Jun 10, 2003

Fighting for basic rights

Latin American ombudsmen showed great courage in overcoming the indifference and abuse of governments in the region during the 1990s, noted Xavier Markiegi, a former ombudsman in Spain's Basque region.

In a presentation at the Inter-American Development Bank, Markiegi explained that while European ombudsmen were consolidating their citizens' second- and third-generation social, economic and environmental rights, ombudsmen in many Latin American countries were still fighting for such basic rights as life and liberty during the transition period over the past decade following authoritarian regimes.

Those distinctive circumstances, along with other region-specific characteristics such as centralized executive powers, prompted Markiegi to dub the term ombudsman criollo —an ombudsman native to Latin America.

Recalling his experience in the Basque Country, Markiegi emphasized the “culture of peace” that marked his efforts to bring two often-irreconcilable sides closer together.

“One of the greatest roles is that of mediator, that is, the ombudsman's power of persuasion,” he said. Of particular value, Markiegi added, is the ombudsman's opportunity to propose immediate actions that the government can take at no cost. “A lot of time and money are saved by avoiding legal proceedings that delay and complicate the process.”

Markiegi recommended that ombudsmen's offices in the region operate as a network and rely on nongovernmental organizations—which he called “societies' antennae”—to detect problems and propose effective solutions. He also called for more evaluation of ombudsman office performance and user satisfaction (i.e., the extent to which human rights have been protected in practice), as well as for the dissemination of positive results to the press.

The office of ombudsman is an independent institution established by parliament or congress. In some countries, however, these offices must still fend off efforts by the executive branch to control them through budgetary procedures or by preventing the selection of energetic staff. Markiegi hailed the institution of the ombudsman's office as a “pearl of democracy” that must be supported, above all, because of its critical role in supporting democracy.

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