Ottawa Shifts Role in Iraq Vote


By John Ibbitson

Globe and Mail
December 7, 2004

Canada will spearhead an international effort to set rules that would determine whether the coming Iraqi election is free and fair. Chief electoral officers, or their representatives, from up to 20 countries will attend a conference later this month with Elections Canada as host.

The United Nations has offered its full support for the conference, as has the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which is helping the interim Iraqi government prepare for the vote. The Canadian government sees the conference as Canada's key contribution to the Iraqi election.

As late as Sunday, Prime Minister Paul Martin had repeated offers of Canadian assistance in training election officials, but international observers say the training process already is largely complete. Canadian officials have discouraged speculation that this country could send observers to monitor the election, since the U.S. government, which is promoting the vote as a key step toward an independent and democratic Iraqi state, could not guarantee the safety of the election monitors.

In the absence of a more direct contribution, Canadian officials hope the conference will establish an international consensus for judging the validity of the election. Among those expected to attend the conference are representatives from the independent electoral commissions of Great Britain, Mexico, Hungary, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Election experts from several Arab countries will also be invited, although there is no Arab nation with a genuinely independent electoral commission. It is not known whether the United States will send a representative.

The two-day conference, to be held Dec. 19 and 20, will attempt to hammer out a set of criteria by which the international community can assess the Jan. 30 vote. Normal criteria for election monitoring, such as the presence of international observers at polling stations, don't apply in the case of Iraq, because other countries too are reluctant to place election monitors in harm's way.

But an official source said there were other means by which the validity of the election could be judged, such as monitoring the reports of the independent media, interviewing representatives of political parties to learn whether all sides felt their interests were fairly represented, assessing the rules of campaign financing and canvassing the observations of Iraqi national observers after the vote was concluded. The conference might even establish an ad hoc body to judge the validity of the election, based on the criteria established at the conference. Such a report could play a decisive role in determining international support for the results.

Canada might also play a role after the election, when the new Iraqi assembly attempts to craft a constitution for the state. Some feel Canada's experience in developing a federal system that encourages local autonomy and tolerance for diversity could prove useful to Iraq with its mélange of warring religious and ethnic factions.

Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew referred to the coming conference in the House of Commons yesterday when questioned by Opposition Leader Stephen Harper on how the government could protect unarmed Canadians who might be observing the Iraqi election. Mr. Pettigrew said the purpose of the conference would be to help define an appropriate role for Canada in monitoring the election. In fact, the conference will seek to determine how to monitor the election without putting Canadian lives or those of any other international observers at risk.

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