Sunday, October 17, 2004

Election watchers

NEW YORK — A coalition of American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has petitioned a U.N. body to send monitors to the United States for the Nov. 2 elections, a request that could generate a third mission of foreign observers.

The NGOs are all accredited to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, often referred to as Eco-Soc, which has the authority to request U.N. election monitors.

The petition cites claims of improper purges of voter rolls, voter fraud and the relocation or closing of polling places on scant notice. Such activities contravene U.N. conventions guaranteeing universal suffrage, civil and political rights, bans against racial discrimination and other international agreements to which the United States is party.

Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a San Francisco-based group called Global Exchange already have announced their intention to send observers to U.S. polling places next month.

Grace C. Ross, an official with the Economic Human Rights Project based in Somerville, Mass., says she endorses the other two efforts, but still thinks a U.N. presence is needed.

“The OSCE was invited in by the Bush administration, and we worry that, as guests, they may not have the full range they need to go where they want or to do what they feel they need to do,” she said last week.

Mrs. Ross filed a formal petition to Eco-Soc members last week on behalf of seven small U.S. organizations, including the Philadelphia-based Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; the National Welfare Rights Union, which has offices in Detroit; the Independent Progressive Politics Network in Bloomfield, N.J.; and the Seacoast Peace Response in Portsmouth, N.H.

U.N. officials say that because the groups are accredited to Eco-Soc, the petition might have some legal standing, but it would be hard to deploy a mission on short notice.

However, Finnish Ambassador Marjatta Rasi, who chairs Eco-Soc, said last week the petition is a non-starter.

“This is not an Eco-Soc issue,” she said. “First, we have to put this issue on our agenda, and then it’s up to the member states to [make the request], not an NGO.”

Mrs. Rasi said the U.N. Department of Political Affairs could choose to send a mission for electoral assistance or support.

“But the U.N. would never act without — and I emphasize this — the request of the government.”

This summer, a dozen Democratic congressmen asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to send observers to the November elections, but the United Nations said it could respond to requests only from the executive branch.

Then the State Department invited the Vienna, Austria-based OSCE, which plans to send 60 monitors to a half-dozen states, including Florida.

Expanding the club

Many governments demanded last week that the Security Council expand its membership to reflect the geopolitical realities of the 21st century — or plunge the United Nations into irrelevance.

Unfortunately, that was where the agreement ended.

At a three-day U.N. meeting to discuss expansion, it became clear that there is little agreement on how to do so: Add permanent members or expand the number of countries elected to represent their regions? Should new permanent members get a veto? Should existing members lose theirs?

More than 120 member nations spoke up during the three-day discussion.

The U.N. Charter allows for changes to the composition of the Security Council, which is the only legally binding U.N. body and has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security.

But member states have been unable to decide how to bring Africa, the Arab world and Latin America into the mix.

“The rush for Security Council reform could lead to a split and confrontation among U.N. members,” said Chinese Deputy Ambassador Zhang Yishan. A hasty decision “would neither intensify the council’s authority nor strengthen its functions,” he added.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at

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