According to the United Nations, one of the six practical issues to consider before deciding whether and how to observe an election is, 'Are sufficient personnel available for the observation? Do they have the necessary expertise, or can they be trained in time?'

It also says that if the answer to one or more of these questions is no, then a credible observation may not be possible.

This leads to the question of whether the Motley crew of foreign 'observers' paraded by the Election Commission around the January 7 vote, who were widely quoted in sections of the Bangladeshi media, had the necessary expertise or qualifications. Most of them only visited some polling centres in the capital, when recent media reports suggested that the majority of polling centres marked as vulnerable were outside it, spread throughout different districts of the country.

That leads to the next question: what kind of expertise can we expect when these foreign observers start saying it's 'already' a free and fair election even before noon? Or are they qualified to be an election observer in a country where almost all the opposition parties backed out from the poll? Actually who are they?

Let's see what the internet can tell us about some of the most cited foreign 'observers' during the just-concluded election.

Jim Bates

After visiting some polling centres in the morning, Jim Bates, a former US congressman, and businessman, said, "I'd like to say it's a free and fair election already."

The first thing that surfaced about him is that Bates was the first US congressman to be disciplined for sexual harassment. His case is now explicitly referenced in the House ethics manual as an example of impermissible sexual harassment.

According to reports from The San Diego Union-Tribune, a metropolitan daily newspaper published in San Diego, in 1988, he was accused of sexual harassment (touching and groping) of both women and men who worked for him as well as others.

Dorena Bertussi, one of the women who came forward, said that after she spoke out, she received death threats, but doesn't regret doing so.

"Times are changing," Bates said in October 1989 after the House ethics committee found he had harassed his staff. "Members of Congress are going to be scrutinised for their personal and professional behaviour."

The Bates scandal began in September 1988 when Roll Call published an article portraying him as a hysterical harasser of women who had also misused his congressional office for campaigning.

In August of the next year, the House ethics committee took up the investigation and found him guilty of sexual harassment. He was issued a letter of reproval, the least severe punishment available.

After that, Bates lost his re-election bid in 1990.

The impact of this scandal, however, made some changes. Congress passed several reforms applying workplace standards to Capitol Hill. The Bates case is cited in the ethics handbook for House members, making clear that Congress considers sexual harassment a form of sex discrimination and a violation of civil rights law.

Bates was later implicated in the House banking scandal, also known as the Rubbergate or check-kiting scandal.

According to reports published in the Los Angeles Times, Jim Bates acknowledged that he knowingly used the House bank's overdraft protection when he wrote four bad checks totaling $30,300 as loans to his reelection campaign on the eve of the 1990 Democratic primary.

Bates supposedly founded a group in 2017 named 'United States-Bangladesh Friendship Group', of which he is an executive director.

That group helps promote clean water supplies and recently facilitated delivery of $3.7 million in medical equipment and supplies, donated by the non-profit Helping Hand. Interestingly enough, nothing surfaced about the group's activities upon searching, not even a primary website. Nowhere is there any reference to Bates having ever served as an observer in any election.

Paulo Casaca

Paulo Casaca is the executive director of the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF). He said the election was free and fair.

In 2020, the EU Disinfo Lab, an independent non-profit organisation exposed an Indian disinformation network. The Indian network had been running various campaigns against Pakistan and China for 15 years, creating more than 750 fake news media and NGOs, along with fake experts.

Paolo Casaca and his organisation, the SADF, were instrumental in facilitating this disinformation network on behalf of India.

Later, the conclusions in that report were corroborated by global media outlets including BBC, Politico, Les Jours, and Le Temps. Since its release, the report has garnered coverage from over 100 media sources worldwide. Again, we could find nothing to link him with election observation.

Andrei Shutov

Andrei Shutov is a member of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation. He said the election was held in a free, fair and inclusive manner in Bangladesh.

According to Open Sanctions, an international database of persons and companies of political, criminal, or economic interest, he has been responsible for organising illegal referenda in 2022.

"He played a role in orchestrating unlawful elections in September 2023 in the occupied regions of Ukraine, aiming to legitimise the Russian aggressive war in those areas. In his capacity, Andrey Shutov is endorsing and executing measures and policies that jeopardise and compromise the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine," it said.

He is subjected to several sanctions. He is also indicated as a politically-exposed person (PEP) in the financial regulation-speak. A PEP is usually an individual entrusted with a significant public role. Due to their position and the influence they wield, PEPs typically pose a heightened risk of potential engagement in bribery and corruption. Hence, it's advised that PEPs and members of their families should be the subject of enhanced public scrutiny.

Who looks to Russia for election observers anyway?

Victor Oh and Chandra Arya

Victor Oh and Chandra Arya were two Canadian politicians masquerading as election observers. Their current roles as Canadian parliamentarians made their views much sought-after. They signed statements saying the EC delivered a free and fair election.

The day after the election, the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka was forced to clarify that the government of Canada had not deployed any election observers to monitor Bangladesh's January 7 national election.

"Any individual who identifies as a Canadian observer is acting independently," reads a message shared on X (formerly Twitter). Their views, said the Canadian High Commission, have not been endorsed by the government of Canada.

Victor Oh presently serves as a member of the Senate Standing Committees for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Agriculture and Forestry, and National Security and Defence from Ontario, one of the provinces of Canada.

According to The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, Oh accepted trips to China paid for by the Chinese government or pro-Beijing business groups.

In February 2020, the Senate ethics watchdog determined that Oh violated the conflict of interest and ethics code. This occurred due to his acceptance of an all-expenses-paid trip to China, which he failed to disclose, alongside two other senators. Subsequently, on June 18, the Senate Ethics and Conflict of Interest Committee recommended censure for Oh and asked him to issue an apology to the Senate.

Chandra Arya is a Liberal party politician of Indo-Canadian descent, currently serving as an MP in the House of Commons.

According to reporting by Global News, between July 2020 and September 30, 2022, Arya outpaced his fellow house colleagues in "protocol" gifts. He utilised taxpayer funds to acquire 1,025 plaques, totaling $21,931 in value.

He used House of Commons funds to purchase those from the same local company that handles his constituency printing and communications work. Arya's constituency office awarded fifty-three contracts, amounting to $53,681.50, to SINIX Media Group, a single company, during the same period.

Although they have some involvement in politics, that alone can never qualify you to observe elections and report on them. And therein lies the problem. There seems to be a wrong impression taking hold that simply coming from a foreign country and 'seeing' the election unfold makes you a foreign election observer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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