Safeguarding human rights in elections and complex security situations

Header Photo

The location for voting is not decisive – it can be set up anywhere. Here, a voting location on the savannah in Burkina Faso. Photo: Susse Bøtefyhr

Every year, the Danish Peace and Stabilisation Response deploys Danish citizens to serve as observers in elections and as experts on monitoring missions around the globe.

December 10, 2021

Participation in public affairs, including the right to vote and stand for election ‒ as well as genuine elections themselves ‒ is at the core of democratic governance. Legitimate elections are a fundamental component of an environment that protects and promotes human rights. The right to vote and be elected is also intrinsically linked to a number of human rights and ensures a meaningful electoral process.

NIRAS has been administering Denmark’s Peace and Stabilisation Response (PSR) since 2008 on behalf of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this role, we have recruited, trained and deployed Danish election observers for EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) elections observation missions all over the world. 

More than 110

long and short term observers are deployed through the PSR each year

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Poul Svane while serving as long term observer (LTO) during the 2021 election in Uzbekistan

Warm welcomes by citizens engaged in making democracy work

With a background in Law and International Human Rights, Poul Svane has been a member of the PSR roster since its launch in 1995. For his first mission, Poul was sent to Rwanda as a human rights observer after the genocide in 1994. Since then, he has participated in several election observation missions, including in Armenia, Kosovo, Moldova, Georgia, North Macedonia, Bosnia, and Uzbekistan. In some cases, he has worked several times in the same country.

“When arriving for long-term missions, my colleagues and I are often met with a celebratory welcome,” Poul says. In Uzbekistan, the celebration took the form of a large local orchestra and a number of dancers in national folk-attire, followed by local traditions, such as sharing of bread. The town’s leaders were present together with national broadcasters and journalists. “The vast majority of the population are very kind to strangers, and I was met with only big smiles and deep gratitude for having come to their country to give the budding democracy a helping hand along the way. Uzbekistan is ethnically diverse, as it is encompasses many minorities and languages,” he adds.

Another observer who has served since 2013 in a number of elections is Susse Bøtfyhr. Her ‘career’ as an international election observer is rooted in her background in international work and residence, further supported by her previous employment in a Danish municipality. “As a long-term observer, you get real insight into a lot of things that are not very pretty - because we as observers have an access to many different people and groups who are mostly very interested in telling their particular version of reality,” says Susse. “If it were not for the expressed interest and enthusiasm of the many ordinary citizens in making democracy succeed, one could easily indulge in deep melancholy as an observer.”

Observers support legitimate election processes

The election monitoring methodology considers the given country’s situation before, during, and after an election. In the pre-election environment, observers are to look out for administrative violations and constraints but also the overall disregard for fundamental and civil political rights. Each observer goes through training and follows guidelines on all aspects of the electoral process. On election day, observers concentrate on violations such as ballot-box stuffing or voter intimidation. Recently, ODIHR methodology has been expanded to issues such as women's participation and inclusion of national minorities in the electoral process. Source: OSCE

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Susse Bøtefyhr and her Polish LTO partner, Slawek Szyszka, at the parliamentary elections in Ukraine 2019, deployed at the border of the Donbass region

Seconding monitors to safeguard human rights

Crisis management missions are another main pillar of the NIRAS-administered PSR. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine and the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia are examples of such missions to which the PSR seconds Danish experts as monitors.

The mandate of the SMM covers the entire territory of Ukraine. The Mission’s Head Office is in Kyiv and the monitoring teams work in Ukraine’s ten biggest cities: Chernivtsi, Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Luhansk, Lviv, Odessa. Almost 600 monitors are working in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the moment.

My own fundamental justification for participating in a number of election missions is a heartfelt desire to make my very meagre contribution to a better world. To a world where every human being can exercise their basic political right freely and without obstacles

Susse Bøtfyhr
Maria Gullestrup during a mission

The SMM aims to gather information and report on the security situation while establishing and reporting the facts, namely on specific incidents on the ground. The mission monitors talk to various community groups including authorities at all levels, civil society, ethnic and religious groups, and local communities. In 2019, the mission committed to focus on monitoring and supporting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the rights of national minorities.

The EUMM in Georgia involves monitoring the security situation on the ground along the Administrative Boundary Lines dividing the breakaway regions from Tbilisi Administered Territory. But the mission also monitors the human rights situation among conflict-affected populations and reports on the challenges they face in their daily lives.  By its very presence and patrolling of the settlements adjacent to the Administrative Boundary Lines, the EUMM is able to assist in reducing potential human rights violations.

Maria Gullestrup was deployed as a monitor to the EUMM in Georgia between 2019 and 2021. She was stationed in Gori, the birth town of Stalin, and monitored the security situation in the area, including the military presence and so-called "borderisation", with the setup of fences and observation posts. “Monitors talk to the local people in the villages and report on how the conflict affects their everyday lives. Special attention is given to human rights and we are interested in whether the security situation in the area makes it difficult for the population to access health facilities, children’s access to school and farmers’ access to their lands.  The EU also has a special focus on equality between men and women, including equal access to education and jobs and domestic violence” says Maria.

Different forms of voting...

Instead of using paper ballots, elections in the Gambia are conducted using marbles. Each voter receives a marble and places it in a tube on top of a sealed drum that corresponds to that voter's favoured candidate. The drums for different candidates are painted in different colours corresponding to the party affiliation of the candidate, and a picture of the candidate is affixed to their corresponding drum. The system has the advantages of low cost and simplicity, both for understanding how to vote and for counting the results. The method is reported to have an extremely low error rate for miscast ballots. Source: CNN

Get in touch

Tinna Steen Nielsen

Tinna Steen Nielsen

Project Manager

København, Denmark

Rune Lamberth

Rune Lamberth


København, Denmark