The desire for freedom and democracy has rarely been clearer. In country after country, people have risked their lives to call for free elections, democratic accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Elections are, of course, the indispensable root of democracy. But to be credible, we need to see high standards before, during, and after votes are cast. Opposition parties must be free to organise and campaign without fear. There must, as far as possible, be a level playing field among candidates. On polling day, voters must feel safe and trust the secrecy and integrity of the ballot. And when the votes have been counted the result must be accepted, no matter how disappointed the defeated candidates feel.
Too often, these conditions are not met. The worsening crisis in Ivory Coastis a prime example of abuse and its consequences. November’s electionwas judged well-run by domestic and international observers. Alassane Ouattara was declared a clear winner. But the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down.
His defiance is opening up old ethnic divisions and threatens to embroil the country in renewed conflict. The crisis is deteriorating rapidly with worrying reports of forced disappearances, targeted killings and widespread human rights abuses by forces loyal to the opposing parties.
There is a real fear, too, that its impact will be felt well beyond the country’s borders. With 19 presidential elections scheduled for Africa over the next 18 months, Mr Gbagbo’s stance risks undermining wider confidence in democracy and emboldening other leaders who confuse personal interests with those of their nation. Africa must continue to move away from the “winner takes all” approach to elections and power, which has been extraordinarily damaging to the continent.
If the international community had stood firmly united behind the integrity of the certified election results, all this could have been avoided. A high price is being paid for the African Union’s delay in re-affirming that Mr Ouattara was the rightful election winner and agreeing a solution to ease Mr Gbagbo out of office.
Understandably, the catastrophe that has struck Japan and the civil war in Libya is dominating the attention of the international community. But we cannot turn our back on the people of Ivory Coast.
The AU, in particular, must immediately condemn the threats by forces loyal to Mr Gbagbo against the UN peace-keeping mission in the country. Unless they do, the AU also risks the safety and effectiveness of other peacekeeping missions on the continent.
We need as well to see a commission of inquiry established to investigate the human rights abuses taking place. Those responsible must know they are not going to escape accountability for their actions.
But the crisis in Ivory Coast must also spur global efforts to uphold the integrity of elections wherever they are held. The right to a free and fair vote is key to everything that matters most. Without credible elections, citizens have no recourse to peaceful political change. The risk of conflict increases while corruption, intimidation and fraud go unchecked, rotting the entire political system slowly from within.
National leaders must learn that to provide democratic legitimacy, elections must be free and fair. The international community must understand that every time it turns a blind eye to electoral abuse, it becomes complicit in degrading democracy’s potential. Short-term expediency cannot be allowed to overshadow the longer-term impact on security, development and human rights. We have to raise the costs for those tempted to rig or steal polls.
The bravery of pro-democracy protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries reminds us of what is at stake. It would be a terrible betrayal if their hopes were to be denied by corrupt or rigged elections later this year. It is time for us all to stand up for the integrity of elections.
The writer was secretary-general of the UN and is chair of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy, and Security, formed by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance