By Maaike de Langen
Ombuds institutes exist in over 100 countries around the world. While the exact modalities vary, in general they receive and address complaints about public services. They offer people free and easy access to justice, with few procedural requirements to communicate their grievances. They apply a flexible approach to resolving problems, using fact-finding, mediation, public reporting, and other methods to respond to injustices.
Many different types of organizations, from universities and businesses to municipalities and civil society organizations, are aligning their work with the UN’s 2030 Agenda. Ombuds institutes – which are organized at the global level through the International Ombudsman Institute –have been slow to join their ranks and articulate their contribution to the achievement of the SDGs.
In the UN General Assembly resolution on the role of ombudsman institutions adopted in late 2020, there is no mention of the Sustainable Development Goals. This is a missed opportunity, since ombuds institutes can and should take action to contribute to the achievement of these universal goals. Here are eight things they can do:
- Contribute to closing the global justice gap
The most direct contribution that ombuds institutes can make is to the achievement of SDG 16 on peaceful, just and inclusive societies which aims to provide equal access to justice for all. Research done for the Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice, estimated that globally 1.5 billion people have unresolved justice problems. Getting access to public services is among the most common justice problems: For 19% of those with a justice problem, it relates to accessing public services.
Resolving people’s problems with public services, is at the heart of the work that ombuds institutes perform around the world, enhancing access to public services with free, simple, accessible, and informal complaint-handling This is their most direct contribution to the SDGs: Increasing access to justice and resolving problems related to public services contributes to closing the global justice gap.
- Support the shift to people-centered justice
Ombuds institutes can contribute to a broad shift to people-centered justice. Typically, ombuds institutes are less restricted by procedural requirements than other justice actors. They are therefore in a better position to innovate their services and discover what works best to resolve people’s justice problems.
More than other justice actors, they can focus on the delivery of people-centered justice services, which is critical to the achievement of justice for all. These experiences can contribute to innovations that improve the quality of justice journeys and help develop approaches to achieve better justice outcomes. As such they can help set a broader agenda for change for the justice sector, where civil, criminal, and administrative courts and tribunals can learn from the experiences of the ombuds institute.
- Focus on those furthest behind
The promise to leave no one behind, which is central to the SDGs, implies that public investments should be targeted to those who need them most. Ombuds institutes can identify the particular groups needing public services and ensure their access.
In addition, it is crucial to empower those that are at risk of being left behind, and enable women, youth, minority groups, people with disabilities, and others to stand up for their rights. There is a particular role here for ombuds institutes with a specific focus group such as children, veterans, or prisoners.
- Use the SDGs as a normative framework in their assessment of complaints
The core business of ombuds institutes is dealing with complaints in an independent manner. This independence is critical for their legitimacy and ombuds institutes therefore avoid taking a political position in their actions and their assessments. Because of this, there is a tendency to concentrate on procedural norms.
However, since the SDGs have been adopted as universal goals, they can be used to include a more substantive assessment of complaints, providing material norms against which to assess complaints, in addition to the mostly procedural requirements of proper conduct. This enables a broader evaluation of public conduct and contributes to fair outcomes.
- Use the SDGs to prioritize topics for investigation
In addition to dealing with individual complaints, ombuds institutes can conduct investigations on their own initiative, so-called own motion investigation. Based on their findings, they make recommendations to the executive branch. Such normative work influences the behavior of public authorities. Ombuds institutes can use the SDGs as a framework to decide and prioritize topics for their own motion investigations as well as their strategic agenda.
- Provide input to their country’s Voluntary National Review
Countries can choose to report on their progress in implementing the SDGs by submitting a Voluntary National Report (VNR) to the UN’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Nearly all UN member states have submitted reports, and the quality of VNRs is increasing over time. Just like National Human Rights Institutes, Ombuds institutes can provide data and evidence as input to the national VNR process, in particular when it comes to the achievement of SDG 16.
- Integrate the SDGs in their own organization
Looking at the wide range of topics covered by the 2030 Agenda, ombuds institutes can implement actions inspired by SDGs in their own management practices. For example, they could evaluate energy use in their offices (SDG 7) or adopt sustainable procurement processes (SDG 12). In terms of gender equality (SDG 5), they can ensure equal pay for equal work for their staff and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of the organization.
- Publish the world’s first Voluntary Ombuds Review (VOR)
Modeled on the VNRs, different types of organizations have reviewed their own contributions to the achievement of the SDGs. In 2018, New York was the first city to publish a Voluntary Local Review. In recent years Voluntary University Reviews have also emerged. Ombuds institutes could follow suit by publishing a Voluntary Ombuds Review.
Ombuds institutes and the SDGs
As this list demonstrates, ombuds institutes are well-placed to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, because of their unique role in the social justice landscape in their respective countries. At the global level, ombuds institutes and the IOI should articulate and leverage this contribution to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
The recent UNGA resolution was hailed by the IOI as “the culmination of the International Ombudsman Institute’s work to develop a closer relationship with the UN.” When the IOI gathers for its 12th World Conference and General Assembly at the end of May 2021, it may want to discuss correcting the omission of important references to the 2030 Agenda in the resolution. It could also work with the UN to ensure that the forthcoming report of the UN Secretary-General on the role of ombuds institutions, specifically addresses their potential for advancing the SDGs. Let’s not miss this opportunity to articulate the role of ombuds institutions, and in particular their contribution to providing equal access to justice for all.
This guest article is authored by Maaike de Langen, Program Lead Justice for All, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, NYU Center on International Cooperation.
The article is drawn from a forthcoming book chapter by the author, which analyzes people-centered justice and the role of Ombuds institutes in providing justice for all in more detail. For more information contact: email@example.com