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United Nations Global Issues

Democracy and Elections

The spread of democracy around the world is one of the most significant achievements of our times. Elections sit at the heart of this, making possible the act of self-determination envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. The Organization’s history is interwoven with elections extending back to shortly after its founding, when, in the late 1940s, it observed elections on the Korean Peninsula. During the subsequent era of trusteeship and decolonization, it supervised and observed plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide. Today, the United Nations continues to be a trusted impartial actor providing electoral assistance to approximately 60 countries each year, either at the request of Member States or based on a Security Council or General Assembly mandate.

Electoral assistance is based on the principle established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the will of the people, as expressed through periodic and genuine elections, shall be the basis of government authority. Electoral assistance also recognizes the principles of state sovereignty and national ownership of elections, and that there is no single model of democracy.

The main goal of United Nations electoral assistance is to support Member States in holding periodic, inclusive and transparent elections that are credible and popularly perceived as such and establishing nationally sustainable electoral processes.

The provision of electoral assistance by the United Nations is a team effort involving a number of programmes, funds, agencies and departments under the mandate provided by the General Assembly.

The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs is designated by the Secretary-General as the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance Activities, with a leadership role in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency and in strengthening the institutional memory and the development, dissemination and issuance of United Nations electoral assistance policies.

a man votes behind a screen
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali provided electoral support to the authorities following a tumultuous year that included a military coup d'état, fighting between the Government and rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical Islamists. (UN Photo)

The Electoral Assistance Division, within the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), supports the United Nations Focal Point in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency in the provision of United Nations electoral assistance. This includes undertaking electoral needs assessments, recommending parameters for all United Nations electoral assistance, advising on the design of projects, developing electoral policy, maintaining institutional memory, and providing technical guidance and support in the implementation of electoral projects.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the UN system’s main provider of technical electoral assistance, which is delivered as part of its mandate to lead democratic governance assistance at the country level.

In peacekeeping or post-conflict environments, electoral assistance is generally provided through components of field missions under the aegis of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) or the DPA. Military and police components of peacekeeping missions support national law enforcement agencies in providing security for electoral processes.

Other UN actors involved in providing electoral assistance include the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Volunteers, UN Women, the United Nations Office for Project Services, UNESCO, the Peacebuilding Fund, and the United Nations Democracy Fund.

Over the last 20 years, the United Nations has provided electoral assistance to more than 110 Member States and/or territories that have requested support. In the forthcoming report 2015 biennial report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on the UN’s work in support of democratic elections, 68 countries are documented as having received UN support. UNDP provides electoral assistance to develop sustainable electoral management capacities, to foster inclusive participation in elections, particularly of women and youth and other underrepresented groups, and to coordinate donor support to electoral processes. This includes seven countries where special political missions are deployed, and eight where peacekeeping missions are deployed. Where more than one UN actor is involved in providing electoral assistance (for example, DPKO and UNDP), support should be provided in an integrated manner.

stacks of ballots
For the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in Sudan and UNDP provided technical assistance through the UN Integrated Referendum and Electoral Division. The Secretary-General also established a Panel to monitor the referendum. (UN Photo)

United Nations electoral assistance has been a crucial and successful component in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and in establishing and deepening democratic governance. As democracy has spread, so has the role of elections as the means to establish legitimate government. The United Nations has been engaged in elections in all regions of the world, with assistance provided recently in the Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, Jordan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Iraq,, to name just a few. In Tunisia for example, the UN supported civil society in the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections and continues to provide technical assistance to the national authorities. In Libya, an integrated UN team supported the Libyan authorities in organizing and conducting the General National Congress elections on 7 July 2012. In 2013, the United Nations provided technical and logistical support to Malian authorities in the conduct of Presidential elections. In addition, the United Nations is currently in the the process of supporting electoral reform in Afghanistan.

The United Nations also has established relations with regional and intergovernmental organizations involved in electoral assistance, including the African Union, the European Union, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, League of Arab States (LAS) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Southern African Development Community, as well as with sub-regional organizations like Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). Other partners are the many international non-governmental organizations working in the field of electoral assistance. These include institutions such as the Carter Center, the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These relationships provide opportunities for collaboration on electoral support activities as well as for sharing lessons and experiences.

It is recognized that addressing the capacity of an electoral management body in isolation will not necessarily produce credible elections. There also needs to be a focus on the overall political environment in which the elections take place. The United Nations therefore also makes efforts to build capacity outside the electoral authorities. This involves working with voters, the media, political parties and civil society, as well as other actors and institutions of democratic governance such as parliament and the judiciary.

Further recognizing that even a technically good election may still ignite underlying grievances and tensions, the United Nations is placing greater attention on taking a political approach to preventing and responding to  election-related violence. This is the basis for regular training for field and headquarters based staff. Some examples of successful political engagement include the mediation and dialogue activities of the Special Adviser for Yemen, who works closely with the UN Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Country Office in moving the political process  forward; the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which is in close consultation with ECOWAS, engaged political actors in an effort to lessen tensions before, during and after the elections; and the SRSG for West Africa’s engagement in Guinea, who, with close support from DPA, facilitated dialogue among political actors thereby ensuring a resumption of the stalled electoral process.

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