Asia-Pacific Regional Director Testifies on Capitol Hill on Reducing the Risk of Mass Atrocities

Mohan testifying before the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

On November 14, 2018, Vasu Mohan, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems' (IFES) regional director for Asia-Pacific and technical lead on elections, conflict and security, provided testimony to the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. He was invited to speak to Members of Congress about “Reducing the Risk of Mass Atrocities: The Role of Inclusive Electoral Systems Design and Election Institutions in Preventing Violence and Promoting Security for All People.”

A recording of the hearing is available below, and a written version of Mohan’s oral testimony follows:

Respected chairmen, and other distinguished Members of the Commission, on behalf of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, I thank the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for holding this critical hearing series and I deeply appreciate this opportunity to testify.

"The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government. This will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

This article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the foundation for IFES’ work for the past three decades in over 145 countries. IFES promotes electoral integrity and democratic inclusion by providing technical assistance to election officials and empowering all people to participate in electoral and political processes.

As all people in society gain a voice in who governs them and how they are governed, we increase the chance that governments serve the interests of all people and protect them from discrimination, intimidation and violence.

Sadly, mobilizing groups of people to commit acts of hate against others has become an all too common tactic in electoral politics today, as has state-sponsored intimidation and violence. The use of social media to propagate disinformation and hate and the overall shortage of credible verification mechanisms have added a further layer of complexity.

Together these harmful trends violate the right to equality and dignity, the right to safety of person, the right to assemble and associate, the right to participate in government. What political leaders often fail to realize is that once set loose, these powerful negative forces are difficult to rein back in and they may lead to hate crimes, communal violence and even mass atrocities.

In today’s testimony I will look at two broad strategies to prevent hate crimes and sectarian violence in elections. One approach is designing inclusive electoral systems, institutions and processes. The other is increasing leadership capacity of election authorities to counter hate speech and promote electoral security for all.

A well-designed electoral system can help mitigate conflict and create opportunities for accommodating rights of minorities and other vulnerable or disenfranchised populations. Conversely, a system that does not take into account disenfranchisement and does not promote inclusion could result in severe harm and instability.

In designing election systems we should consider questions such as:

  • What requirements should be imposed for parties contesting post-conflict elections or elections in countries with deep sectarian divisions?
  • Should regional, ethnicity or religious-based parties be accommodated and if so, at what level of government and what might be the risks?
  • Should certain individuals such as those under war crimes investigations be banned from holding party office?
  • Should codes of conduct for political parties include provisions that punish use of disinformation, hate speech, or incitement to communal violence and how should these codes be enforced?

In terms of the electoral process – do all people, particularly women and marginalized communities, have safe and equal access to the entire electoral process beginning with a voter registry that is inclusive and representative of the entire population. Can they run for office safely?

In a recent IFES white paper on countering hate speech in elections I recommend several ways in which electoral institutions can address challenges to electoral security. I would like to highlight five lines of action:

  1. Election commissions should build broad partnerships that leverage existing mandates, capabilities and resources of government institutions, independent agencies, media and civil society.
  2. Election commissioners should speak out against hate speech and raise awareness of its consequences, which, in turn, can help to mobilize a positive public response.
  3. Election commissions should engage relevant security agencies and civil society including those representing vulnerable groups in election security efforts.
  4. Effective and timely adjudication of cases involving hate speech and incitement to violence during election campaigns is essential to promote accountability and electoral justice.
  5. Election commissions can raise awareness and educate voters through voter education programs as well as longer-term civic education programs. These will raise civic and media literacy levels and reduce the public’s vulnerability to hate speech, disinformation and calls to violence.

In all these endeavors deep local knowledge, wisdom and understanding are critical.

We ask Congress to consider the following:

  • In the design of electoral assistance programs supported by the U.S. government, sufficient emphasis should be placed on and resources allocated to (1) analyzing the potential for hate speech, hate crimes and violence against disenfranchised groups and (2) devising interventions that could encourage and support networks of national champions for electoral security and democratic inclusion.
  • When designing programs that address reconciliation and marginalization, consider the important role played by electoral and political processes in potentially exacerbating hatred and discrimination on the one hand or providing a venue for constructive civic engagement and political empowerment on the other.
  • Lastly, we, as Americans, should set a high standard for ourselves, exerting every effort to eliminate any form of hate speech or intimidation from our own electoral process.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." We need to deeply understand this interconnectedness, that diversity is a strength not a liability.

Think of society as a body with millions of cells of extraordinary diversity of forms and functions, all collaborating to make the existence of the human being possible. Could institutions then inspire societies and nations to think of themselves similarly and seek a future where the dignity of each individual is respected and where all people are able to safely assemble, associate and participate in government – so that truly the will of the people forms the basis of the authority of government?

Thank you again for this opportunity to testify.

Commission Chairmen Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), as well as Commissioner Rep. Hank Johnson, Jr. (D-Ga.) attended the hearing. Mohan was joined on the panel by Bridget Moix, senior U.S. representative and head of advocacy, Peace Direct; Jack Mayerhofer, chief of staff, Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation; Jai-Ayla Quest, program officer, Stanley Foundation; and George Lopez, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., professor emeritus of peace studies, Kroc Institute for Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.

To read Mohan’s written testimony, please click here.