< Viewpoints < 2006

"Ombudsmen are key defenders of human rights – their independence must be respected"

 

[18/09/06] Realisation of human rights is a question of political will. It is not enough just to endorse European and international norms: these standards must also be translated into a practical reality at all levels – national, regional and local. In addition to the courts, authorities should promote and protect the existence of extra-judicial mechanisms for independent monitoring. Ombudsmen in several countries have already made a great difference – but only where their integrity has been respected by those in power.

Without attracting much publicity, an important development has taken place in Europe in recent years – the ombudsman idea has spread, and the institution has been set up in almost all countries. The ombudsman derives its authority from its election by the Parliament or from its appointment by the government or the head of state. However, there is a great variety of ombudsman institutions and they tend to differ in name and mandate.

Some deal mainly with breaches of civil rights while others focus on cases of state maladministration. Some are mandated to receive complaints from individuals and might have the authority to mediate between citizen and authority. Meanwhile, others have the power to bring cases to court.

Apart from national offices, there are also regional ombudsmen in some larger countries, such as Russia, Spain and Italy. Certain countries have also set up specialised institutions – for instance, most Europe countries have created an ombudsman for children.

Ombudsman have also been established to prevent the occurrence of racial discrimination and xenophobia. Other specialised fields include gender equity, the rights of people with disabilities and conditions in penal institutions.

The different existing models have emerged out of specific national needs and it would be unwise to try to streamline the approach and press countries towards adopting a single model. However, there are several lessons which can be drawn from the experiences thus far.

One is the utmost importance of independence. The ombudsman should stand above party politics and not take instructions from anyone. The person should be considered as a fully impartial figure, and should uphold this principle in every facet of their work.

This is a central point in the so-called Paris Principles which were adopted fifteen years ago at an international meeting and thereafter endorsed by the UN General Assembly as well as the Council of Europe. These principles also guide the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in his co-operation with national ombudsmen.

According to the Paris Principles, independence must be guaranteed by law and must govern the method by which office holders are appointed. If governments fail to respect the integrity of ombudsmen, the institutions will not be able to function properly.

Ombudsmen must be free to look into any issue falling within their competence without prior approval from the authorities. It is essential for them to be able to collect all and any kind of evidence that is relevant for their work.

Importantly, the office of the ombudsman has to be adequately funded to allow it “to be independent of the government and not subject to financial control which might affect its independence” (quoting the Paris Principles). Resources are needed in order to make sure that all complaints are handled free of charge, in a speedy and efficient manner, with only a minimum degree of mandatory formality.

This is essential for the credibility of the institution. Ombudsmen should be able to reach out to society at large, they should be well known and easy to approach. This, in turn, may require funds for the establishment of additional offices outside metropolitan areas.

Ombudsmen benefit significantly from the exchange of best practice with their colleagues in other countries, and from sharing information about how international and European human rights standards can be best applied. In the organisation of such exchanges, the European Ombudsman and various international groupings of ombudsmen – such as the International and the European Ombudsman Institutes – have an important role.

As Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe, I am committed to seeking co-operation with ombudsman institutions and their networks. I intend to defend the ombudsman institutions and support their further development, in order to achieve a system of independent, well-functioning and adequately funded institutions in all Council of Europe member states.

I see these offices as key partners in the struggle for a practical implementation of European human rights standards.

Thomas Hammarberg
 

 

Link

Paris Principles

 


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