asiaNet Human Rights
Elections these days in Central Asia offer few real choices. And there is little reason to hope that existing regional patterns will change in the near future. The Uzbek presidential elections of January 9, 2000, will likely end in much the same manner as did the vote staged November 6 in neighboring Tajikistan, in which incumbent Imomali Rakhmonov received a farcical 96 percent of the vote. In Turkmenistan, meanwhile, there is only one registered political party standing in the December 12 parliamentary elections.
The government of Uzbekistan is responsible for serious, widespread human rights violations, including mass arbitrary arrests and severe restrictions on free speech. But the violation of electoral rights deserves particular scrutiny because elections are one of the most widely accepted measures of "political good will," which in turn sets the tone for bilateral and multilateral relations. Until the notches on this measuring stick are standardized, however, the stick is not reliable and should be used with the greatest caution.
In evaluating elections, there is a need for precise understanding of terminology. Imprecise interpretation can lead to misunderstandings that are potentially detrimental to regional human rights development.
The most authoritative election observation body working in the region, the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), publicly expressed "serious concern" over the pre-election legal and political climate. It will issue a detailed account of its findings in the next few weeks. In the run-up to election day, however, it expressed its outrage by sending a "limited assessment mission" of election experts.
Given the context, this response appears to show a stunning lack of forcefulness. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to grasp the gravity of the OSCE's position without understanding ODIHR's peculiar language. To ODIHR, sending a "limited assessment mission" may be considered a form of protest aimed at the Uzbek government. In OSCE parlance, "assessing" entails noting conditions in a limited fashion without evaluating the full balloting process, presumably because one doesn't need to observe balloting irregularities to know that the entire process was unfair. "Assessing" is meant to be strictly differentiated from "observing," which involves monitoring a full range of election-related activities.
These connotations are, of course, vastly different from their dictionary meanings and this can therefore lead to misunderstandings. Unfortunately, many in the international community and virtually the entire Uzbekistan electorate are not familiar with ODIHR's terminology.
Adding to the confusion is that local media, which are often government-controlled, frequently misuse the OSCE's terminology or simply mistranslate the terms. Not unreasonably, even English-speaking journalists often use "observation," "assessment," and "monitoring" interchangeably. The result is the common and unfair -- misapprehension that ODIHR shows up at all elections indiscriminately and therefore must be uninformed about or indifferent to actual election climates. Neither is the case. But the organization holds some responsibility for cloaking its well-founded criticism in "bureaucratic speak."
The concern here is not semantics. On the contrary, it should be substance: the banning of opposition parties, intimidation of alternative candidates, censorship, and beating and harassment of those who speak out against state-sponsored abuse. But it is precisely because ODIHR and other highly professional and well-intentioned monitors do their work well that it is worth considering some simple, structural adjustments to safeguard the integrity of ODIHR's work in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. The International League for Human Rights and the Jacob Blaustein Institute, for example, have called among other things for ODIHR to introduce unambiguous descriptions of its levels of involvement. Standardizing election observation terminology throughout the monitoring community would be an even greater contribution to this important work.
"Political good will" is notoriously difficult to measure. It is nonetheless a common measure used by governments inclined to base their assessments of a government's human rights records on the benefit of the doubt rather than on the government's actual practices. Criteria for evaluating one of these criteria -- the legitimacy of elections -- must be clear and standardized for the good work of informed and concerned observers like the OSCE to be fully effective. "Show elections" must be called by their real names.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant
to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related
issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992
and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow,
covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian
Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights
advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League
for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an
MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has
lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly