Case Watch: UN Upholds Rights of Independent Election Monitors

In “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to our work to advance human rights law around the world.

Belarus’s presidential elections in 2001 made a mockery of democratic practice. After a media blackout and allegations of vote rigging and of a death squad targeting opposition figures, the victory of the incumbent, President Alexander Lukashenko, provoked widespread international criticism. Recently, the UN Human Rights Committee joined the chorus, weighing in on the role of independent election monitors.

In its decision in Korneenko v. Belarus, the committee ruled that by limiting the activities of election monitors, Belarus violated not only the freedom of expression and association of a national election monitor, but also acted contrary Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

Article 25 is usually invoked by members of banned political parties or opposition leaders who have been prevented from taking part in elections (see, e.g., Massera v. Uruguay, M. A. v. Italy, Debreczeny v. The Netherlands). But the Korneenko case expands this—broadening the interpretation of this right to protect the actions of civil society groups engaged in monitoring.

Viktor Korneenko was the chairperson of an association planning to dispatch 300 independent observers to monitor the presidential elections. But on the eve of the elections, the state authorities raided the association’s offices and confiscated its computers, on the grounds that they were “untied foreign aid.” The authorities fined Korneenko USD $550 and dissolved the association.

The Human Rights Committee found that Korneenko’s election monitoring activities were protected under three articles of the ICCPR: Article 22 (freedom of association), Article 19 (freedom of expression), and Article 25 (right of every citizen to take part in public affairs). These three provisions cover the rights underpinning free and democratic society: the right to form associations, organizations, or other bodies to peacefully promote ideas both favorable and not favorable for the government, and to participate effectively in a public debate. The committee found that punishing Korneenko and confiscating the computer equipment breached all three provisions.

The question of a breach of Article 25 spurred a debate within the committee: two members argued that Article 25 was not strictly relevant, or was perhaps misleading to the facts of the case. They stressed that this case was not about the regulation of foreign funding for election campaigns. Be that as it may, the fact that Article 25 was applied in the context of election monitoring is significant in itself. It recognizes the role of civil society in the election process and underscores that it protects not simply the right to vote for a candidate, but also the possibility to engage fully in the process by ensuring that it is indeed fair and transparent.

For summaries of the key UN Human Rights Committee’s case law interpreting the procedural rights that underpin access to justice and a fair trial see our Legal Tools: International Standards on Criminal Defense Rights.

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