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H.E. Andrea Orizio, Head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia

Monitoring Elections In A Time Of Covid-19

In the build-up to the elections to be held on 21st June, the OSCE’s Head of Mission in Serbia, Ambassador Andrea Orizio, stresses that a fair and legitimate election process leads to functioning democratic institutions. In order for this process to unfold smoothly, it is essential to have balanced and impartial press coverage and the conditions for all parties to campaign on an equal footing

In this interview for CorD Magazine, Ambassador Orizio recalls that the OSCE’s original plan was to include more than 200 observers in the observation mission that will monitor the regularity of the elections, with some of them set to monitor the entire election process and others the election day itself. However, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to the changing of many plans and impacted on the activities of the OSCE mission to Serbia during previous months, would also influence the decision on the format of the Election Observation Mission, adds Ambassador Orizio.

Your Excellency, you are speaking to CorD Magazine at a moment when it is believed that the world has dealt with the strongest wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many are convinced that the pandemic will change the world in the long run. What do you think are the biggest challenges in post-corona times?

This virus has affected us all, everywhere in the world and in all spheres of society, although in different ways. It is important to understand that we have a “new normal” ahead of us, as things simply will not return to the way they were immediately. The challenges are numerous, from having to deal with the economic impact of being “closed down” to slowly returning to everyday life after this prolonged period of isolation.

Europe needs to rethink what security is and how to balance national and local needs with international cooperation. It is important for Europe to begin rebuilding through solidarity, remembering those we lost and working together to build a more sustainable and inclusive future. As with every crisis, this one also includes opportunities: this pandemic has shown the essential importance of cooperation and positive relationships between countries and peoples, and this should be a central tenet of how we rebuild life after this pandemic. No country can face such challenges alone.

Under a state of emergency, any derogation from the right to a fair trial must be limited to what is strictly necessary to face the emergency and must be provided for in a law that is duly enacted

This is apparent in Serbia and elsewhere, as countries are starting to re-open at different rhythms and in different ways. In this transitional phase, it is important to both safeguard citizens and work towards repairing the damage caused by the pandemic. Everyone is eager to see their friends and families and to return to their pre-COVID routines. However, it is important that citizens trust institutions and follow the indications aimed at avoiding a new wave of contagion.

Meanwhile, governments must ensure that emergency measures are proportionate, temporary and in compliance with the rule of law and international commitments. The transition to a “new normal” should be gradual and take into account the risks of abruptly re-opening societies, as then citizens would hardly understand the reason for their sacrifices.

The OSCE Mission to Serbia quickly adapted its assistance in Serbia to the newly emerged situation, focusing its resources on tangible assistance to the most vulnerable. What is the plan for the days to come?

The OSCE Mission to Serbia has swiftly adapted its assistance to the host Country’s emerging needs, with the aim of contributing to ensuring a timely response to the crisis through the provision of first aid kits, and also with concrete actions more focused on its mandated areas of intervention. We promptly adjusted our operations in a two-fold manner: we provided immediate relief and also adapted our core programmatic activities to these difficult circumstances, always keeping our activities within our mandate.

 Andrea Orizio

We partnered with key institutions and civil society to provide immediate assistance to the most vulnerable parts of the population: victims of domestic violence, victims of trafficking and human smuggling, disadvantaged families in national minority communities, migrants and persons with disabilities.

The Mission also purchased teleconferencing licenses for our counterparts in the Ministry of Interior in order to facilitate regional cooperation in the fight against the trafficking of human beings and human smuggling. We are also analysing the impact of emergency measures from gender and legal perspectives.

The Mission will continue providing its support to Serbian institutions through both donations and its expert assistance.

In order to fight COVID-19 more effectively, special measures were introduced in many European countries, which included the temporary suspension of the right to free movement, and the more or less partial suspension of the work of institutions. Organisations that deal with human rights have warned that the fight against the virus serves the interests of autocrats more than serving democracy. Do you think that’s a genuine concern?

The best response to the virus is a proportional reaction to immediate threats while preserving human rights and the rule of law. Now, more than ever, governments and institutions should be responsive, transparent and accountable. Meanwhile, it is important to recognise that we are facing unprecedented circumstances and citizens should not lose trust in institutions.

