Until Every Election is Free and Fair
U.S. Ambassador George Jones '55 calls the triumph of democracy "the most remarkable event of the last third of the 20th century" and explains how election observers have contributed to that victory.
George Jones '55 was U.S. Ambassador to Guyana in 1992 when a crisis broke out during the country's national elections. More than 1,000 protesters, directed by a political faction within the government that expected to lose the election, were stoning election commission headquarters and threatening to storm the building. With the lives of election workers and the fragile democratic process in Guyana at risk, Jones met with the chief of police and requested beefed-up security. At the same time, former President Jimmy Carter made his way to the building and called Guyana's president, suggesting that allowing protesters to storm the building and assault a former President of the United States would probably not be good for international relations.
The elections were completed, declared "free and fair," and left a powerful impression on Jones. When he retired from the State Department in 1994, he went to work at the International Federation for Election Systems as an election observer.
Ambassador Jones discussed the history and importance of election observation during at a luncheon at this year's Homecoming celebration. The following are excerpts from his remarks:
"To set a discussion of election observation in a proper context, I need to talk about two American presidents and their administrations. This is a somewhat unlikely pair to put together-Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The inaugural speech of Jimmy Carter used the phrase "human rights" three times. When I was listening to the speech when he first gave it I was in Guatemala, a country not known for its respect of human rights, it seemed to me that he used the phrase six or eight times, but it was only three. That was the beginning of the American government's official interest in the protection of human rights around the world.
But although Carter stated the topic very boldy and he talked about the need to free people from political oppression, his administration did not concentrate so much on that. Instead, it concentrated on human rights violations such as torture, imprisonments, deprivation of life and liberty and the need for personal individual freedom.
It was not really until the succeeding administration that the American government began to focus on the fact that one of the fundamental human rights is the right to vote, the right to choose your own government. That was a pretty ironic thing, because when the Reagan administration came to office in 1981, it was with a ferocious desire to reverse the policies of the previous administration. I was there at the time, and it was the most bitter and vengeful change of government that I've witnessed in my lifetime.
There was a very colorful and important group of people-Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Al Haig, to name two-who were specifically interested in reversing the emphasis on human rights and attempts to interfere with the normal progress of military regimes. At the beginning they had considerable success in this.
But a funny thing happened on the way to history. In June of 1982, Reagan made a speech to the British House of Commons, the Westminster Speech, which I think is the best speech he ever gave. Someday, I think a book will be written about how that speech got made and the struggle over getting it made. I have no idea of exactly how it went, but I have my likely suspect-White House Chief of Staff James Baker. He recognized, I think, as did the writers of the speech, that you couldn't effectively sell to the American people the idea of opposing communism-opposing oppression in the Soviet Union and the spread of communism to Central America-unless you opposed oppression and the loss of freedom everywhere else Reagan, to the total surprise of those who opposed this new policy, came out very clearly and four-square in that line during the speech. It proved not to be just talk, because the speech led to the administration's proposal to Congress to create the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The creation of this institute and the monies which it dispersed caused the Democratic and Republican parties to create for the first time in their history international institutes to help democracies and democratic movements around the world. The creation of those institutes made a major change in the influence of the American government. It's fairly difficult for the American government to fund directly the overthrow of the government with which it has relations, but as the German government discovered years previously in the creation of their similar institutes, you can do it if you do it with government funds but through private institutes.
About the same timeJimmy Carter created the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government. All these institutions began to support in various ways the promotion of democracy overseas.
Now this may interest some of you as political history, but you may be asking: so what? What does it matter?
I think the most remarkable event of in international affairs in the last third of the 20th century has been the triumph of democracy. Obviously, the prime exhibit of that is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its division into 15 republics of varying states of democracy. But it is far wider than that. Just 20 years ago, there were only five democracies in Latin America. There were 14 military governments, and three civilian governments which were, as the antique dealers would say, "of doubtful promise." Today, there is only Cuba. There are certainly governments in Latin America that aren't paragons of efficiency, many that have huge problems but all of the governments, with the exception of Cuba, were chosen by their people-however inefficiently or awkwardly, they are there by the public will.
All of these developments were certainly due to internal pressures and forces, but they were also due to external pressures-financial pressure, military pressures, diplomatic pressures. But below these is the focus that the institutions I've mentioned have put on elections. And the mechanism for doing this has largely been election observation, which is what I'm doing now"