Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, South Africa
Edition: AHRLJ Volume 6 No 1 2006
Pages: 251 - 253
Citation: (2006) 1 AHRLJ 251-253
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Volume 7 2003 Martinus Nijhoff Publishers (2005) 174 pages
The first parliamentary ombudsman was elected by the Swedish parliament nearly 200 years ago. Over the last few decades, the number of ombudsman institutions around the world has increased to the extent that by the end of 2004, the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), based in Canada, has 130 ombudsman institutions as members. The International Ombudsman Yearbook, published by the IOI since 1981 (before 1995 under the title The International Ombudsman Journal), fills an important role for ombudsmen from around the world to exchange experiences.
The volume here under review begins with a foreword with information on the IOI, followed by a welcoming speech by the Governor-General of Canada to the IOI conference held in Canada in September 2004 with the theme 'Balancing the obligations of citizenship with the recognition of individual rights and responsibilities — The role of the ombudsman'. Many of the papers in this volume were first presented at this conference, which is held every four years.
In his contribution, Louis LeBel, judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, discusses the relationship between democracy and cultural diversity. There are two different approaches to this issue. In the USA and France, democracy is seen as a tool for assimilation, while for example Canada, Belgium, India, South Africa and Switzerland seek to accommodate cultural diversity, though all groups must share some fundamental values. Judge LeBel favours the latter approach and finishes his contribution by pointing out the important role ombudsmen should play in accommodating cultural diversity.
The 1996 IOI conference set out four criteria to be fulfilled by ombudsman institutions: independence, accessibility, credibility and flexibility. In her chapter, Kerstin André, one of the four parliamentary ombudsmen of Sweden, discusses the importance for the ombudsman institution of flexibility in order to meet the changing needs facing societies over time. She also acknowledges that ombudsman institutions around the world cannot function according to one model, but that 'we, in our eagerness to adapt to the circumstances, must not forget about the significance of the role that we as ombudsmen are playing as supervisors of public governance and as guardians of fundamental human rights' (p 46).
Emily O'Reilly, ombudsman of Ireland, focuses on the need to adapt, in particular in the face of globalisation with its effect on privatisation, measures taken in the fight against terrorism and immigration. She argues that ombudsmen should give more focus to international human rights law in discharging their functions, whether they retain the traditional ombudsman role of dealing with maladministration, or whether they have a more human rights-focused mandate, as many newer ombudsman offices have.
Howard Kushner, ombudsman of British Columbia, Canada, addresses the question: 'How do you know you are doing a good job? Strategic plans, performance measures and surveys.' The issue of credibility is also addressed in an article by André Martin, ombudsman of Ontario, Canada, entitled 'Demonstrating your value'.
Some countries have established issue-specific ombudsmen, for example dealing with the rights of children and minorities. Jenö Kaltenbach, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities in Hungary, discusses the mandate and activities of this institution, which during its nine years in existence has received over 4 000 complaints. A contribution by Lisa Statt Foy deals with efforts to create an ombudsman for indigenous peoples ('first nations') in Canada.
The final contribution in the volume by Catarina Sampaio Ventura and Joo Zenha Martins deals with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, adopted jointly by the EU Council, Parliament and Commission in 2000. The authors discuss the added value of the Charter in the European legal order and the role the EU ombudsman and the ombudsmen of the individual member countries can play in realising the rights contained in the Charter.
Many of the articles in the Yearbook are written by people with practical experience as ombudsmen. None of the contributions in the current volume deals with Africa, where an increasing number of states now have ombudsman institutions. However, an index of articles published in the Yearbook, and the Journal that preceded it, shows that a number of articles in past volumes have dealt with ombudsman institutions in Africa. Hopefully ombudsmen from around the African continent will reflect on the lessons from other parts of the world that the contributions to the Yearbook provide and share their own experiences in future volumes of the Yearbook.