Published on 30 April 2018
Can I firstly begin by thanking Ambassador Byrne Nason, and Ambassador Kickert, for their opening remarks and for setting the scene for today’s event. I am also grateful to their colleagues, the Ambassadors for Thailand and Zambia for their co-hosting.
We are gathered here today to mark an important anniversary, 40 years since the birth of the International Ombudsman Institute. However, the IOI is relatively youthful when compared to the development of the Ombudsman. As we’ve heard, the first modern Ombudsman was appointed in Sweden more than 200 years ago. The Office was seen as having a vital supervisory role in the context of the development of a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. It was there to ensure that ordinary people were properly treated.
My Office, and those of Austria and indeed that of Diane in Dayton Ohio who is speaking here today are of the classical model dealing with maladministration. In well-established democracies the Ombudsman ensures that people receive the services they are entitled to and are well treated by the state. We investigate complaints and seek to resolve them. As time has gone on, our services have become increasingly agile and responsive. We aim to put things right for people, and to get them redress when things have gone wrong. I resisted the temptation to say citizens. We’re there for citizens of course, but also for other people who live in our countries. Many Offices work with foreign nationals, with refugees and with asylum seekers, to ensure that they too can access the services to which they’re entitled, and that they are well treated by the state.
We are an alternative to the courts, but we’re more than that. Courts can be expensive and intimidating. You may need to be represented. The consideration of the issues can be confrontational. There may be considerable cost. The formality of the process can be off-putting.
That said, the courts will always be the only appropriate solution for some issues, but when they’re not, the Ombudsman can often help. We’re free to use and we are inquisitorial rather than adversarial. Like the courts, we are objective. We’re not advocates, we aim to get to the bottom of the complaint and establish the facts.
We are also fundamental in upholding the rule of law. However, we don’t stop there. Our aim is to seek justice and fair treatment. If the treatment of our complainant is compliant with the law, but the outcome isn’t fair, then we will still identify it as maladministration and seek to have the person put back in the position they would have been in if the maladministration had not occurred.
It doesn’t stop there either. If we can see that the injustice may have affected other people, we can and do extend our investigations to establish the systemic causes, and look to have them put right. Sometimes, you have a cluster of complaints suggesting that there may be a systems failure. On other occasions, the underlying issues in a single complaint can lead you to the same conclusion. Often, correcting systemic problems leads to people who didn’t complain to you having their issues resolved. This can be a matter of life and death. I’ll give you an example from my own practice. Correcting failures in an administrative system that meant people with cancer were not being recalled for vital follow up appointments, ensured that people received treatment in a timely way and avoided the situation where their cancer became untreatable.
In the classical model, the Ombudsman makes recommendations and does not have binding powers. This is not the obstacle it might appear, however, as there is very considerable compliance with recommendations. As you’ve heard, in 34 years in Ireland, there are no instances where recommendations have not been accepted.
Why is this, you may ask. Well most of us are based on the Parliamentary model. We report to our Parliament, or other elected body. We help the Parliament hold the executive to account. If there is resistance to our recommendations, we can turn to the Parliament to focus attention on the issue and this is usually sufficient to ensure that our reports lead to redress and the necessary change. Ombudsman Offices also use the media judiciously to focus attention on injustice and to support the case for resolution and improvement.
The Ombudsman is open to all users of public services. People can come to our offices, or contact us by phone email or on-line. Howsoever, most of us don’t just sit back and wait for people to come to us. Where people are hard to reach, we go to them. Staff from Ombudsman offices regularly go to prisons, to camps and accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees, to people in institutional care including people with disabilities and older people, and to people living in remote rural areas. We make our services accessible in minority languages and in easy access formats. Our colleagues from Austria have their own TV show, and many have radio programmes. We try to make sure that we are known to the people who need us, and seek out the people who can’t easily get to us.
One Ombudsman described the job as “investigating complaints and improving services”. For the classical Ombudsman, that is a very fair description.
However, not every Ombudsman is based in a long standing democracy. The spread of the Ombudsman concept has seen it evolve and develop to respond to the differing challenges in the countries and contexts in which it works. From the very early days, Ombudsman offices have dealt with access to information. The Swedes not only gave us the Ombudsman, they were also the first to adopt freedom of information. Their Ombudsman has had a role in overseeing this from the start, and other Offices, including mine, have taken this on in more recent years.
