The Office of the Ombudsman is a substantial, active and well-respected institution. Whilst the role bears some comparisons to Ombudsmen elsewhere in the world, the Spanish model, and the San Sebastián specifically is in many ways far more impressive. The institution was created in 1989 and has 50 employees and an elected chief. Its role is to be an independent an unbiased defender of the rights of ordinary people against maladministration or abuse of power by the state. There are three main blocks of work:
- Complaints and claims against public administration (from district to EU level)
- Critical assessment of public policy
- Promotion of human rights
The first of these roles is the one most familiar in other parts of Europe. However the second role takes the Ombudsman beyond merely responding to claims and into a proactive engagement with policy. They begin by consulting with a wide variety of interest groups and public opinion to try and determine whether policy remains relevant to the changing realities of peoples’ lives. They have intervened in issues such as undocumented foreign-born minors, violence against women, and drug use by minors.
Their third role is even more novel – the active promotion of human rights. Whilst remaining scrupulously impartial, they have a brief to conduct research and surveys on potential breaches of human rights and to engage in awareness-raising and opinion-influencing campaigns. They have looked into public views on terrorism, attitudes to Roma people, bullying and harassment, and equality of immigrants and gay people.
The law establishing Ombudsmen give great discretion for interpretation. Some offices elsewhere play a more passive and juridical role but San Sebastián’s Inigo Lamarca considers himself to be a community activist. He is confident about the prospects for San Sebastián to accept and integrate with many more foreign residents. Partly because there is a long history of Basques and Spaniards integrating. Also because the remarkably high number of local NGOs with expertise. His main concern is what the effect of rising unemployment of ethnic Basques will have on this.
There have been few claims made so far by migrants but this is probably due to lack of awareness on their part. The Ombudsman believes he has to make a special effort to publicise his services to them. Also he needs to ensure the municipality is rigorous in registering all foreign residents, though he acknowledges San Sebastián is a much better performer in this regard than many other Basque municipalities.
The minority which requires the most protection from abuse is the Roma. There are numerous cases of discrimination in the labour market and housing and of inappropriate behaviour by the police. Again, taking a proactive stance, he has initiated a joint protocol with the police to respect diversity and to give officers diversity training.
His other priority is undocumented minors who arrive in search of work. Since the recession many have become unemployed and risk falling into crisis. He lobbies for the setting up of education and pastoral care to ensure they are not socially-excluded.