Elections are a vital part of democratic processes including, political transitions, implementation of peace agreements and consolidation of democracy. The United Nations plays a major role in providing international assistance to these important processes of change.
United Nations electoral assistance is provided only at the specific request of the Member State concerned, or based on a mandate from the Security Council or General Assembly. Before assistance is agreed and provided, the United Nations assesses the needs of the Member State to ensure that the assistance is tailored to the specific needs of the country or situation. As the General Assembly has reaffirmed on many occasions, United Nations assistance should be carried out in an objective, impartial, neutral and independent manner, with due respect for sovereignty, while recognizing that the responsibility for organizing elections lies with Member States. More than 100 countries have requested and have received United Nations electoral assistance since 1991, the year in which the Secretary-General designated the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs as focal point for electoral assistance matters, with the endorsement of the General Assembly. The institutional arrangements for United Nations electoral assistance and the entities involved have grown and evolved since 1991.
Today, a range of United Nations entities have mandates that refer to electoral events and support or otherwise engage in electoral support activities. In this field of diverse actors, the General Assembly has repeatedly highlighted the importance of system-wide coherence and consistency, and has reaffirmed the leadership role of the focal point in that respect. Accordingly, the focal point is responsible for setting electoral assistance policies, for deciding on the parameters for United Nations electoral assistance in a particular requesting country and for maintaining the single electoral roster of experts who can be rapidly deployed when required for any United Nations assistance activity.
The focal point is supported by the Electoral Assistance Division of the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat. The Division recommends to the focal point the parameters for all United Nations electoral assistance, pursuant to the request of Member States, and following an electoral needs assessment. The Division also advises on the design of electoral mission components or assistance projects and maintains the institutional memory of the Organization and the single roster of experts. It is also responsible for policy development. On behalf of the focal point, the Division provides political and technical guidance to all United Nations entities involved in electoral assistance, including on electoral policies and good practices. When required, the Division provides support to the Secretary-General and his envoys, and to United Nations political and peacekeeping missions in the prevention and mediation of electoral crises. The Electoral Assistance Division also maintains electoral partnerships with, and provides capacity development support to, other regional and intergovernmental organizations involved in elections.
Watch the short video on UN electoral assistance:
History and Evolution
The history of the United Nations is interwoven with elections. During the era of trusteeship and decolonization, the United Nations supervised and observed numerous plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide.
During the 1990s, the United Nations observed, supervised or conducted landmark elections and popular consultations in Timor-Leste, South Africa, Mozambique, El Salvador and Cambodia. More recently, the Organization has provided crucial technical and logistical assistance in milestone elections in many countries, including in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Demand for United Nations electoral assistance is growing, as is the duration and complexity of operations. Electoral observation, once a core activity in early United Nations support, is now rare, and technical assistance has grown exponentially. Assistance is closely regulated by the UN General Assembly, and its evolution is reflected in a series of resolutions since 1991 (please refer to the latest resolutions in this regard including A/RES/70/168 of 2016 and A/RES/72/164 of 2017).
Even as the United Nations electoral assistance evolves to adapt to the changing needs and circumstances of Member States, it continues to be 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.
Types of Assistance
United Nations electoral assistance is provided based on the principle that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. UN electoral support programs are tailored according to the specific needs of each requesting Member State. Although considerable international attention has been given to elections conducted in the context of United Nations peacekeeping missions or other post-conflict settings, most electoral assistance activities take the form of technical assistance in non-mission settings. The following are examples of some of the various types of electoral assistance provided by the United Nations. These are drawn from a number of UN electoral policy documents:
Technical Assistance: Technical assistance is by far the most frequent form of United Nations electoral assistance. It can be defined as the legal, operational and logistic assistance provided to develop or improve electoral laws, processes and institutions. It can cover all, or some, aspects of the electoral process. It can focus on one electoral event or can be long term covering a number of electoral events depending on the mandate or request and the needs assessment. While UN technical assistance focuses primarily on election administration and institutions it may also include assistance to a number of other stakeholders and institutions. Technical assistance may be provided on the basis of a request from a Member State, or following a mandate by the Security Council or General Assembly.
Support to creating a conducive environment: The mandate of DPKO and DPA missions often includes provisions related to creating a conducive environment for the implementation of various tasks usually listed in their mandate. In countries where they have such a mandate, they may use their good offices and political role to contribute to creating a conducive environment for the holding of elections. Through their military, police and civilian presences, the DPKO missions may also help stabilize the security situation, which is essential for a conducive environment for elections. As per their mandates, OHCHR and UN Women may also decide to monitor the human rights or the situation regarding women’s participation in a country, before, during and/or after an election in order to foster an environment conducive to credible elections and ensure respect for relevant international standards. In specific circumstances such as countries in transition or at risk of violence, DPA as the UN system lead for peacemaking and preventive diplomacy may also assist with mediation, conflict prevention and good offices.
