and experts, the information sent will be used in our reports," human rights activists note.