A recent public letter authored by the OSCE leadership recognises the importance of the preventative measures implemented in many countries. Some of these measures may limit some human rights and fundamental freedoms for a period of time, but this can solely be done to protect people from the pandemic. It is crucial that governments ensure transparency in sharing information with the public, especially through the media.

The time of crisis intensified the relationship between citizens and journalists; citizens engaged more than ever with the media, while journalists struggled to find answers on how to behave in this new and complex situation.

In this regard, the OSCE Mission to Serbia will continue working with the host country to help find solutions to shared challenges and advancing positive, practical policy proposals that support Serbia’s choices and ownership of key achievements. An example of this commitment is the Mission’s support to the Working Group for the recently adopted Media Strategy, which has continued its works online during the pandemic. This process is essential to ensuring the full implementation of the Strategy itself, as a route towards a healthier media environment.

The OSCE Mission has announced its willingness to help assess the impact of the state of emergency on human rights. How did you see the situation in Serbia during the 50 days of extraordinary circumstances?

Our mandate is to assist Serbia in strengthening its democratic processes in partnership with the country’s institutions, authorities and civil society. We are not a monitoring Mission. In line with our mandate, we have assistance and advisory roles in areas key to reforms, modernisation and democratic development: strengthening democratic institutions, fostering the rule of law and security sector reform, as well as supporting professional journalism and free media. Our work is based on a close partnership with all stakeholders while helping Serbia take ownership over its reform achievements.

While we continue to adapt to the changing needs of Serbian society, we remain focused on the work we are carrying out in the crucial areas of our mandate, such as, for example, the implementation of the Media Strategy through its Action plan, the protection of the safety of journalists and strengthening the Interior Ministry’s operational capacities for regional cooperation in the fight against human trafficking.

We stand ready to assist Serbia in assessing the impact of this extraordinary period on these and other significant issues, including human rights, gender equality, domestic violence and the fight against corruption.

OSCE research has monitored the work of parliaments in member countries during the most intensive period of the fight against the pandemic. It showed that in most countries the work of parliaments continued, with major adjustments to the extraordinary circumstances. How did you interpret the suspension of the work of the national assembly in Serbia from mid-March until 28th April?

Since its inception, the OSCE Mission has been a genuine partner to the National Assembly, supporting its efforts to build and improve its representative, legislative and oversight capacities.

While having an understanding for the difficulties in convening the Parliament during the COVID-19 crisis, we offered our support in the resumption of the work of the National Assembly. Now that we are all adapting to the “new normal”, the Mission is open to support any efforts by the Serbian authorities to ensure that the National Assembly continues to safely organise its function. For example, the innovative e-Parliament platform introduced with the support of the Mission can be efficiently adapted to enable remote plenary sessions and help the National Assembly to function safely by incorporating social distancing measures if need be.

The ODIHR maintains its intention and commitment to proceed with full observation of the elections, but will tailor its response in accordance with the reality on the ground, prioritising the health and safety of both the electorate and observers

It is in the time of crisis and its aftermath that parliaments have a critical role to play, as guardians of democratic values and fundamental freedoms, helping to enhance public confidence, transparency and accountability. They are vital in their representative function, serving as a forum for dialogue, debate and inclusiveness among all strands of society.

How would you evaluate the functioning of the judiciary in Serbia and the temporary introduction of new technologies in court processes, primarily “remote” trails via Skype?

The High Judicial Council acted promptly on 18th March to define what proceedings must go ahead during the health crisis; the resulting postponement of less urgent matters officially came to an end on 11th May. This seems to be reasonable and responsible.
Certain basic human rights may not be derogated from under any circumstances; this includes the right not to be prosecuted twice for the same act. Under a state of emergency, any derogation from the right to a fair trial must be limited to what is strictly necessary to face the emergency and must be provided for in a law that is duly enacted.

Several decisions were taken and decrees issued, in quick succession. The decree of 21st March enacted a misdemeanour offence for violating measures during the state of emergency and stipulated that misdemeanour proceedings may proceed even if a criminal prosecution is underway. This is now the subject of a proceeding before the Constitutional Court.

