OTTAWA – Applicants for the Canadian observer mission to Ukraine’s coming elections are being warned they face personal security threats.
The Canadian Press has also learned that a retired RCMP officer has been recruited as a security consultant for the mission to help manage the potentially volatile environment in which more than 300 Canadian volunteers will be operating.
The concerns come amid the continuing security backslide in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian gunmen are seizing control of cities and a separate team of military monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe is being held hostage. On Wednesday, Ukraine’s acting president admitted his country’s security forces were “helpless” to stop the gunmen.
CUSO International, one of two groups organizing the Canadian mission, issued its warning in a job posting that has been widely circulated through email.
Under a list of “expectations” for the applicants, the note says: “Security: Personal security risks may be a factor.”
It also says that the ideal candidates for the mission should be in “excellent health and fully mobile” and “be able to deploy rapidly, and endure harsh conditions with only basic accommodations.”
Canada has been sending observers to Ukraine elections since 2004, but this is the first time the mission has been organized by CUSO and the Forum of Federations, neither of which has managed a mission of this scale. None of the previous missions faced the current hostile security environment.
The observers will operate under the banner of the newly created entity called Canadian Election Observation Missions or CANEOM after the government decided to part ways with its long-time election organizer, the non-governmental organization Canadem.
Several of the executive members of CANEOM have experience organizing past Canadian observer missions.
“We have retained a security adviser — former senior RCMP,” the mission spokesman Yaroslav Baran said Wednesday.
“On the bigger question of security, yes, it is going to be a significant concern, and we are quite seized with this question already.”
Baran said that the Canadian mission may work more closely with other international observation missions than it has in the past.
“We always also co-ordinate to some degree with other observation missions for logistical purposes,” he said.
“It may be that these relationships become more firm this time around, pooling resources for additional security measures and so on.”
An advance team would be departing soon, and assessing the future risks would be a key task, he added.
“Much of their reporting and reconnaissance will help inform further decisions on security for the main mission.”
The Ukrainian Central Election Commission will determine the placement of polling stations in volatile regions and may decide to concentrate efforts outside Russian-held areas, he said.
“But these are their issues to determine, and their decisions will enter into the evaluation of how we will plan our activities.”
Baran also ruled out any possibility of Canadian monitors venturing into the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed last month.
“It is fully under military occupation by a foreign power, and I do not think the Ukrainian state electoral apparatus will be able to operate there at all with any manner of safety and success.”
As with past missions, the observers will all be insured, but the cost won’t be known until after the final report on the process is filed with the government, which is bearing the full cost of the deployment, he said.
The government has set aside $6.8 million to send 338 observers in the bilateral mission. About 300 will be short-term observers and about 38 will be part of the long-term team.
The government is also committing $4 million to send 15 long-term and 135 short-term observers to participate in a separate international OSCE mission that is being organized by Canadem.
That is the maximum amount of observers allowed by one country under the rules of the Vienna-based OSCE.
No other country is known to be sending such a large bilateral contingent as Canada to the May 25 presidential elections.
But the Harper government regularly says the Ukraine elections are significant and require as much international oversight as possible given the current crisis.
However, numerous internal warnings from Canadian public servants have repeatedly told the government that sending an independent team of bilateral observers is not the preferred option.
Numerous internal assessments, obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law, have said that the preferred option was to send observers through the OSCE, which is considered the international leader in election monitoring.
There are an estimated 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent in Canada.
Applications for the mission have now closed after organizers received about 1,000 resumes.