The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Harper government ignores advice on Ukraine election observation missions

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OTTAWA - For the third time in four years, the Harper government has sent a large, Canada-only mission to observe an election in Ukraine, despite a report that concluded it would be cheaper, more credible and more effective to join a multilateral international mission.

Some 338 observers are part of Canada's current independent mission in Ukraine; they are fanned out across the troubled country to assess the integrity of Sunday's presidential election process.

Another 162 Canadians are also monitoring the election as part of a multilateral mission co-ordinated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose missions are considered the gold standard by veteran election observers.

Canada also sent large, independent delegations to observe Ukraine's parliamentary elections in 2012 and its presidential election in 2010, in addition to participation in OSCE missions.

Yet, after the first Canada-only mission in 2004, an evaluation report prepared for the government concluded the large scale of that bilateral venture "should not be considered as a precedent but only as a 'last resort option' for future Canadian observer missions."

"The use of multilateral missions for Canadian short term election observers should continue to be considered as the first deployment option," said the report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Among other things, the report found the cost of going it alone was nearly double the cost of taking part in an OSCE mission: $9,335 per observer for the eight-day 2004 mission, versus $4,981 per observer for a 10-day OSCE mission in Ukraine earlier the same year.

The Canada-only mission did have its advantages: it gave Canada "visibility and profile," and generated goodwill among the Ukrainian people, the report said. And, with about 60 per cent of the observers being of Ukrainian extraction, many in the Canadian delegation "were familiar with Ukraine and had Ukrainian language skills."

On the downside, the Canadian delegation had little election monitoring experience and Canadians of Ukrainian heritage were sometimes perceived "to be less than neutral."

Indeed, a survey of observers uncovered some concerns about "partisan behaviour" by some mission members, particularly Ukrainian Canadians who were perceived as favouring the pro-western presidential candidate in the 2004 election, Viktor Yuschenko.

"A few respondents also suggested the (Canada-only mission) was fortunate due to their positive reception in Ukraine and the outcome of the election as (the mission) was not forced to defend itself," the report said.

"If there had been marked interference during voting and vote-counting, it was suggested that it may have been more difficult to defend the mission as non-partisan."

By contrast, the report said the OSCE has a "respected track record of elections observation" and its "multinational composition contributes to greater perceived neutrality."

The OSCE's 2004 mission in Ukraine was perceived to be "more impartial, credible, professional, with experienced, well-trained observers and well-prepared and tested documentation and forms."

Another report, prepared for the government after the 2012 mission, also said the OSCE was "clearly perceived by the Ukrainian authorities, local media and international media as the leading and most credible international voice on the elections."

The 2004 mission was the first time a Canada-only observer delegation was deployed to monitor a foreign election. Until then, Canada had never sent more than 47 people to monitor foreign elections, according to the evaluation report.

Ron Gould, one of the co-authors of the report, said he's unaware of any other country that sends its own bilateral election observation missions.

"It's not a common practice of other countries and we don't do it in other countries (except Ukraine)," he said in an interview.

It's also not common practice to allow expatriates to monitor elections in their country of origin, said Gould, chairman of the board of Canadem, the non-governmental organization the has co-ordinated Canada's past two independent Ukraine missions.

Yaroslav Baran, a former Conservative party activist who is deputy head of the current mission, said Ukrainian-Canadians make up about 50 per cent of the delegation. He dismissed concerns they may be perceived as biased.

"To be honest, I find that point of view to be a little bit insulting," said Baran, who is of Ukrainian heritage but born in Canada.

"Obviously, I and other Canadians on this mission are Canadians. We're not the ones who have to live with the decisions being made here. It's the voters of Ukraine who have to live with the decision."

He argued that it's "an asset" to have a strong contingent of Ukrainian-Canadians, who can speak Ukrainian and Russian, in the mission.

"It's probably not all that wise to send an election observation force into any country without anybody knowing how to speak the language. You've got to communicate with people, that's a big part of the job."

The government has budgeted up to $6.8 million for the current Canada-only mission, including monitoring a possible second round of voting if Sunday's result is inconclusive, according to Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Claude Rochon.

Up to $4 million has been budgeted for Canadian participation in the OSCE mission. And a separate OSCE parliamentary mission, in which 12 Canadian MPs are taking part, has a budget of up to $200,000.

Rochon said the Canada-only missions are intended to complement the OSCE's work.

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