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People Power

Lack of transparency harming Ireland’s vital election observer role

Crunching years of data and speaking to experts, Noteworthy scrutinises how our observer system stacks up internationally.

Design for PEOPLE POWER project featuring a person putting a folded piece of paper into a slot in a box, with a table full of ballot papers being counted in the background

“HARASSMENT, FALSE ACCUSATIONS, defamation and threats.”

These are just some of the serious issues faced by election observers on the frontline in defending the democratic process, according to Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.

“Some have even been killed while carrying out their work,” she told us, all while doing “very important work to try and ensure democratic elections” are respected. 

Irish observers have as valuable a role as any other country in this process, with a 200-strong roster ready to answer the call from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

The transparency of our observer selection process, however, has come under scrutiny. Concerns over who is on our roster and how they are selected for missions have been raised through multiple public information requests and parliamentary questions.

Over the past two months, we scrutinised the State’s observer system – crunching years of open-source data on election missions and speaking to international experts. We found: 

  • Department refuses to release roster membership due to privacy concerns, despite the listing of Irish observers on international mission reports
  • Over 30 observers were selected for multiple missions over the past decade, with the State partly blaming lack of roster rotation on mission criteria requiring experienced observers
  • Concerns led to an internal DFA review of roster management, with 10 of 18 recommendations to improve the programme efficiency now completed

Yesterday, we showed how Ireland was an outlier in its decision to stop sending election observers at the height of the Covid pandemic.

Observers in action

Observers are deployed by either the EU or the OSCE to polling stations to monitor the voting and counting process. The OSCE is a security organisation with 57 members, including Ireland, who work “for stability, peace and democracy”.

Some observers are also deployed on more complex, longer missions to ensure election laws are followed and analyse local political environments.

They can uncover wrongdoing, including voter suppression and ballot-box stuffing. Harald Hartvig Jepsen, a senior adviser with the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) told Noteworthy that he remembers a team observing “38 cases of outright ballot box stuffing” during one election.

In an age of ideological polarisation and disinformation, observers also play a key role in ensuring fair election results are accepted, according to Therese Pearce-Laanela, head of electoral processes at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). 

“Defending an election result that is valid, that can be trusted [is important], and that’s why countries like Ireland are really taking their rosters and who they send out very seriously,” she said. 

Harald Hartvig Jepsen sitting at a conference table with other delegates in a dark suit and glasses speaking into the microphone Harald Hartvig Jepsen serving as Deputy Head of an observer mission OSCE Parliamentary Assembly OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

Roster transparency under spotlight

Ireland’s volunteer observers come from our near 200-strong security-vetted and trained roster managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). 

Who is selected to become an observer and participate in missions has been the subject of a series of information requests, legal appeals, parliamentary questions (PQs) and questions from MEPs

Questions arose after the introduction of a smaller roster in 2013 and a new competency-based assessment process to select observers every five years.

  • Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

Before this, the roster was larger but was selected on a relatively ad-hoc basis, according to the Department, with no formal process for deactivating membership. A subsequent DFA review found the new assessment model delivered “a fair outcome and value for money”. 

Following concerns over these changes, a subsequent DFA review found this assessment model delivered “a fair outcome and value for money”. 

According to the Department, the volume of information requests after the new roster system was implemented impacted the team’s work. For example, staff cancelled annual leave or worked outside normal hours in order “to draft responses”.

A total of 139 PQs were received between 2013 and 2019, according to DFA. More recently in October 2022, People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the names of each person nominated as observers since 2019. The Minister refused to provide names of roster members.

The Department’s roster data privacy notice states it retains members’ names and missions attended. For as long as it has maintained the roster, member names have “formed part of the public record” to demonstrate “accountability and transparency”. 

Yet, DFA refuses to release names of current members citing data protection and GDPR. It refused requests from Noteworthy, members of the public and multiple PQs on these grounds.