 Andrea OrizioI note that the provision for Skype trials was initially contained in a letter from the Ministry of Justice to all courts on 26th March. This was superseded on 1st April by a decree, but persons were tried by remote means and convicted in the meantime. This has elicited a strong reaction from professional stakeholders, such as the Bar and the Judges Association of Serbia.

Participation in trials by remote means is an accepted modern practise in other countries. The particulars vary depending upon whether the individual is a witness or the defendant. The Mission is already helping Serbian courts to provide for video appearances of victims. In the case of defendants, the detailed means for respecting the rights to provide a full answer and defence, and to instruct counsel, must be spelled out in properly enacted procedural legislation. The Mission stands ready to work with the responsible Serbian institutions to make use of the experience of other OSCE participating States.

During the previous two months, the OSCE Mission to Serbia expressed concern regarding the freedom of the media and the unhindered work of journalists in conditions of a state of emergency. How did your partners in the Serbian government interpret and respond to these concerns?

Freedom of expression and of the media are necessary for the functioning of a democratic and pluralistic society. We have seen that, during the pandemic, the need for reliable and accurate information and the role of professional media were even more crucial. The time of crisis also intensified the relationship between citizens and journalists; citizens engaged more than ever with the media, while journalists struggled to find answers on how to behave in this new and complex situation. Such genuine connections are very important for the improvement of media content’s quality.

I always emphasise that partnership and local ownership over the achievements are the key principles of the work of the OSCE Mission to Serbia. Together with the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, we welcomed the Serbian Government’s reversal of the decision on public information.

Our joint work in Serbia on the Media Strategy and on improving the safety of journalists, very complex and multi-layered processes, continued even during the period of the State of Emergency, and they are sound examples of how the OSCE’s contribution can assist a host country in its reform efforts.

The Mission will continue supporting Serbia in a spirit of partnership, to strengthen media freedom and implement the Media Strategy through its Action Plan, which is aimed at helping Serbian citizens stay informed and strengthening media literacy.

Could you tell us something more specific about how the OSCE will monitor the election process in Serbia and at what level?

Following an official invitation by the Serbian Government to observe the parliamentary elections to be held in 2020, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) undertook a Needs Assessment Mission (NAM) from 12th to 15th November 2019. Based on its findings, the ODIHR recommended the deployment of an Election Observation Mission (EOM).

In addition to a core team of analysts, ODIHR requested the secondment by the OSCE Participating States of 30 long-term observers to follow the electoral process countrywide, as well as 200 short-term observers for observation of the Election Day procedures. In line with the ODIHR’s standard methodology, the EOM would have included a media monitoring element. The EOM’s focus would have been on the national level, whilst taking into consideration developments at the provincial and local levels.

Following the postponement of the elections and the introduction of restrictions on cross-border travel throughout the OSCE region, due to the global health emergency, the ODIHR was not able to deploy the EOM’s core team on 16th March, as originally planned.

The ODIHR maintains its intention and commitment to proceed with the full observation of the elections but will tailor its response in accordance with the reality on the ground, prioritising the health and safety of both the electorate and observers and taking into account the travel restrictions in participating states, including Serbia.

The political parties assembled in the strongest opposition alliance have announced that they will boycott the elections. They previously assessed that there are no conditions for fair elections in Serbia, but now they have added that they are concerned election activities could jeopardise the results so far achieved in the fight against the Coronavirus. How would you comment on such a stance?

In principle, elections are central to any democratic process and participation is the way to have all voices represented, presuming that they take place in a free and fair manner. The pandemic requires specific attention; if the starting point is that social distancing guidelines will remain in effect, we expect that measures will be taken to minimise health risks during the campaign and on voting day. We’ve already noted that the authorities, including the President of Serbia, pointed out that no large pre-electoral gatherings should be held until the end of May.

ELECTIONS

It is essential to have balanced and impartial press coverage and the conditions for all parties to campaign on an equal footing

MEDIA FREEDOM

We have seen that, during the pandemic, the need for reliable and accurate information and the role of professional media were even more crucial

ELECTIONS

Elections are central to any democratic process and participation is the way to have all voices represented, presuming that they take place in a free and fair manner

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