Organization and conduct of an electoral process: If the United Nations is mandated to organize and conduct an election or referendum, the organization assumes the role normally fulfilled by national electoral authorities. In such cases the UN has full authority over the process. Due to the primacy of the principle of national ownership this type of assistance is very rarely mandated and is unlikely to be undertaken except in special post-conflict or decolonization situations characterized by insufficient national institutional capacity. This type of mandate is only possible via a Security Council or General Assembly resolution.
Certification/Verification: The term “certification” is widely understood in electoral practice as the legal process by which a national authority approves or ‘certifies’ the final results of its own national election. However, on rare occasions, the Security Council or General Assembly may ask the Secretary-General to play a “certification” role. In such cases the United Nations is requested to certify the credibility of all or specific aspects of an electoral process conducted by the national election authority. The United Nations is required to produce a final statement attesting to the election’s credibility. The modalities will vary according to context. UN electoral certification requires a mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council.
Electoral Observation: Electoral observation consists of systematic collection of information on an electoral process by direct observation on the basis of established methodologies, often analyzing both qualitative and quantitative data. The process of observation usually leads to an evaluative public statement on the overall conduct of the electoral process. UN election observation entails the deployment of a mission to observe each phase of an electoral process and report back to the Secretary-General, who will issue a public statement on the conduct of the election. UN electoral observation, which is very rare, requires a mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council.
Supervision of elections: Supervision of elections requires the UN to endorse and approve each phase of an electoral process in order to attest to the overall credibility of the election. It can require direct involvement in establishing the mechanisms of the election, such as the date, the issuing of regulations, wording of the ballot, monitoring polling stations, counting the ballots, and assisting in the resolution of disputes. Where the UN is not satisfied with the electoral procedures or their implementation in a particular phase, the electoral management body conducting the process is required to act upon UN recommendations and make any necessary adjustments. The progress of the election is contingent upon the UN’s endorsement of each phase. Supervision of elections by the UN is also rare and requires a mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council.
Panels of Political and/or Electoral Experts: UN panels entail the deployment of a small team to follow and report on an electoral process. A panel can be an electoral expert monitoring team, composed of experts in such areas as electoral processes or mediation, or a high-level panel composed of eminent persons of political, electoral or mediation profile. Relying on its own observations as well as those of other international and national stakeholders, the panel will provide an independent assessment of the overall political and technical conduct of elections. The assessment is generally provided to the Secretary-General or the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance. Unlike observation missions, panels are not necessarily present in the country throughout a process (limiting their visits to strategically important periods) and may not make their findings public. A mandate for such a panel may be provided by the Secretary-General or the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance.
Coordination of Electoral Observers: United Nations support to international observers is of two types: (i) Operational Support, and (ii) Coordination of International Observers. Coordination of international observers involves a wide range of activities that can include the provision of logistics and administrative support to the election observation effort and other additional activities such as briefing and facilitation of the deployment of observers, debriefing, etc. This type of support is usually provided to a number of observer groups. This type of support can be provided on the basis of a request from Member States.
While most assistance originates with a Member State request, United Nations electoral assistance may also be provided based on a mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly, as is often the case when peacekeeping or special political missions are established with electoral components.
The guidelines for United Nations electoral assistance are described in the Secretary-General's report A/49/675, under Annex III. The principal guidelines and procedures are described below:
Requests for electoral assistance can be made by the head of government or the minister of foreign affairs of the UN Member State. In some circumstances, requests from other entities such as a ministry involved in the planning and implementation of the election or the electoral commission may also be considered as acceptable. Requests for electoral assistance made by groups within the legislature, political parties, civil society or other entities cannot be accepted. Requests for electoral assistance must be made by an organ of the Member State authorized to bind the state in agreements with the UN. National electoral management bodies do not normally have this authority, but their requests may be acceptable if we have Member State consent.
The requesting Member State is required to send a formal written request for electoral assistance. Requests have to be sent to the relevant United Nations Representative at the national or global level (the Secretary-General, her/his Special or Resident Representative, or the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs). All requests will be forwarded to the Focal Point for Electoral Assistance, who is the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.
Because many aspects of electoral preparation (e.g., voter registration) take place months or even years before the election event, requests for electoral assistance should be submitted in sufficient time. Requests for assistance should be made early in advance to ensure there is adequate time to assess the request and potentially provide such assistance.
Once the request has been submitted, an assessment by the United Nations takes place. The assessment can take the form of a needs assessment mission (NAM) to the country or a desk review, both conducted by the Electoral Assistance Division. Based on the NAM report, the Focal Point for Electoral Assistance decides whether the UN should provide support and if support is to be provided, what type of support to provide.
Following approval by the Focal Point, design and implementation of the proposed assistance is carried out by the relevant United Nations entity or entities, in accordance with the NAM recommendations and with advice from the Electoral Assistance Division.
