The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

New report questions Canadian Ukraine election monitoring missions

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OTTAWA - A new internal government report has once again raised questions about the Harper government's penchant for sending large teams of Canadian election monitors to Ukraine.

The March report, prepared by an outside consultant for the Foreign Affairs Department, is the latest in a series of internal government assessments that raise red flags about the missions. The reports began in 2004 under the Liberals and have been repeatedly embraced by the Conservatives, most recently in May.

Ottawa sent about 350 people to monitor the May 25 presidential ballot in Ukraine in a Canadian-led bilateral mission. Approximately 150 went as part of a separate multinational effort led by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is seen as the most credible international body for conducting such missions.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the independent audit of Canada's Election Observation Missions program, known as EOM, which notes that the multilateral OSCE missions are widely viewed as a much better idea than the Canadian bilateral ones.

The consultants, Plan:Net Limited, presented the Foreign Affairs Department with its 195-page report on March 20.

On April 23, Harper announced Canada was sending 500 observers to monitor the Ukraine mission, and that 350 of them would be part of a bilateral mission under a Canadian banner.

"As has been noted, generating visibility through a bilateral presence in EOMs comes with its dangers," the report said.

"EOM best practices suggest that a decision to give greater emphasis to bilateral election observation could have implications for the reputation of Canada amongst other donors, recipient countries, and multilateral organizations.

"Does Canada want to continue to be a credible and respected player in the field of EOM? Or do political imperatives trump development goals, at least in the short term?"

Despite raising those questions, the report offers "a qualified yes" in support of Canada continuing to contribute to both kinds of missions, to promote the country internationally while participating in multilateral global efforts to promote good governance.

Foreign Affairs is defending the missions, saying they help advocate Canadian values, such as supporting democracy.

"Canada actively supports both bilateral and multilateral election observation missions as effective mechanisms for supporting free and fair elections," department spokesman John Babcock said in an emailed response to questions.

"This is part of Canada's broader support for the promotion of democracy, a key Canadian value."

Canada also sent hundreds of observers to Ukraine's parliamentary elections in 2012 and its presidential election in 2010, in addition to participating in OSCE missions.

After the Liberals' first and only Ukraine observer mission in 2004, a separate internal report concluded that they "should not be considered as a precedent but only as a 'last resort option' for future Canadian observer missions."

Since then, that advice has been repeatedly ignored.

The most recent March report addresses another problem in international election monitoring practices that Canada continues to ignore: allowing expatriates to monitor elections in their native lands.

On the most recent mission to Ukraine, at least half of those taking part were of Ukrainian-Canadian descent.

The government says having a large Ukrainian-Canadian contingent on its last monitoring team was an asset, in part because they speak the local language.

"Canadian diaspora groups and communities represent valuable and knowledge-rich resources, including with respect to linguistic capabilities, and as such they are an important consideration in developing missions," said Babcock.

Canada has about 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent, and the strong outpouring of government support for Ukraine in its current conflict with Russia is seen by many observers as a way to court domestic electoral support within Canada.

The Plan:Net report cited pros and cons of the bilateral missions, and found it scores points for the government among certain "ethnic constituents."

Under pros, the report said: "Of direct interest to Canadian ethnic constituents; for example, Ukraine/Haiti; as well as to GoC for being seen by Diaspora as involved."

The report says Canadian bilateral missions are of more use to Canada than others nations, saying their main purpose is to "promote the sending country entirely."

Observers in Ukraine had the words "Mission Canada" displayed prominently on their clothing, while their activities were reported by Canadian and Ukrainian journalists, the report says.

"While this certainly is an effective method of promoting Canadian involvement, it is not consistent in any way with EOM best practices."

Follow Mike Blanchfield on Twitter at @mblanchfield

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