One of the most important trends we have witnessed is the development of the Ombudsman as a Human Rights institution. In the emerging and re-emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, the creation of Ombudsman Offices was seen as a cornerstone of the protections designed to prevent a return to totalitarianism and to secure the rights of the people. These Offices have distinguished themselves in their work for minority groups and in upholding human rights and equalities generally. Many have faced significant challenges to their work, to their funding, and even to their very existence, because they have been prepared to defend the rights of the individual.
The role of the Ombudsman as Human Rights Defender is also prominent in Central and South America and I am very pleased that we have colleagues from FIO with us here today.
The development of the Ombudsman in Africa is of particular significance. Many of these Offices face very real challenges, and this is particularly so as they often have a role in anti-corruption. We see this role also being part of the work of some of our Asian colleagues and indeed, of some Offices in Europe.
The example of the former South African Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, in highlighting the misuse of public funds by the then President shows how effective this role can be in tackling corruption. The courage required to take on powerful forces should not be underestimated.
It is self-evident that all of these roles of the Ombudsman, in promoting good administration, in securing human rights, in promoting openness and transparency, in fighting corruption, in creating access to justice and in upholding the rule of law give them a unique position in ensuring the success of Agenda 2030, especially in the context of Goal 16. Our Offices can and do “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
In order to be effective, Ombudsman Offices have always worked together. The role can be a lonely one, because the independence which is an essential characteristic means that we must maintain a distance from the bodies in our jurisdictions. By working together, we can share best practice, develop effective training, support colleagues under threat and promote the adoption and development of the Ombudsman concept worldwide.
There are many specialist and regional groupings of Ombudsman Offices, but only one global organisation whose 40th birthday we celebrate this year. The International Ombudsman Institute was founded in Canada, and is now headquartered in Vienna with support from the Austrian Government. You will hear more about our history from Diane in a moment, but I want to say a little about our present and our future.
The IOI has almost 190 members drawn from 90 countries worldwide. We have grown as the Ombudsman concept has spread across the world. Our members are generally parliamentary Ombudsman Offices dealing with complaints about public services. We are rooted within human rights practice, and have funded the development of a toolkit and training programme for our members who are not NHRIs, to ensure that human rights is a cornerstone of their work.
We are promoting the development of Ombudsman Offices where they do not already exist, and the evolution of existing Offices to ensure that they meet the highest standards and adopt the best practice.
We provide extensive training in all aspects of Ombudsman work. We take active steps to support our members who are under threat. We produce papers to promote the adoption of best practice throughout our membership.
We have stringent membership criteria, because although we want to be inclusive, we recognise the need to maintain standards, especially around independence and objectivity. We believe these can form the basis of an internationally recognised and UN endorsed set of criteria for recognising Ombudsman Offices equivalent to the Paris Principles for NHRIs.
For an Ombudsman to be fully independent, they need not to be accountable to bodies in their jurisdiction, they need to be appointed in an open and independent fashion and they need to have sufficient funding to do their job. They must be able to appoint their own staff. They must have sufficient powers to access information and require the co-operation of witnesses. They need to be able to report to the elected body which appoints them, both through annual reports and through special reports when necessary, especially if the administration does not accept a recommendation. They should preferably be able to initiate investigations on their own motion, as well as accept complaints about public services. In their jurisdiction. They should preferably have a fixed term of office which is of a sufficient length and they should not be open to removal except on very restricted grounds and then only following a qualified majority vote in the relevant elected body.
We believe that in this our 40th anniversary year, the time is right to deepen the relationship between the UN and the IOI and place it on a more formal basis. This is especially the case given the critical role that Ombudsman Offices worldwide can play in delivering agenda 2030. We hope that today can be the first day of that new partnership which can see us contribute fully to realising the sustainable, peaceful, inclusive and just future to which we all aspire.
I am delighted now to hand over to my esteemed colleague and IOI First Vice President, Diane Welborn, who chaired the editorial board for our new publication, A Mission for Justice - The International Ombudsman Institute 1978 to 2018.