Ombudsman, also referred to as Ombudspersons and/or Ombuds Institutions, can perform highly segmented monitoring, oversight, arbitration, and investigation roles in military institutions, law enforcement institutions and in the intelligence sector. In some nations, an Inspector General within a security sector agency can perform a similar function. Overall, any nation with an ombuds institution focused on human rights issues will face the challenge of monitoring the security sector and its agencies in one form or another.
What is an Ombuds Institution?
An ombudsman is defined by the International Bar Association as:
an office provided for by the constitution or by action of the legislature or parliament and headed by an independent high-level public official who is responsible to the legislature or parliament, who receives complaints from aggrieved persons against government agencies, officials and employees or who acts on his own motion, and who has the power to investigate, recommend corrective action, and issue reports.
According to Dean Gottehrer, the former president of the United States Ombudsman Association, an ombudsman must have the following essential characteristics:
- Impartiality and Fairness
- Credible review process
Ombuds institutions may have highly specific focus areas from banking to human rights or other issues. In terms of the security sector, human rights ombuds institutions, specialised police complaints and armed forces ombuds institutions are those dealing most with security governance issues.
How does it work?
The objective of the ombudsman is to protect the people against violation of rights, abuse of powers, error, negligence, unfair decisions, and maladministration. By doing so, the ombudsman contributes to improving public administration and making the government more transparent and accountable. A military ombudsman safeguards the rights of military personnel and encourages democratic and civil control of the armed forces. The ombudsman has the power to oversee the performance of the government and the ministries and, as a result, issue recommendations. Ombudsman should make oversight results public knowledge. Most commonly, the ombudsman institutions fulfil their mandates by:
- Receiving and investigating complaints from individuals, legal entities, or groups
- Monitoring the general situation of human rights within a country
- Educating the general public and government officials about human rights
- Developing, or improving, national legislation for the protection of human rights
- Issuing reports and recommendations
What should an effective Ombuds Institution look like?
The creation of an ombudsman institution should be an inclusive, multi-stakeholder process that considers the interest and needs of all relevant parties. Ombuds institutions should be established on a firm, legal foundation.
An essential function of the ombuds institutions is to receive and investigate complaints and to identify areas of public administration that are in need of improvement, or greater accountability. Investigations aim to resolve issues independently and impartially and to prevent their recurrence. Issuing reports and recommendations to the legislature and to the public at large is a key function of ombuds institutions. It is important that ombuds institutions are given appropriate power and resources in order to carry out their functions. Since effective monitoring is essential to ensuring that recommendations are properly and promptly implemented, ombuds institutions should set up comprehensive monitoring and information-gathering processes.
When it comes to ombuds institutions for the armed forces or police, they must acquire specialised knowledge required to perform their functions effectively with regard to relevant security sector components. This may require setting up dedicated, specialised bodies with a specific mandate to deal with complaints related to the armed forces.
For example, ombuds institutions for the armed forces should be independent from the government and the bodies that they are mandated to oversee. They should obtain and manage their funds independently from any institution over which they have jurisdiction.
Ombuds institutions should have the freedom to decide which matters and priorities to pursue and the freedom to investigate them to their conclusion. They should be able to choose their method of work. Access to information is crucial for the work of ombuds institutions, a matter that should be guaranteed by law. They should have the power to address the public and the media. Ombuds institutions should possess powers which impose legal requirements on relevant persons to appear before them or to provide them with specific information when requested to do so. They should also have the ability to communicate any lack of cooperation in their public report. Public reports are an important way of ensuring compliance with recommendations and drawing attention to issues that may not otherwise be open to much public or media scrutiny.
Additionally, there should be no limitation placed on the category of persons and organisations who can file a complaint with the ombuds institutions as long as those complaints fall under the mandate of the ombudsman. Ombudsman should offer their services free of charge and facilitate wide access to those services. A wide range of communication channels for filing complaints should be offered such as e-mail, post, and a dedicated hotline. Regular feedback on the status of complaints and investigations should be provided to all interested parties. A decision to reject a complaint should be accompanied by help, advice, and referral to alternative means of recourse.
Ombuds institutions should protect complainants from reprisals. An information management plan should be prepared covering confidentiality and including a communication policy.
Overall, an effective Ombuds Institution needs to have the capability and power to execute its mandate. This capability should be clearly established by legislation. An effective institution also needs to be financially and institutionally independent. Developing collaborative relationships with other oversight institutions and civil society is crucial, as well as raising awareness and educating the public about security sector governance.
Benjamin Buckland and William McDermott, Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces: A Handbook, (DCAF 2012)
Born Hans, Wills Aidan, DCAF-Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands (2012), Overseeing Intelligence Services: a Toolkit.
Centre for Integrity in the Defence Sector: Guides to Good Governance
Centre for Integrity in the Defence Sector. Criteria for good governance in the defence sector. International standards and principles (2015)
DCAF-UNDP (2007), Monitoring and investigating the Security Sector.
DCAF (2009), Security Sector Governance and Reform Backgrounder. New edition available here.
DCAF (2009), Security Sector Reform and Intergovernmental Organisations. Backgrounder. New edition available here.
Eden Cole and Katrin Kinzelbach (eds.), Monitoring and Investigating the Security Sector, (Bratislava: Renesans for UNDP, 2007)
Hans Born and Ian Leigh, Handbook on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Armed Forces Personnel, (ODIHR & DCAF, 2008)
Transparency International (2013) Watchdogs ? The quality of legislative oversight of defence in 82 countries. Government Defence and-corruption index.
Transparency International (2012). Building Integrity and Countering Corruption In Defence and Security. 20 Practical Reforms.
United Nations SSR task force, Security Sector Reform Integrated Technical Guidance Notes. 2012.
UNDP Bratislava Regional Centre, Guide for Ombudsman Institutions: How to Conduct Investigations, 2006.
 In Dean M. Gottehrer (2009), “Fundamental Elements of an Effective Ombudsman Institution.”