UN entities providing electoral assistance
The Department of Political Affairs (DPA)
The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and head of DPA serves as the United Nations Focal Point for electoral assistance, and is supported in that function by DPA’s Electoral Assistance Division. All requests for United Nations electoral assistance must be forwarded to the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, whose role is mainly two-fold: advising the Secretary-General on requests from Member States; and ensuring consistency in the delivery of United Nations electoral assistance. In addition to its broad coordination role in electoral assistance, DPA oversees field-based special political missions that in many cases engage in electoral assistance activities as part of their conflict prevention or peace-building mandates.
The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)
In peacekeeping and many post-conflict environments, assistance is generally provided through electoral components of field missions under the aegis of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In those cases, Electoral Assistance Division works closely with DPKO in planning and managing electoral support aspects of peacekeeping operations.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
UNDP is the major implementing body of the Organization for support to developing electoral institutions, legal frameworks and processes and support to elections outside the peacekeeping or post-conflict context.
It manages some 40 to 50 electoral projects per year. UNDP also engages with Member States on long-term capacity development, including the strengthening of electoral management bodies between elections. At the local level in non-mission settings, the UNDP Country Offices play a key role in the coordination of electoral assistance. In addition to its field-based activities, UNDP produces important analysis and knowledge products on election-related issues.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights provides training and advice on human rights monitoring in the context of elections, supports and organizes campaigns for violence-free elections, engages in advocacy for human rights-compliant electoral laws and institutions, monitors and reports on human rights violations during electoral processes.
United Nations Volunteers (UNV)
The UNV programme provides critical substantive and operational support for United Nations electoral operations, complementing the staffing of such operations with experienced professionals, often in large numbers, and in short deployment time frames. The Electoral Assistance Division works closely with the UNV programme, in selecting personnel for volunteer posts in electoral field missions. Persons registered with UNV are eligible for a variety of volunteer positions in electoral field projects and operations.
The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
UNOPS is a service provider to the United Nations system and its Member States. UNOPS has provided operational, logistical and other support to electoral assistance in a number of countries and often works in close cooperation with UNDP on electoral assistance activities. UNOPS’ flexibility and responsiveness are great assets for the UN system in implementing electoral assistance activities.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
UNESCO is the United Nations specialized agency tasked with promoting and supporting freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of information. Free, independent media, online as well as offline, are essential to the transition towards democracy. To this end, UNESCO aims to strengthen the capacity of the media to provide fair and balanced coverage of electoral activities. Through its field offices around the world, UNESCO works with local journalists and media workers, training and building capacity on elections reporting.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women)
UN-Women is mandated to provide, through its normative support functions and operational activities, guidance and technical support to all Member States, at their request, on gender equality, the empowerment and rights of women and gender mainstreaming. It promotes gender equality and women’s participation in political processes. UN-Women is also mandated to lead, coordinate and promote the accountability of the United Nations system in its work on gender equality and the empowerment of women. It provides training and advice on promoting gender equality and women’s participation in electoral processes.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM)
IOM which joined the United Nations system in 2016, is the leading intergovernmental organization in the field of migration and often implements out-of-country voting programmes for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.
The United Nations in collaboration with other governmental and non-governmental partners have developed several tools to provide elections practitioners with useful resources.
ACE Electoral Knowledge Network
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network provides comprehensive information on elections, promotes networking among election-related professionals and offers capacity development services.
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network was developed in 2006 by eight partner organizations which provide targeted technical assistance in elections management; namely: Elections Canada, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), the National Electoral Institute of Mexico (INE), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (I-IDEA), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (EAD).
- ACE offers election practitioners with online services such as an encyclopedia on elections, comparative data on election practices worldwide, and a wide collection of electoral materials from all over the world.
- ACE Practitioners’ Network brings together election professionals and practitioners from different countries and with diverse and complementary experience and specialization into the first ever global electoral knowledge network established in the field of elections. The Network is also supported by 10 Regional Electoral Resource Centres worldwide.
- The ACE Capacity Development Facility focuses on electoral knowledge and experience-sharing; and promotes peer learning and peer support as key principles to build the skills of election managers.
BRIDGE Project -Building Resources in Democracy, Governance & Elections
Since its creation in 1999, the BRIDGE Project has become the most comprehensive professional development course in election administration. Born from a partnership between the United Nations (EAD and UNDP) and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Australian Electoral Commission, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the project has been developed by electoral administrators themselves and people with wide experience on elections in many different countries and contexts.
To date, BRIDGE courses have been conducted by skilled professionals in more than 100 countries for over 15,000 participants. Each training aims to improve the skills, knowledge, and confidence of election professionals and key stakeholders in the electoral process, including members of the media, political parties, electoral observers and the donor community.
BRIDGE workshops are included in many electoral assistance projects and missions to develop the capacity of electoral authorities and other stakeholders.