With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accusing the United States of promoting unrest in Moscow and St. Petersburg following parliamentary elections that fell short of international standards, the U.S. government is continuing its outspoken criticism of the Russian authorities for the election abuses and the response to anti-government demonstrations.
“We hope in particular that the Russian authorities will take action on the recommendations that come forward from observer missions like the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in its final report and their own electoral observers, who are making recommendations about how to improve the process,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.
What Clinton left unsaid was that the U.S. itself is in violation of a number of OSCE commitments on democratic elections and has ignored recommendations from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on improving the U.S. electoral system. As an OSCE participating state, the U.S. has agreed to the same political commitments on democratic elections as has Russia. These commitments are spelled out in the 1990 Copenhagen Document.
Issues identified by international observers from the OSCE in previous U.S. elections include the lack uniform electoral standards, which “creat[es] vulnerabilities in the system, particularly with regards to the integrity and complexity of voter registration, voter identification, and electronic voting machines.”
In the 2004 election, the OSCE concluded that “the way in which election administrators are appointed may raise questions of possible conflict of interest, in particular when election officials run for office or act as campaign managers.”
In addition, the OSCE took notice of the fact that “only a small proportion of the elections” for the 435 Congressional districts were perceived to be competitive. “This was attributed largely to the way in which Congressional district boundaries are drawn so as to favour the incumbent party,” the OSCE observed.
“Allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period,” the OSCE also noted. “The observers expressed concern that the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”
As the OSCE stated in its Needs Assessment Mission Report prior to the 2008 general elections, “several issues raised in previous OSCE/ODIHR reports, and those highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors, merit further attention.”
Following the 2008 election, Audrey Glover, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, stated, “the controversies during the campaign over persisting allegations of election irregularities showed that electoral reform efforts must continue to address remaining shortcomings and allow voters to fully regain confidence in the election system.”
Allegations relating to fraudulent voter registration, disenfranchisement of voters, and the malfunctioning of voting systems featured prominently in the public debate, the OSCE noted. Further, the decentralized legal framework and widely varying state election laws have created a lack of uniformity among states in the way the elections were organized. “The interpretation and implementation of federal laws lacked consistency,” said the OSCE.
A significant number of OSCE recommendations from 2008 on how to improve the flawed electoral system have remained unaddressed by U.S. lawmakers. Some of the most prominent examples include:
- decreasing the number of required signatures for nomination of independent or third-party candidates
- lifting the restriction of voting rights for felons and ex-felons
- providing full representation rights in Congress for all US citizens, including those of Washington DC and US territories
- establishing minimum standards for access of international observers invited by the US authorities
- creating transparent voter registration database maintenance procedures that ensure voter enfranchisement while maintaining an accurate voter list
- establishing legal safeguards against possible partisan conduct of election officials strengthened
- promoting voter registration, including through civil education programs, and considering possibilities for ‘automatic’ voter registration based on other interactions of citizens with the state
- enhancing transparency and the integrity of electronic voting equipment
- reviewing the campaign finance system
Following the 2010 congressional midterm elections, the OSCE criticized the U.S. method of drawing congressional districts which limit genuine competition (known as “gerrymandering”). “With a view to ensuring genuine electoral competition in congressional districts,” the OSCE recommended, “consideration could be given to introducing procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on criteria other than voters’ voting histories and perceived future voting intentions.”
While these worthwhile recommendations remain unaddressed, the United States continues to criticize Russia for its flawed elections.
“The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” said Clinton following Sunday’s election. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them. And we believe that that’s in the best interests of Russia and we’re going to continue to speak out about it.”
Putin is alleging that Clinton is seizing on allegations of election fraud to deliberately encourage his political opponents to take to the streets.
“She sent a signal to some activists inside the country,” said Putin. “They got the message and started active work with the support of the U.S. State Department.”
With protesters taking to the streets and Russian authorities responding with mass arrests, the U.S. is now complaining that demonstrators are being mistreated.
“We are deeply troubled over reports of the mistreatment of hundreds of demonstrators who have recently been arrested and are now in pre-trial detention facilities complaining of the lack of access to counsel, medical help, and basic foodstuffs,” said a statement from the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“We call on the Russian government to comply with international norms and commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law and urge authorities to respect the people’s right to demonstrate and demand that their voices are heard and that election violations are promptly and credibly addressed.”
Again, however, it seems that the U.S. is throwing stones from a glass house.
In relation to heavy-handed policing of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and the treatment of journalists covering the protests, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, has reminded U.S. authorities of international commitments the United States has subscribed to regarding freedom of the media.
Numerous police encounters have led to at least eight reporters and photographers being detained while covering the protests, including journalists who were clearly identified as members of the working press.
“Journalists should not have to defend their right to report on matters of public importance,” Mijatović said. “Violating one reporter’s right affects all citizens. It is time for local officials to demand that their law enforcement agencies respect the rights and duties of media in covering public issues.”
Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has said said that the crackdowns against Occupy protesters appear to be violating their human rights.
“I believe in city ordinances and I believe in maintaining urban order,” he said last week. “But on the other hand I also believe that the state — in this case the federal state — has an obligation to protect and promote human rights.”
La Rue said that the protesters have a right to occupy public spaces “as long as that doesn’t severely affect the rights of others.”
Around 5,000 Occupy protesters have been arrested in 76 cities since the demonstrations against corporate greed and political corruption began in September. One of the most recent crackdowns was in Los Angeles, where authorites arrested 300 individuals and set their bail at $5,000.
In response to the LA crackdown, members of an interfaith group of clergy objected to what they call a distressing “level of violence and brutality” used by the 1,400 Los Angeles Police Department officers who cleared the encampment in the early morning hours of Nov. 30.
“Occupiers were pushed and hit and corralled and hunted down by police in a military fashion,” the Occupy L.A. Interfaith Leaders Support Network wrote in a letter delivered to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Dec. 1.
“People were knocked over, pushed around, pushed with batons, chased down, corralled,” said Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, citing reports about police violence. “It was kind of a ‘shock and awe’ operation, designed to terrorize the people that were there — and it worked. In that way, it worked.”
Sixteen complaints have been filed with the LAPD regarding their operation, yet, on these domestic concerns, U.S. leaders are silent. Human rights and democratic elections apparently only matter when they can be used as leverage against geopolitical rivals such as Russia.