The November 2020 Myanmar general elections are expected to be very tense due to ongoing racial and religious discrimination. To increase transparency, the EU has funded an election app in order to improve voter awareness of candidates. Swedish non-governmental organisation International IDEA was entrusted with the implementation of this EU project. However, at the request of Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC), the organisation published sensitive data, which infringes on the personal freedoms of the candidates. Candidates were also denied registration on the basis of their ethnicity, in a country where official categories of race and religion are at the root of multiple violations of international human rights law, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. After human rights watchdogs and local media warned of the danger the inclusion of this data posed, the EU-funded project rapidly denied responsibility, instead of removing the racist and discriminatory content.
On 04 October 2020, Czech Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Mikuláš Peksa of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, addressed a written parliamentary question to the Vice-President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.
MEP Peksa enquired “why has the EU representation not asked for the application to be shut down and for the sensitive data to be removed?” and “is there an ongoing investigation into the responsibility for this failure?”
Finally, MEP Peksa asked the Vice-President of the Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Borrell “will he issue a statement against the use of sensitive personal data in the Myanmar elections?”
On 15 December, Vice-President and High Representative Borrell formally responded on behalf of the European Commission. He stated that “the European Union has supported Myanmar’s civilian and democratic transition since 2011” and “this support included the deployment of an EU Election Observation Mission for the 2015 elections, which issued a set of recommendations to Myanmar in order to improve standards in conducting elections”.
Vice-President and High Representative Borrell clarified that “the EU-funded ‘STEP Democracy’ project aims to support electoral reforms based on the Mission’s recommendations”.
He explained that “it has trained 295 political party representatives, developed 6 ‘Political Party Gender Action Plans’ and a civic education curriculum for students aged 13-16, and established a network of women candidates at local level” and “some of the Mission’s recommendations were implemented by the Union Electoral Commission in time for this year’s election”.
Further, Vice-President and High Representative Borrell reported that “one recommendation was to improve the availability of candidate information to voters” and “thus, the STEP Democracy project supported the digitisation of data voluntarily provided by 7000 candidates in compliance with domestic legal requirements”.
He expressed that “the data were made accessible through a mobile phone application, which had been developed and funded by unrelated parties in 2015” and “the application itself was not funded by the EU”.
Vice-President and High Representative Borrell highlighted that “in line with the STEP project contractual arrangements, the EU should have been notified in advance about the use of the digitised information and inclusion of data, which could be used for discrimination”.
Finally, he declared that “both the EU and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) have withdrawn their support to the application” and “the EU also requested the project to carry out more thorough risk assessments”.
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