UN ready to provide electoral assistance to Bangladesh: Seppo

UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Mia Seppo speaks at an event organised by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh at the Foreign Service Academy in Dhaka’s Bailey Road on Sunday, September 19, 2021. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove
The United Nations is ready to offer assistance to Bangladesh in its next national elections only if the government asks for it, according to Mia Seppo, the organisation's resident representative in Dhaka.

The UN does not intervene in a country's electoral process on its own initiative and will only provide assistance if such a request is made, she said during an event at the Foreign Service Academy on Sunday.

But the organisation stands ready to lend its support on the basis of the cooperation framework for good governance should such a request be forthcoming, she added.

Before the 2014 elections in Bangladesh, UN Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco tried to broker an agreement between the country's two major political parties but that initiative failed.

Although the BNP leaders at the time demanded that the elections be held under the auspices of the UN, the ruling Awami League rejected the proposition.

With the next elections approaching, the BNP has once again called for a 'neutral' government to oversee the process. But as before, those in power have rebuffed that demand.

Seppo went on to explain the manner in which the UN provides electoral assistance to a country.

"The UN doesn’t provide electoral assistance unless we are asked to. So the whole process is that there is a request and then you have the Electoral Assistance Division working on the ground, conducting a need assessment mission and it goes on from there.

Earlier, the United Nations tried to hold a dialogue with President Abdul Hamid on the formation of the Election Commission, but the talks did not ultimately materialise.

Asked whether the formation of a new Election Commission would lead to such a dialogue, Seppo said the international community typically engages with its partners in any country to explore ways to provide assistance in the run-up to elections. That could happen in Bangladesh too as part of an initiative by the UN or envoys of other countries, she added.

 "I don’t expect this would be different from previous elections."

Seppo also spoke to reporters about the human rights situation in the country and the need to amend the Digital Security Act (DSA).

"The review of DSA is one of the recommendations of the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that actually was supported by Bangladesh. And the recommendation is centred around making sure the law is compliant with international human rights standards."

"We have had some good discussions with the minister of law in particular regarding the implementation of these recommendations and we certainly stand ready to support the review of this legislation to make sure that its misuse is minimised and it is compliant with international standards."

She highlighted the need to strike a balance between the regulation of digital spaces and freedom of expression.

"I think it is important to recognise that there is a fundamental freedom in terms of freedom of expression and opinion that Bangladesh is a signatory to. And it’s really a challenge of striking the balance between some control over the digital space while respecting these rights."

Seppo said the Digital Security Act falls short of finding such a balance at the moment but she hopes a review will now go ahead.

"Globally, there is a big concern around shrinking civic spaces and that applies to so many countries. And I don’t think that's healthy for any country that aspires to be a democracy."

She reiterated the UN secretary-general's call to protect civic spaces, adding that it should be part of the efforts to ensure that the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is "inclusive".

Seppo also highlighted other areas of concern for the UN, including violence against women and growing inequalities in many countries.

"We hope that the review of the DSA, as one of the recommendations from the UPR, will indeed improve that situation."