Strengthening Ombudspersons in Central and Eastern Europe

June 15, 2020
Luka Glušac
3 min read
A common new institutional development in the process of accession by Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries to the European Union has been the establishment of ombudspersons to protect the r

A common new institutional development in the process of accession by Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries to the European Union has been the establishment of ombudspersons to protect the rule of law and human rights. Today, in a climate of rule-of-law backsliding, the ombudspersons—as genuine democratic actors—should be supported. Situated among the three branches of governance, they are uniquely placed to monitor compliance with the rule of law and human rights. They can also provide institutional opposition to an authoritarian regime and regressive tendencies.

Governments should use ombudspersons’ findings to improve their work and that of the public administration when there is evidence of poor coordination or implementation. Ombudspersons and governments should be natural partners, not competitors or adversaries. However, when being openly critical of governments, ombudspersons are exposed to different formal and informal pressures, openly or covertly. In such circumstances, parliaments should protect ombudspersons since the legislative branch of government is institutionally positioned as their key supporter and partner. Yet, given the usual dominance of the executive over the legislature, it is not rare that the parliaments join campaigns against ombudspersons, labeling them as outlaws and adversaries.

The office needs strategic and unwavering support from external and domestic partners to be able to continue rigorous and persistent monitoring. In the case of ombudspersons in the CEE region, support from three types of actors can have a considerable impact on the government: the political opposition, civil society, and the EU institutions. The political opposition should use ombudspersons’ findings to reveal existing problems and insist on the implementation of their recommendations. Civil society organizations (CSOs) should use public space and the media to warn of problematic situations. They are also the best amplifiers of ombudspersons’ findings, with the ability to translate them into wider civic actions. Additionally, CSOs are usually well connected with international partners, which allows them to raise with international human rights bodies and key political actors, including the EU institutions, concerns about the problems ombudspersons face.

The EU institutions should use their presence on the ground and pressure from Brussels to assist ombudspersons in the short term. Regular progress reports for candidate countries and the new annual rule-of-law reports should be used to provide strategic long-term support to ombudspersons. The rule of law is receiving more emphasis in the EU’s accession process as well as in its internal policies. Closer ties between ombudspersons and EU delegations in candidate and potential candidate countries should be established to allow information exchanges. Similarly, more structured cooperation between the European Commission and the ombudspersons of member states is needed. Firmer cooperation between them should also serve as a deterrent to government pressure on ombudspersons, as information would travel quicker and would be received in the right part of the EU system.

These actors are also best placed to pressure ombudspersons when they are not performing as they should. The same channels may be used to raise concerns about ombudspersons’ performance. Parliamentary oppositions should insist on debating ombudspersons’ reports, comparing them to findings from other human rights actors. CSOs may use those opportunities to challenge ombudspersons’ findings. They can do the same by preparing their own reports, aimed either at the domestic public or at international human rights bodies, such as the UN treaty bodies or the Council of Europe’s monitoring bodies. There is also great potential to induce a positive change in ombudspersons’ performance through CSOs’ participation in their accreditation as a national human rights institution. For such an opportunity to be used more frequently by CSOs from the CEE region, it should be better advertised and promoted.

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