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Build on 40 years of democratic endeavour, Secretary-General tells elections observation symposium

17 September 2020

The Commonwealth’s Secretary-General has urged member countries to focus on building a more equal, inclusive and sustainable world, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patricia Scotland was speaking on a panel entitled 'Reflecting on the Commonwealth’s Electoral History and Evolution' to mark 40 years of the Commonwealth observing elections. It was attended by former leaders of member states and other eminent persons who shared their personal perspectives.

COVID-19 and elections

Delivering her keynote speech, the Secretary-General said COVID-19 has impacted Commonwealth nations in many ways, including the postponement of elections and election observation -one of the Secretariat's most important areas of work over the past four decades.

She said: “This four-decade milestone is a valuable opportunity to review and assess the many ways in which Commonwealth work on international election observation has contributed to the promotion of democracy, to peace and to the advancement of processes which are conducive to the nurture and development of our fundamental Commonwealth values – now brought together in the Commonwealth Charter.

“So, this consideration and appreciation of Commonwealth Electoral Observation and electoral support is about far more than simply celebrating past achievements. It is also about looking to the future.

"It has to be about how our approaches can continue to evolve, respond and innovate in dynamic ways which will ensure our work maintains impact and is of service to the people and institutions of our member countries for the next 40 years.”.

Role of international observers cannot be overemphasised

His Excellency Dr Goodluck Jonathan, former president of Nigeria, thanked the Secretariat for finding him worthy of leading a Commonwealth Observer Mission just five months after he lost an election.

He said: “That gave me the feeling that even though I am no longer the president of Nigeria, I am still useful to the world." He later told the symposium the role of international observers cannot be overemphasised.

Importance of election observation

Former Jamaican Prime Minister His Excellency Bruce Golding, told the symposium that it’s important that election observer missions be, and are seen to be, impeccably impartial.

“Without that, it would serve no purpose," he added. 

"It'’s only agenda must be to pronounce objectively on whether or not the conduct of an election meets the required standards and, if not, to identify and give recommendations.”

History of the Commonwealth's election observation

Since 1980, the Commonwealth has observed more than 160 elections in 40 member states.

Of this figure, 60 per cent were in Africa, 24 per cent in Asia, 18 per cent in the Caribbean and Americas and eight per cent in the Pacific.

Dr Lawrence Gonzi, former Prime Minister of Malta, said elections can make or break democracy and that the observation process is a certification in a strong democracy.

Over the 40-year period of the Commonwealth’s international election observation, it has encouraged partnership, collaboration and mutual support.

Pivotal role in ensuring democracy

Former Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth HE Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, pointed to the example of institutions such as the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, which plays a pivotal role in ensuring democracy at local government level, upon which the Commonwealth builds its election observation.

Zainab Bangura, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Nairobi, who has also been on Commonwealth observer missions, said the people's determination and commitment to effect change or cast their vote in various conditions is one of the best commitments to democracy she has witnessed.

Former Commonwealth Special Envoy to Lesotho, Dr Rajen Prasad QSO, said the Commonwealth Observer teams' intelligent collection of information and data during elections, which he has personally observed, has been very useful in helping him advise countries in his capacity as a special envoy.

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