23 September 2016
Posteado en : Opinion
Carmen Comas-Mata, director of the advisory board of the Ombudsman's Office, talks to us about the importance of cooperation.
In my extensive experience in charge of international relations at the Ombudsman’s Office, which is also the national institution concerned with human rights under terms of the United Nations Organisation, I have been able to see the importance of cooperating in human rights first-hand, not just to merely ensure that the beneficiary countries achieve certain minimum standards of respect and protection for these rights but also to enhance the prestige of Spain abroad.
People talk of “Brand Spain” to showcase to the world the successes achieved by our athletes and companies. But we shouldn’t leave it there: over the past 40 years, Spain has been an example of respect for human rights, and we can show the world how we had an exemplary transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, where we accepted a constitution that establishes the citizen as a subject of rights and established effective mechanisms for their protection. One of the main players in this transition was an extra-judicial institution, the Ombudsman’s Office, which is responsible for ensuring that public administrations respect these rights. Moreover, it is one of the institutions of this type with the most power in the world.
Therefore, I feel especially proud of having been able to help enhance the image and prestige of my country by working in cooperation with human rights in countries of the former Soviet Union, like Kazakhstan and Armenia, and in other ones closer to us, like the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and, most recently Turkey. Through EU Twinning projects, with the invaluable help of FIIAPP, we have helped to start or have strengthened other ombudsman institutions. The importance of sister institutions collaborating wholeheartedly in the same direction, improving action procedures, learning from one another, and thus being able to better serve citizens, the only reason for our existence, is something I understand to be unimpeachable and very positive.
One of our priority objectives is, of course, Ibero-America. The expansive force of human rights has made everyone see the need to intensify collaboration with the ombudsmen in other countries, especially those in Ibero-America by holding meetings within a new organisation that took the name Ibero-American Federation of Ombudsmen (FIO). Its purpose was, and is, to lay the groundwork for fruitful international cooperation, particularly in countries that share a common culture and past. That cooperation is expressed and made concrete through the implementation of practical and effective programmes for training specialised personnel and promoting the establishment and solidity of the ombudsmen in all of the nations in the Ibero-American community.
There is work being done in areas as important as immigration, human trafficking, youth, women and prisons. Precisely this field, that of cooperation in prison matters, and ultimately, the care of Spanish prisoners abroad, is one that can benefit most from Spanish cooperation. It is necessary to make our sister countries in America see that ensuring that sentences are served under humane conditions is as important as fighting crime. This is one of the most important duties we have today.
We also work with countries in the Mediterranean region. The Arab Spring represented a threat to the incipient ombudsman institutions that were being created, but in some countries it is also turning out to be an opportunity to better adapt to international standards. Cooperation with these countries takes place through the Association of Mediterranean Ombudsmen, the purpose of which has always been to give strength and consistency to the ombudsman institutions of the Mediterranean basin, as a secure channel for affirming democracy in the area, as well as to initiate action consisting of international collaboration to cooperate within the framework of the good neighbour policy.
The ombudsman is the friendly voice that listens to us, informs us and, if possible, helps us to improve our lives and solve our problems; and, above all, it is the last hope of dozens of people whom public authorities — culpably, intentionally or accidentally — have passed over them like bulldozers.
Let’s not forget that we are all citizens, whether Spaniards or foreigners, and therefore strengthening our institutions here and there with cooperation projects means strengthening our system of freedoms.
22 July 2016
Posteado en : Interview
El Defensor del Pueblo es el organismo encargado de defender los derechos fundamentales y las libertades públicas de los ciudadanos. Se trata de una institución independiente que, como tal, desempeña sus funciones con independencia e imparcialidad, con autonomía y según su criterio. Además, el Defensor del Pueblo ha colaborado con la FIIAPP en diferentes proyectos de cooperación internacional. El último sobre la puesta en marcha de la oficina del Defensor del Pueblo en Turquía.
