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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Opening Remarks by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at The Carter Center’s Conference on Human Rights and Election Standards, 11 February 2015, Atlanta, USA

Human rights and election standards

13 February 2015

Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to co-chair this conference on Human Rights and Election Standards, together with President Carter. I wish to thank the Carter Center for the organisation of this very timely conference.
Let me begin by quoting the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan who said:  “Building democracy is a complex process. Elections are only a starting point, but if their integrity is compromised, so is the legitimacy of democracy.”
As recognized by the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, “genuine democratic elections are a requisite condition for democratic governance”.  Indeed, citizens’ ability to choose their representatives is essential to any democracy. It is also a human right enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Often human rights violations in the pre-electoral period can be a good indicator of instability ahead, especially in the post-elections period. Let me remind you of the 2010 elections in Cote d’Ivoire. The pre-electoral climate had already been dominated by numerous restrictions on basic freedoms. Despite internationally recognized results proclaiming Ouattara the winner, former President Gbagbo refused to step down. The aftermath led to at least 3,000 people being killed and more than 150 women and girls raped during the six months of political violence and armed conflict. This period of violence later became the subject of a UN Commission of Inquiry and ICC and domestic criminal proceedings.
However, direct disrespect of electoral results is far from being the only challenge to genuine elections. We are living in an age where it is becoming increasingly recognised that ballot boxes alone do not automatically create a democracy. We have seen countless examples of this in the past and present.
Over the years, UN Member States have affirmed that democracy, the rule of law and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The weakening of one immediately endangers the existence of the other.
But, if as in Burundi, DRC or Egypt, peaceful protests are brutally repressed and opponents arrested; or if the press is censored and access to online networks is blocked- or if as in Myanmar discrimination is evident and certain sectors of the population cannot freely vote- then the necessary free and fair character of elections can be put into question - even if no technical irregularities or fraud have been recorded.
However, often we tend to focus on the elections process per se, without paying sufficient attention to the human rights environment in which elections are held. This is where human rights work in the electoral context can play a key role.
In other words, and quoting the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation: "Genuine democratic elections cannot be achieved unless a wide range of other human rights and fundamental freedoms can be exercised on an ongoing basis without discrimination”.  For real democracy to flourish, respect for all human rights is fundamental.

Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very pleased that Human Rights have been placed at the very center of this conference dedicated to the topic of election standards. As we look into the relationship between elections and human rights during these two days, I would like us to be mindful of the State’s human rights obligations during an electoral process and how all stakeholders can refer to and use these obligations to strengthen the electoral processes and democracies.
Borrowing a term commonly used in the area of development cooperation, and as stated in the agenda for this meeting, we should talk about a human rights based approach to elections.
A human rights based approach to elections means that human rights principles- derived from human rights law obligations- should guide electoral work, namely: universality, indivisibility, interdependence, equality and non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, accountability and the rule of law. 
It also implies that all those involved in election-related work: UN entities, intergovernmental, regional organizations, civil society organization, observers and others are familiar with human rights standards and principles and how these translate into their everyday work in the electoral context.  
More specifically, applying a human rights-based approach in all stages of electoral work involves:
o Including all civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, in any analysis of the electoral context
o Focusing on non-discrimination and equality and ensuring the active and meaningful participation of all individuals, in particular the most marginalized, women, members of minorities and indigenous peoples and;
o Strengthening the capacity of States to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, and of individuals to claim their rights. 
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me conclude. Lessons from the field in the area of development have shown how a human rights-based approach delivers more equitable and sustainable results, as it empowers people to claim their rights, contributes to reducing discrimination and addressing inequalities, mobilizes supportive constituencies, and builds accountability. 
In the coming two days we will recall human rights obligations applicable to elections, and the related work of universal and regional mechanisms. We will also talk about how observers can use these standards and about coordination. And why not, how a human rights based approach can positively contribute to democratic and credible elections?
OHCHR and the human rights mechanisms it supports, have been building a wealth of experience in the interpretation and implementation of human rights norms and standards, including in the context of elections. Let us discuss how different actors involved in elections can work together to avoid duplication and what can be their added value.
Finally, allow me to extend once again a warm welcome to speakers and participants and to reiterate my thanks to The Carter Center for organizing this conference.  I look forward to a dynamic and fruitful debate.
Thank you.