News and Updates

A Rights-Based Approach to Electoral Security


By: Vasu Mohan, Regional Director, Europe and Asia

In India, Maoist rebels killed 14 people in attacks in Chhattisgarh state as part of a campaign of violence aimed at disrupting the ongoing five-week national election in the world’s most populous democracy.

Similarly, in the days leading up to the April 5 presidential election in Afghanistan, the Taliban unleashed a campaign of violence to discredit the electoral process and keep voters from the polls. Many hope this election will be known for delivering the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history.

Thousands of miles away, as talk of civil war looms in Ukraine, violence has spread across the country ahead of elections on May 25, with two presidential candidates attacked and badly beaten.
These most recent examples evidence a well-known pattern: in many emerging and transitional democracies violence continues to challenge the integrity of elections.

Given that elections are inherently competitive, the potential for violence during an electoral process can be significant. Conversely, elections often take place in environments with protracted and sustained insecurity, and can also provide an alternative to violence as an avenue to deliver a peaceful transfer of power.

As illustrated by India, Afghanistan and Ukraine, the context for electoral insecurity can be very different from place to place or over time, but the fundamental right to electoral security – a human right – remains the same.

One of the greatest global achievements of the last half century has been the development of an international framework for the protection of human rights. Out of this framework, the concept of human security emerged – the idea that security is not simply the absence of conflict or the security of States, but the protection of people and their fundamental rights and freedoms.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is at the core of the international human rights paradigm, and provides protections with respect to electoral security. UDHR includes articles guaranteeing all people the right to security of person (Article 3); the right to periodic and genuine elections, by universal and equal suffrage, and through secret vote (Article 21); and the right to assemble and associate peacefully (Article 20).

Together, these articles underpin the right of all people to participate in the electoral process in a peaceful and safe environment. These rights are reinforced in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and other UN/international instruments such as Security Council Resolution 1325.

As part of the international framework of standards that govern elections, the right to safely participate in the electoral process is a fundamental pillar of electoral integrity. While types of electoral insecurity may change, the end result is usually the same: disenfranchised voters, loss of trust in the electoral process, and lack of electoral integrity. Electoral insecurity also represents a failure to protect the rights of citizens to take part in the electoral process.

Over the past 26 years, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has worked closely with electoral authorities operating in challenging environments to support their efforts to create a secure environment for voters. Because insecurity can take many forms, it can also require different responses. For this reason, the responsibility to protect the rights of voters usually lies with a variety – and ideally a coalition – of stakeholders, including governments, election officials, media, security forces, law enforcement agencies, political parties, candidates, community leaders and concerned citizens. At the heart of any response, however, must be the safety of voters and candidates, whose right to participate in the electoral process is enshrined in international law.

The current focus of electoral security efforts is primarily on electoral management bodies, law enforcement, military and other security entities. Peace building initiatives, women, community leaders, and robust formal and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms are not factored into plans.

Reframing electoral security as human-centered, rather than event-, location- or material-centered, allows for a more holistic approach to security that covers all phases and activities of the electoral process and that adheres to the spirit of international standards and norms governing elections. It also avoids the dissolution of responsibility in environments of protracted insecurity, whereby attention is only given to key phases of the electoral process and not to understanding, planning for and mitigating the effects of complex, pre-existing insecurity.

To be truly effective, a rights-based approach to electoral security must focus on enabling an environment in which all citizens can exercise their fundamental right to vote or be elected. This approach can help inform the type and scope of security planning undertaken. It helps crystallize exactly what must be protected, which in turn can shape how this protection should be provided. This approach demands that when we look at integrity of elections we consider the ability of people to exercise their rights to ensure that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government,” as stated in the UDHR.

Vasu Mohan is IFES’ Regional Director for Europe and Asia and has managed IFES election support projects in conflict and post conflict countries. This is the first in a series of articles and white papers that will discuss IFES’ rights-based, voter-centric approach to election security.