Saturday, September 6, 2008

The European Commission's Dilemma

EC in dilemma over sending EOM to Bangladesh
Source: The Financial Express
September 6, 2008

The European Commission (EC) seems to be in a critical dilemma over the question of whether or not it would send its Election Observation Mission (EOM) to Bangladesh to observe general polls in December under the State of Emergency, reports UNB.

In principle, the EC does not send EOM to any country where the state of emergency is in place. Last week, EC Head of the delegation in Bangladesh Ambassador Stefan Frowein met Foreign Adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury and shared with him some observations of the EC Headquarters in Brussels to improve "few things" to ensure freedom of voters and participation of all in the election.

The EC had sent its Exploratory Mission last June when the Mission held extensive discussions with leaders of key political parties, Election Commissioners, government figures, members of the civil society and NGOs to take stock of pre-election ground situation.

The Exploratory Mission submitted its report to EC External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels. During the meeting with the Foreign Adviser on August 31, Ambassador Frowein shared with him some information from the report, which was 'internal.'

'It's an internal report but I should say still there are few things where improvement should be done to guarantee the freedom of voters and freedom that was necessary for free and fair elections," Frowein had told reporters after an hour-long meeting.

He said there are rooms where improvement has to be made and the decision on sending EU Election Observation Mission to Bangladesh would be taken by Commissioner Benita Ferrero end of September or beginning of October.

Frowein said: "The state of emergency is a problematic point. Some people say it has to be lifted, some say it has to be relaxed."

However, he said: "It's not a question of terminology; it's a question of right of voters so that they could vote freely and everybody can participate."

Defining the EC's principled stance, the Ambassador said: "I can say clearly that we do not normally observe elections under the state of emergency. We normally don't do that."

He said that at this point it is difficult to predict any indication about whether or not the EU would observe the elections in Bangladesh.

Against the backdrop of such dilemma, Frowein said the Foreign Adviser has a meeting with Commissioner Benita Ferrero on September 22 in New York when they will discuss this matter in details.

This will be an important meeting following which the EC will decide the question of fielding an Observer Mission for the elections," he said.

Iftekhar, however, said although EU does not normally send its Election Observation Mission to a country under state of emergency but the Bangladesh situation is unique. "Our main challenge is to ensure each voter casts his vote freely without any impediment."

Mentioning recent remarks of the Chief Adviser, Dr Iftekhar said the emergency rules will be relaxed as much as possible to ensure free and fair elections. But the Foreign Adviser at this point of time could not be sanguine that the state of emergency would be in place or not.

Big political parties like Awami League and BNP have been pressing for long to fully lift the State of Emergency for creating a congenial environment for holding free, fair and credible elections to parliament.

Diplomatic sources told the news agency that the people in the European Commission in Brussels are aware of the present situation in Bangladesh but it is very difficult to convince them to send the Election Observation Mission to a country under the State of Emergency.

The diplomat, who preferred not to be named, admitted the fact that Bangladesh is a unique case but everything gets bogged down when the question of the State of Emergency is raised.

The sources said Iftekhar-Benita meeting in New York on September 22 is very critical as the question of observing the Bangladesh election will come up as the main agenda.

They said Benita is the single authority to take the decision and the decision would be announced, might be on October 6 or 7.

Before the political changeover in January 2007, the EC sent its long and short-term observers to observe the abortive general elections fixed on January 22. But the EC officially suspended its election observation mission on January 11 a few hours ahead of the declaration of the State of Emergency by the President to cool down the political turmoil over the elections.

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