Soledad Becerril, the Ombudsman since 2012, was the first woman to hold the office in Spain. In this interview, she tells us what the work of the Ombudsman’s Office consists of:
Do all citizens have access to the Ombudsman’s Office?
All citizens have access to the Ombudsman’s Office, on a non-discriminatory basis and, we hope, without any type of difficulty. Because, for submitting their complaints, they have toll-free numbers they can call, they can write to us directly by sending a letter, come into the Ombudsman’s Office physically to explain their problem and, of course they can also do so via Internet, using e-mail or through our website.
What types of complaints does the Ombudsman handle?
Complaints about public administrations. The Ombudsman does not handle complaints between private citizens or private institutions or businesses.
We also act through the corresponding ministry in the case of large companies that provide public services, such as telephony or transport, or, for example, matters related to banks, through the Bank of Spain. But we handle all types of situations and problems. In relation to disabled people, problems with local taxes, matters involving the national tax agency, waiting lists in hospitals, etc. In short, all types of problems and circumstances.
Are all of the complaints in Spain brought before the Ombudsman handled in Madrid, or are there also branch offices in the self-governing communities?
We cover the entire Spanish territory. There are also Ombudsman’s Offices in ten self-governing communities which have the capacity to act within the jurisdiction of the particular community.
How many complaints are received each year by the Ombudsman’s Office?
Around 20,000. And, a great number of them are submitted by individuals. Although groups, associations and institutions can also contact us.
In 2015, in the annual report we present every year to parliament, we realised that 50,000 people had submitted documents requesting action from the Ombudsman.
Are there priority issues for the Ombudsman’s Office?
We don’t have priority issues. What we do is to try to identify situations that are more urgent than others. For example, if there is a person in an irregular administrative situation who is about to be deported and we are aware that there are also circumstances of vulnerability involved, very unique or very special ones, we act rapidly before the person is deported.
If we are aware that a minor’s situation is very dramatic or very difficult, these situations are handled before other ones, but all issues are addressed.
What are the main challenges facing the Ombudsman’s Office?
The greatest challenge is to reach the greatest possible number of people and to ensure that the greatest number of people with a problem know how to contact the Ombudsman and can do so. That’s why the website is so important. To make us visible and make the population understand what we do, to be appreciated. This is fundamental, having the trust of citizens.
What are the greatest difficulties?
The same difficulties that all administrations, local governments, regional community governments or the national government have; budgetary problems related to getting more money allocated to assistance, social or health services.
What is the role of the Ombudsman in other countries?
Most countries in the European Union have ombudsman’s offices, as well as Ibero-American and some Mediterranean countries. We have helped them and assisted in training the teams working in these ombudsman’s offices.
Most recently we were in Turkey for two years (through a project managed by FIIAPP and financed by the European Commission). We showed them how we work in Spain and collaborated in training the staff there. In addition, we have an ongoing relationship of collaboration with the Ibero-American ombudsman’s offices, which follow the Spanish model.
What has the Spanish Ombudsman’s Office contributed in Turkey?
We provided part of the necessary training to its teams: how to handle matters, which areas they can take action in, how action can be taken, how to contact administrations, monitoring of legislation in force, respect for human rights… in sum, all of these fields.
How are Turkish citizens benefiting from this project?
Turkey is a very large country, with 80 million inhabitants; extending the action of the Ombudsman throughout the entire geography and to all Turkish citizens is going to take some time and a great deal of effort. But I hope that little by little they achieve it.
Are there plans to work on more projects in other countries?
If other projects come up, yes. We’ll do it based on requests for our help.
What is the role of the Ombudsman in refugee issues?
This is a very complicated issue because the procedures are quite convoluted, but the position of the Ombudsman is to carry out monitoring to ensure that Spain fulfils its commitments in this area. From the Ombudsman’s Office we speak out in favour of receiving, welcoming and integrating the people arriving in our country.