Election Work can be Dangerous

Jessie V. Pilgrim sometimes finds himself ‘‘in harms way’’ when he does his job.
That job is helping emerging countries establish an election process that uses ballots rather than guns in countries where violence is considered a way of life.
He was surprised when he won the Oklahoma Bar Association Fern Holland Courageous Lawyer Award.
Pilgrim didn’t know his colleagues had nominated him for his work helping governments in other countries move toward the electoral process so familiar in the U.S.
He has helped governments in all former Soviet Union Republics, Yugoslavia, and most of the countries in central and Eastern Europe.
Pilgrim also has been involved with countries in the former Warsaw Block, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Africa, and Bahrain in the mid east, a country connected by a bridge to Saudi Arabia.
There also have been assignments to Bosnia and Kosovo. All have been dangerous hot spots in the world.
Pilgrim became interested in the electoral process after earning his undergraduate degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. He later earned his law degree from the University of Tulsa.
Pilgrim receives the various assignments through the United Nations and focuses on the legal electoral process. There are few attorneys working in this area involving government constitutions.
‘‘I focus my practice, even at home, on elections in various countries,’’ he said. ‘‘I do a lot of work for international organizations. But I am primarily do consulting work for the United Nations Development Program.’’
The U.N. is a big family with diverse functions and Pilgrim’s work is under that organization’s umbrella.
Part of the challenge comes in trying to develop an election process that respects cultures and social mores of that country.
Work might involve hours of review and study at Pilgrim’s Tulsa home.
Then it might involve extensive on-site work in a country. He once left for a six-week assignment that took eight months to complete. The longest he has been away from home is 11 months. One time he flew into Zimbabwe and two days later was on the return trip back to Tulsa.
Language is not a problem as long as there is a good interpreter, he said. Many countries designate English as their international language and that helps overcome many barriers.
‘‘I work on the legal framework making certain that laws are in compliance with human rights and international law,’’ he said. These agreements follow the 1995 Dayton (Ohio) Peace Accord that was one of the highlights of the Clinton Administration.
Somehow, President Clinton managed to get warring factions in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia under one roof and agree to peace accords, he said. First fruits of that labor were seen in 1996 in Bosnian elections.
The U.S. took a major lead in those elections, supplying quite a few advisors, Pilgrim continued.
People living outside the framework of a democratic government don’t understand the legal side of the electoral process, he said. They are disappointed when they don’t win the election.
‘‘When they lose an election, once again they again feel they have been treated unfairly,’’ he continued. It takes time (years) to overcome these feelings.
One of the successes in the process has been the Bosnian elections.
However, a true test of the election process will be seen soon in the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone.
This has been one of the most difficult arenas to work in.
The first elections in that country were held in 1991. The country was reeling from fighting between militant groups and memories of the cruel conflict were still fresh in the minds of people as elections were held. Many of the combatants had just laid down their guns.
That was a time when voter education in that country was a critical element in the success of the election process, he said. That also was where advisors needed a good understanding of the people and the culture and have communicated the message well. It also was important to have good technical support in the process.
Sierra Leone is in a good position to have that country’s election process mature, he added. For the first time they will have their own full-time legal advisor from monitoring the election commission.
Next year, 2007, will determine how effective the process will work, Pilgrim said. That will be the first year that international legal advisors will be in the background. Time will tell about how effective the election process will be when supervised by their people. The 2001 election signaled there was a stabilizing force within the country That contrasted sharply to the 1996 election when warring factions could not participate because of a registration law.
All parties will be coming to the table on the ballot next year.
Helping countries develop effective election laws is not a cookie-cutter process.
‘‘What works in one country doesn’t always work in another,’’ Pilgrim continued.
Pilgrim is one of few American lawyers working on the election issues. There are thousands and thousands of lawyers working in the human rights and other issues.
The international practice isn’t attractive to you lawyers just starting their practices, he said. Most have tremendous debt from loans required during their time in college.
‘‘You just can’t go to Sierra Leone and bill at a lawyer’s rate. The U.N. doesn’t pay what GM pays. In addition to the difference in pay, there also is a safety issue, Pilgrim said.
‘‘I have been in countries and lived under a 9 p.m. curfew. There are other areas where a person just can’t get out because they are so isolated.
Working conditions also are not the best, computers are not the best and there always is a possibility of a person being attacked.
People in these countries are beginning to learn that legal elections are something good and they are interested in participating by voting, he said.
Pilgrim doesn’t see an end to his work with international elections.
It is difficult to see when a conflict will end and another begin, he said. But on the international scene, there is a move toward the electoral process. Sierra Leone is in the immediate future with elections in January or February 2007.
The mood in Nepal is changing and there is a possibility of elections in that country as people lay down their arms.
Pilgrim is seeing negative political advertising campaigns creeping into the countries where elections are being conducted, some for the first time.
Political consulting firms based in Washington, D.C. drive most of those campaigns, he said. The activity is legal as long as those companies declare their activity.
But there also is hope among people in other parts of the world who are turning to the election process, preferring that method to guns that so many know so well.

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