 Two EU observers in blue tops and sunglasses looking around in a busy pedestrian street in Tunisia. EU observers monitoring the 2011 Tunisian elections EZEQUIEL SCAGNETTI / European Parliament EZEQUIEL SCAGNETTI / European Parliament / European Parliament

Other countries take a similar stance, with a number of government spokespersons across Europe telling us they keep observer names confidential and do not release personal details. The EU also told us observer details “cannot be disclosed on grounds of their right to personal data protection”. 

GDPR has applied since May 2018. Before this, the Department did release details of members. Current roster members continue to be listed in public OSCE reports for each election mission.

By combining these two publicly available data sources, together with LinkedIn postings, we identified almost 190 observers that went on missions over the past decade. 

Our analysis shows many members come from legal, military and human rights backgrounds. A small number of roster members hail from politics, including councillors and senators. 

As politicians have stood for elections, they add credibility and bring “particular expertise in political campaigns and electoral processes” to election observation missions, according to the OSCE

A large group of election observers sitting in rows listening to a panel of four experts of the OSCE. OSCE briefing for observers for elections in North Macedonia in 2019 OSCE Parliamentary Assembly OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

Sent on multiple missions

Another concern raised is that some observers may be repeatedly nominated for missions. This concern is compounded as the nominees picked by DFA are not published.

When the EU or OSCE put out a call for observers, roster members can apply to DFA to be put forward as one of Ireland’s nominee observers for the mission.

A DFA spokesperson said that it is not responsible for the final selection of observers on missions as those are picked by the EU or OSCE. While the EU has final say on selection, the OSCE told us that it “merely accepts” the nominees put forward by countries.

One of the Department’s key criteria for nominating observers for missions includes length of time since the observer’s last mission and rotation within the roster.

Our analysis of OSCE mission logs show over 30 observers went on at least four missions each over the last decade. Many have military or peacekeeping experience, legal backgrounds, or have worked abroad with international organisations.

Some also speak important mission languages such as French, Spanish or Russian, and one is a former politician who speaks multiple languages.

One observer went on seven missions, four went on six each, and seven went on five each. A further 20 observers went on four missions apiece. The top 20 observers (10% of Ireland’s roster) account for 25% of all spots, with some going on missions several years in a row.

A Department spokesperson told us, as it only receives applications for some missions from roster members previously nominated and deployed, “it is not feasible” to achieve a completely balanced rotation of the roster.

Since 2019, no candidate has been deployed on more than three missions and only 11% have served more than once since 2019, they said. In addition, 18% of the roster have never applied for a mission and a further 25% have applied very infrequently – twice or fewer since 2019. 

The Department must also prioritise EU and OSCE requirements for the mission ahead of rotation criteria. This can influence the repeat selection of some observers. The spokesperson said this “is an extremely important element that cannot be overlooked”.

Nine other European countries told us that they follow a similar model in aiming to balance their roster but without setting any upper mission limit. Sweden, for example, gives preference to those who have not observed for a long time but has no annual limit.

Norway seeks to rotate its roster but can send the same observer to more than one mission each year. Denmark and Switzerland consider experience but have no set limit either. 

Our analysis of over 9,000 OSCE observer places since 2013 shows many countries send repeat observers. Some observers from Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Russia went on between 10 and 15 missions each during this period. Observers from various other countries, including several EU countries, went on between six and nine missions.

‘Committed to gender balance’

The gender profile of those nominated for missions is another detail often requested through parliamentary questions. Both the EU and OSCE request a fair gender balance among nominated candidates from each country.

The Department’s current roster pool has more men (55%). This is an improvement as the 2013-2018 roster was almost two-thirds male (64.5%).

Some countries we contacted have a majority of women on their roster. Sweden’s roster is made up of 57% women. Norway’s is 65% women and “always seeks to send or nominate an equal number” of both sexes.

Department data shows that women account for almost half (48%) of nominees since 2019. This “highlights our commitment to gender balance”, a DFA spokesperson said. This commitment is further affirmed, they added, by the fact that there were just 42.5% women applicants from the current roster. 

