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East: Postcommunist Ombudsmen Persevere Despite Obstacles

Lukin: "The situation with the independence of courts in Russia is very bad" (epa) On 28-30 November, the Czech capital is hosting a conference of ombudsmen from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. So what is an ombudsman? The word is Swedish for "deputy" or "representative" and the post was first introduced in the Scandinavian country in the 18th century. Today, many countries have ombudsmen and their role is usually to investigate citizens' complaints against the government or its functionaries, to offer advice or seek redress in case of injustice. In the CIS states, ombudsmen are a very recent innovation, with many occupying their offices for only a couple of years. What problems do they face and what have they been discussing at the Prague forum, sponsored by the UN Development Program?

Prague, 29 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It’s not easy being an ombudsman in the postcommunist world. That’s the clear message from this week’s meeting of CIS and Eastern European ombudsmen in Prague.

For one, ombudsmen’s offices are usually understaffed and they are deluged by citizens’ complaints. After all, there is no shortage of injustice, abuse of power, and even occasional brutality on the part of the authorities in many countries in the CIS. And ordinary people bear the brunt.

But ombudsmen -- even when they have enough staff to register complaints against the authorities -- are often limited in their ability to offer help. More precisely, they can only make use of the available institutions.

This means that if someone claims ill treatment at the hands of the bureaucracy or the police, the ombudsman can help them bring a law suit. But the ombudsman cannot override a court judgment. He must depend on the impartiality of the court.

And that’s a big problem. According to Larisa Alaverdyan, Armenia’s ombudsman, only 15 percent of Armenians believe the country’s courts are fair and independent. "It is possible that judges issue fair judgments more often than what is reflected in the [low] percentage of public trust," she told RFE/RL. "But this low percentage of trust means there is a crisis in the judicial system in Armenia."

"The situation with the independence of courts in Russia is very bad," Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin told RFE/RL. "Everywhere I have been in the Russian regions there are very serious complaints about the actions of judges and the courts. In some regions they are clearly merging with the executive branch of power and they practically form the only mechanism for implementing the will of the executive branch and those who stand behind it."

"We should know that democracy works when every person is ready to defend his or her interests and rights. The work of an ombudsman -- his or her mission -- is to raise the level of real democracy and there are no limits here." -- Armenia's Alaverdyan

In some countries, ombudsmen can appear in court on behalf of clients. In other countries they are limited to a more passive role. The UN Development Program's Sergei Sirotkin said there is no one-size-fits-all model suitable for everyone. And most importantly, many institutions across the CIS -- from courts to ombudsmen’s offices -- are constantly being modified.

"There is no one ideal model. Definitely, we are still in a process of identifying what is the best, what is the most suitable [system] for a given situation," Sirotkin told RFE/RL. "As you know, the judiciary system is in the process of being reformed, of being rebuilt, of being redesigned in all CIS countries. And in that respect, it’s a very difficult balance [to strike]: what does the independence of judges, of courts mean on one side? And from the other side, which role could and should ombudsmen institutions play in such unpredictable and uncertain conditions, given the [imperfect] access to justice which we can find in all CIS countries?"

He noted a disturbing trend in recent years across the region but said human rights defenders have to persevere. "It's true that there are very troubling trends and tendencies in many CIS countries in terms of the strengthening of presidential power versus the parliament," Sirotkin said. "[There is a problem of a lack of] so-called grassroots democracy which we can observe in many CIS countries. But to my mind, it doesn’t mean that we should stop our efforts to build democratic institutions. Of course, to some extent, we are doing it to some extent with an eye on the future. But the future [will turn into reality] only if we do something right now."

Under current conditions, ombudsmen in the region can be most effective at resolving small conflicts -- before they get to court. "We have a unique group in my office, which as far as I know doesn't exist in any other ombudsman’s office, and that is a rapid reaction force," Larisa Alaverdyan told RFE/RL. "We have become very popular in Armenia since we established this group. They can be deployed in cases of arrest or evictions. Or they can be used in other cases. Let’s say someone on the street sees police detaining a citizen or mistreating him. They can call our hotline -- it’s anonymous -- and we can instantly send a car over with a group of no less than three people who try to resolve the situation on the spot."

Alaverdyan also said media publicity can be a very effective weapon. She noted that conditions in pretrial detention centers in Armenia have improved significantly since staffers from the ombudsman’s office started making prison visits and publicizing their findings.

So will greater democracy, independent courts and more honest civil servants -- if they ever come -- mean an end to the ombudsman? Not at all, according to Alaverdyan. Just look at Scandinavia. The more democracy there is, the more complaints there will be from an empowered citizenry and the more work the ombudsman will have. But that is how it should be.

"On the contrary. An ombudsman's work always leads to an increase in the number of complaints and to a simultaneous rise in the level of democracy -- precisely because of this," she said. "We should know that democracy works when every person is ready to defend his or her interests and rights. The work of an ombudsman -- his or her mission -- is to raise the level of real democracy and there are no limits here."

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