Ombuds institutes have a special role in the social justice landscape of their countries that enables them to make significant contributions to the achievement of the SDGs and help close the global justice gap.
A recent workshop allowed participating ombuds institutes to share their efforts to improve security sector governance as a core element of realizing SDG 16 on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.
By Maaike de Langen
Though violence and war dominate today’s headlines, many people around the world are tirelessly working for peace, security, and development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a framework to align such efforts with others and create synergies. Today, on International Ombuds Day, we mark the contributions of African ombuds institutes to the achievement of the SDGs, promotion of peace and security, and provision of justice for all.
Ombuds institutes have a special role in the social justice landscape of their countries that enables them to make significant contributions to the achievement of the SDGs and help close the global justice gap. A recent workshop brought together representatives of ombuds institutes – including national human rights institutions and parliamentary commissioners – from several African countries. The workshop was organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) as part of its project, Linking Good Security Sector Governance to SDG 16, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
Recognizing that violence can only be prevented, and peace sustained, when security actors operate fairly and in alignment with the rule of law and access to justice for all, the workshop allowed participating institutes to share their efforts to improve security sector governance as a core element of realizing SDG 16 on peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.
In Niger, the ombuds institute, Médiateur de la République, has worked to prevent abuses by security sector actors by empowering people who experience or witness such mistreatment to speak up and seek recourse. Abuses can include insults, bullying, threats, extortion, sexual abuse, harassment, or physical assault. Preventing and addressing such instances of mistreatment are critical in the fight against violent extremism, since research shows that grievances against state security actors over abuse are often a tipping point for joining violent extremist groups.
The ombudsman published a mapping of remedies and complaints mechanisms that lays out in detail who can complain, where, and how about abuses or misconduct of the police, the gendarmery, the national guard, and the armed forces. The guide, developed with support from DCAF, is a concrete step to increase access to justice (SDG target 16.3) as well as a contribution to the development of effective and accountable institutions (SDG target 16.6).
In Kenya, the Office of the Ombudsman published a report on the plight of Kenyan migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. According to official statistics, the government facilitated the employment of more than 87,000 Kenyans in the Middle East since January 2019. The investigation found that some migrant domestic workers experienced physical and sexual abuses or died under controversial circumstances, and that they had little recourse, despite the protections offered by international and regional human rights treaties, and the Kenyan constitution and national laws.
To ensure equal access to justice for all, this “law on the books” has to be translated into effective protection in real life, a task for the Kenyan authorities. The report recommends better coordination among the many actors involved, as well as practical measures, such as increasing capacity for the labor attachés in Saudi Arabia and the establishment of safe houses for Kenyans in distress. These recommendations are addressed to the Office of the President, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, and others who share the responsibility to promote decent work for all (SDG 8) and safe and secure working environments of all workers, including migrant workers (SDG target 8.8). Preventing physical and sexual abuses is also a direct contribution to SGD target 16.1 (reduction of all forms of violence everywhere).
In Togo, a 2018 presidential initiative led to the creation of Maisons de Justice, or houses of justice, meant to provide people with simple, fast, and free justice services. With 17 houses of justice operational throughout the country, the everyday justice problems they deal with include: frictions between neighbors, unpaid rent or debts, financial disputes related to local savings clubs (tontines), issues related to civil registry, and family problems such as divorce and inheritance.
The Togolese ombuds institute, le Médiateur de la Republique Togolaise, will come into play when it receives the annual reports of all houses of justice, bringing together valuable information about the most common justice problems people face, recurring issues of maladministration, and bottlenecks in the country’s legislative and regulatory systems. Learning from individual cases that occur throughout the country, the ombuds institute can promote structural improvements and increase access to justice (SDG target 16.3) and help develop effective and accountable institutions (SDG target 16.6).
In the Gambia, the National Human Rights Commission has a team that travels around the country to listen to people’s concerns and render advice in Mobile Legal Aid Clinics. The problems people bring forward relate to access to education, to healthcare facilities, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, to farmlands, and to clean drinking water, as well as issues relating to police bail and cattle theft and problems related to identity documents. Helping people resolve these problems is a direct contribution to SDG target 16.9 on legal identity and SDG target 16.3 on providing access to justice for all, as well as to SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 3 (good health and well-being) and SDG 2 (zero hunger).
To prevent violence at the hands of law enforcement during demonstrations and protests, the Gambian NHRC developed Guidelines on Policing Public Assemblies, a code of conduct for law enforcement to help ensure respect for human rights, protect public order, peace, and security, and enhance law enforcement in line with international standards. This helps protect civic space, improves security sector governance, and contributes to SDG target 16.1, the reduction of all forms of violence everywhere, and SDG target 16.10 on effective protection of fundamental freedoms.
Effective and accountable national security sectors are drivers of development. However, when they fail to provide security and deliver justice and fairness in people’s lives, or worse, when they are corrupt or abusive, they undermine trust and create grievances that can become a source of dissatisfaction, mobilization, and even violence. Ombuds institutes have an independent oversight role and can receive individual complaints and investigate matters pertaining to human rights abuses and maladministration by government institutions, including security sector actors.
As these examples show, African ombuds institutes are empowering people to stand up against abuses by state security actors. They are solving people’s problems in houses of justice or mobile legal aid clinics. They are calling attention to the plight of migrant workers. With these and similar efforts, African ombuds institutes are doing the painstaking work of building peaceful, just, and inclusive societies for all.
Maaike de Langen is Senior International Consultant, Advisor to the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, and Fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation. You can follow her on twitter @MaaikedeLangen.