EU data released to Noteworthy also shows almost half of Irish nominees (48%) were women. When selecting observers, one of the EU’s key objectives is to “ensure gender balance among the selected observers for the mission as a whole”, according to a spokesperson.

Our analysis shows that more men were selected for OSCE missions, accounting for almost 60% of Irish observers selected since 2019 from the current roster. OSCE data from this period released to our team shows that 56% of the 7,250 observers from all countries were men. 

When we crunched the public data on over 9,000 OSCE observer places since 2013, Ireland had the third highest male representation among EU countries. 

Other issues relating to roster diversity are ongoing. Earlier this month, Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton asked if the Department would consider adding disabled people to the roster “as has been recommended by an Oireachtas Committee”.

In reply, Minister of State Seán Fleming said that expressions of interest for the next roster were being accepted and that the “Department is committed to ensuring” Ireland’s roster provides for the participation of disabled people.

The current roster is set to run until the end of this year. Expressions of interest for the next one were being accepted up to last Friday

Concerns led to review

The concerns raised over the past number of years not only helped to highlight Irish transparency and administrative issues, but influenced the decision to review the management of the observer roster system released in 2021.

Although the internal DFA review found the roster selection process was “transparent, fair and carried out to a high standard”, it raised key administrative issues that needed to be addressed. 

It issued 18 recommendations to enable Ireland to make a “better contribution” through election observation missions. Eight are ongoing, with 10 now complete.

The core recommendation outlined the need to create and implement a transparency request policy for repeated similar Freedom of Information (FOI) or GDPR requests. Guidelines are now in place for the Department’s FOI or data protection officer to support the team in handling such requests. 

Another issue was the workload for the small team that had “no guiding authority or internal support available… all the while operating within a context of intense political scrutiny”. 

The Department said it met with the Public Appointments Service (PAS) last April about managing the next roster application process. While the PAS is not in a position to manage the entire process, it is exploring the option of providing assistance to DFA’s team.

DFA has also completed recommendations for improved planning and engagement with the EU and OSCE about upcoming missions to ensure a better observer nomination and selection process. A more in-depth training plan will also come into effect for the next roster.

Needs of mission paramount

International IDEA’s Therese Pearce-Laanela said that “what is critical” to the mission is the “overarching reasoning” when choosing which observers to send.

“The Irish volunteer programme is excellent at taking people and growing their skill sets,” she added. “That’s why Ireland punches above its weight.”

“But you don’t use the observation mission as your way to build your skill sets or give people a chance. That’s not what it’s about. It has to be about the mission and getting the right people for the job,” Pearce-Laanela said.

Therese Pearce-Laanela of International IDEA smiling wearing glasses and a red shirt: “You want your best and most experienced people on the ground, so the repeat use of observers is actually a positive thing.”

This appears to be a concern shared by some Irish observers. An observer who has taken part in multiple missions told us that roster rotation is important. But they felt it should not take precedence over core mission criteria or in-country observer knowledge obtained through previous missions.

Harald Hartvig Jepsen of IFES told us that his nation Denmark went through a similar issue where questions were raised about lack of roster transparency, including why “some observe several missions a year while some have zero”. 

Jepsen said the concerns raised encouraged roster members to form an association, holding public meetings to explain the process. It also influenced greater State transparency on its roster selection criteria and how people are nominated for missions.

“The key here is communication, being open with statistics – not disclosing personal protected data but being open on how you select – and the challenges that you face in the selection process.” 


Is Ireland playing its part in overseas election observation?

We also reveal Ireland was an outlier to stop sending observers during Covid

Repeat of the design for PEOPLE POWER project

By Niall Sargent of Noteworthy

This investigation was proposed and funded by you, our readers. Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal.

Please support our work by submitting an idea, helping to fund a project or setting up a monthly contribution to our investigative fund HERE>> 

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