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UNV election observers reach into remote Suriname
by Luk Bouters, UNV Programme Officer in Suriname

Pieter-Jan Gerke, left, works as a UNV observer in a remote district of SurinamePieter-Jan Gerke, left, works as a UNV observer in a remote district of Suriname
01 May 2000

Paramaribo, Suriname: UN Volunteers are fanning out across Suriname to help prepare voters in remote districts ahead of general elections on 25 May.

The Government and the National Assembly decided last July to shorten their tenure by one year and to call for early general elections. In line with the country's democratic traditions, the Government requested the assistance of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to safeguard the electoral process and to provide technical and financial support for the organization of the elections. Part of this assistance was the deployment of eight UNV long-term observers (UNV LTOs) and another 20 UNV short-term observers (UNV STOs).

"UNVs long-standing and recognized experience in election monitoring, made it an asset for us to forge links with the EU and the Government of Suriname to support the elections in Suriname" says Hans Geiser, UNDP Resident Coordinator. "Our active involvement in the organization of the elections, which has besides a monitoring and technical support component also a civic education part, puts UNDP in a pole position to move on one of its prime goals, namely good governance, during and after the elections".

In February, the UNV LTO team arrived at Zanderij, the international airport of Suriname and, after a short briefing period by the EU/UNDP Election Team, turned to work quickly. These LTOs can be considered as the field arm of the Election Support Programme financed by the EU and executed by UNDP. Working at the district and local level, they acquire first-hand knowledge of the election administration, the observation of the election law and procedures, and the political environment within which the elections take place. Each LTO was assigned a district where he/she meets with the local officials, political parties, and the press and follows closely the activities of the political parties.

When out in the field, the ethical and professional code of the LTOs requires that they remain impartial. Their involvement is restricted to watching, listening and reporting without intervening in the conduct of the elections in any way. Their professional judgements on the developments in the field feed essential data to the EU/UNDP Election Team that enables them to assess the fairness and correctness of the activities before, during and after the elections until a new government is in place.

Pieter-Jan Gerke, a former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) staff officer from the Netherlands, was assigned to Sipaliwini, by far the largest district of Suriname. This district, covered by thick but pristine rainforest, poses a special challenge to anyone requested to get in contact with a population of 23,000 spread out over more than 130,000 square kilometres. Hidden in the interior, often on the banks of swift rivers, the villages of Amerindian and Marroon tribes are difficult to reach. In the 18th century, their remote location protected them from central authorities. But now these villages are isolated at a time when the country goes to the polls. As a UNV observer, Gerke has to travel from village to village, overcoming the challenges posed by the hazards of the rainforest and the variety of cultures of its populations.

A traditional dugout canoe of the indigenous people, called a korjaal, and a small Cessna plane are his principal means of transportation to the remote villages as roads are few and reduced to mud holes during the rainy season. Armed with a notebook and carrying water and food for several days, Gerke has to earmark a great part of his mission time to travel. The korjaals rarely offer any shelter against sun and rain, a classic meteorological mix in a rainforest, and must be dragged over the numerous rapids, inevitably slowing down the group's speed. Travelling by plane is obviously more comfortable but only a realistic option when airstrips are available and -- always a question in the rainy season -- accessible.

There are other reasons why travelling to the interior requires a special consideration. "You cannot just knock on the village chief's door and say: 'Hello here I am. Can I ask you a few questions?'," he says. "A lot of logistical preparations precede every field trip as you have to establish contacts with the local authorities, take all your food with you and often your drinking water as well and be prepared for the unexpected."

Whenever possible, he joins other officials or development workers also heading for villages in the district to reduce travelling costs and facilitate his own introduction to the local dignitaries. Meeting these traditional chiefs is an endeavour of its own. All tribes are headed by a granman, who is assisted by a number of deputies, called kapiteins and basjas. Only after an official introduction is the UNV able to visit the village and meet people.

"Fresh meat and fish is not a problem, he says. "The men still go out hunting, and a pakera or pingo, two types of indigenous wild boar, are a regular item on our menu. However, I will not turn down a slice of piranha or anjoemara, two delicious predators living in the fast waters and creeks." A less idyllic aspect of his work concerns the tropical diseases to which he is exposed. "The interior is still malaria prone and most mosquito have built up some resistance against the prophylaxis we presently have at our disposal. Dengue and tuberculosis are two other diseases that pose a permanent threat to our health. Some caution is due here."

Communication is another obstacle preventing smooth and efficient observations operations in the hinterland. There is no overall communication system and parallel systems of radio communication exist.

"The army, the Medical Mission, the government employees, the domestic air companies, they all have their own private system in place which operate along side each other. A good and well-balanced network of contacts is key here in order to surmount all hidden hurdles." His training and professional background in the military prepared Gerke for this daunting task in terms of ensuring proper and careful preparations of his undertakings and his familiarity with outdoor life.

"But you cannot arrange everything beforehand: once you're there, you need to possess a good dose of flexibility and extendibility in order to cope with the unforeseen, the challenges that are always looming and strike when you least expect it. This and my contacts with these indigenous populations will make my assignment as a volunteer election observer a memorable one."

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)