Mediating electoral violence – key dilemmas and tensions

Election violence has received much attention over recent years. It is seen universally as a vital problem to address within the democratisation process, but its complexities and sensitivities have as yet not been fully addressed: still the international community is faced with the challenge of identifying feasible and timely responses in the face of election-related tensions and violence. This is true for the EU, one of the largest donors and supporters worldwide of electoral assistance and observation in third countries.

At least four tensions and dilemmas remain unresolved and constrain the effective addressing of the issue:

1.     Impartiality v intervention

Election observation codes of conduct and best practice underline the need for impartiality by observers in order to protect the integrity of the Election Observation Missions (EOM), such as those by the EOM, and its subsequent commentary.

To this end, intervention, especially in flashpoints or violence, is forbidden. There is a substantive point here, and intervening to stop or mitigate violence, however impartially done, could indeed open an EOM to perceptions of taking sides, exceeding accepted briefs, etc.

On the other hand, failure to intervene in instances of violence or the threat of violence risks contributing to a biased or unfair election result, which also to some extent undermines the overall goal of election observation and support – namely to improve fairness and reduce bias in the result.

2.     Security v authority

To ask unarmed civilian personnel to intervene in violence clearly risks their security, a situation no outside authority will countenance.  This “weakness” can only be addressed by providing the personnel with some form of authority in the form of a credible threat to the perpetrators of violence.

Such threat or “authority” would render the intervener more credible and give them a more or less robust “muscle.” This might involve, for example, filming them and reporting to the police for prosecution, or the subsequent imposition of pre-agreed sanctions or punishment on perpetrators or on their party or regime. But clearly such procedures would not suit all contexts by any means (for example, where the security forces are on the side of one faction in the election, or where sanctions against the regime will not offer any incentive to non-government offenders).

To provide the intervening personnel with actual tools of authority, such as accompanying peacekeepers, would require huge shifts in practice within the international community, huge resources, and an unavoidable partiality in the selection of which elections receive such attention and which do not.

3.     Prevention v management

Most of the initiatives to date to address election violence have tended to focus on preventive measures: civil education, training of officials in conflict resolution, pre-agreed  codes of conduct  for parties, or mediation between factions/parties well upstream of an actual election (2 to 4 years, for example).

The usual solid logic applies to this, that prevention is always better than cure (and usually much cheaper). But reality suggests that it does not necessarily work, and evidence would suggest that, however effective it may be on some aspects of conflict, it will always depend to some degree on consensual agreement between adversaries and will never eradicate violent behaviour by determined perpetrators. There will still be a need for actions to manage or mitigate violence, especially during campaigns, on E-day, and during the preparation and announcement of results.

Given that significant international and regional expertise is already focused on developing methodologies and practice for the preventive dimension, the remaining area most in need of attention is still that of “violence management” on the ground.  (Indeed, it might be argued that the latter remains underdeveloped precisely because of the complexities and political and human risks it carries.) In short, the need is greatest where the challenges are most daunting.

4.     Recommendations v action

The international community has been exercised on the issue for several years. Multilateral actors, think tanks, civil society organisations have focused on it with great intelligence and insight. (For example,  UNDP, the African UnionInternational IDEAIFES and many others have engaged in developing the thinking.)

The result has been a wealth of well-developed and thoughtful recommendations for policy. However multilateral organisations such as the EU struggle to translate them into practice. This is especially true as regards “violence management” (as opposed to preventive policy). This reflects the complexity of the issue, as well as the political and diplomatic sensitivities around it.

Tackling the policy and practice gap

As part of a wider project supporting EU mediation capacity across various thematic areas (including power-sharing, peace and justice, stand-by capacity), mediatEUr recently embarked on an initiative to explore the types of mediation support required to address conflicts and violence arising from elections, funded by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The aim of mediatEUr’s work on elections mediation is to explore new paths along which recommendations could be pushed further to become policy and practice at the EU level. This is not to ignore the difficulties and sensitivities involved, but to think realistically about whether there are innovative ways to translate thinking and recommendations into action.

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Antje Herrberg

Author Antje Herrberg

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