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Regional ombudsman conference: The Ombudsman Institution in South-Eastern Europe
A regional ombudsman conference, dedicated to reviewing ombudsmen’s work in South-Eastern Europe and considering substantial recommendations for its optimal performance, took place at the National Assembly on November 28-30, 2003. The event was organized by the Office of the Greek Ombudsman and the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) in cooperation with the Bulgarian Parliament and the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice.

The conference provided an opportunity for the participants to discuss the wide range of important issues encountered in the ombudsman’s daily work with emphasis on regional particularities. It incorporated participants and experts from almost all ombudsman institutions in South-Eastern Europe, the Office of the People’s Defender of Catalonia and the Austrian Ombudsman Board, from various national and international organizations, as well as Bulgarian officials and NGOs representatives, striving to establish and support such institutions.

The conference was opened by the Greek Ombudsman Mr. Yorgos Kaminis who welcomed the participants and expressed his hope for fruitful and interesting work of the conference. He underlined the most important requirements for creating an efficient and respectable ombudsman institution such as its incorporation in the Constitution, its election with qualified majority, high integrity of the office-holder, etc. Mr. Kaminis also greeted the participants on behalf of the European Ombudsman Professor Nikiforos Diamandouros.

The Deputy Chair of the Bulgarian National Assembly Mr. Ljuben Kornezov welcomed the guests of the conference on behalf of the Chair Professor Ognian Gerdzhikov and expressed his confidence that their work would contribute to gaining useful experience for the future establishment of the institution in Bulgaria.

Mr. Sevdalin Bozhikov, Bulgarian Deputy Minister of Justice, who greeted the participants on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, paid special attention to the significance of the ombudsman institution in building civil society and rule of law.

In his speech the Chairman of CSD Dr. Ognian Shentov underlined the important role of NGO sector in the process of establishing the ombudsman institution in Bulgaria and informing and raising public awareness on its functions and activities.

The event was divided into seven working sessions followed by a conference session and a brainstorming round table.

The first two sessions were moderated by Mr. Kaminis. The topic of the first session was compliance of administration with ombudsman recommendations, presented by the Kosovo Deputy Ombudsperson Mr. Nikë Lumezi and the Senior Investigator at the Office of the Greek Ombudsman Ms. Alexandra Delli. They pointed out that non-compliance with the recommendations of the ombudsman is a common problem but the ombudsman should be more persuasive and use different ways and channels in order to achieve consideration of his/her recommendations. Ms. Delli proposed several tools for improving the counteraction between the administration and the ombudsman institution, such as the establishment and strengthening of communication channels, including creation of network of liaison officers and “case-study” meetings with public officials.

The participants in the animated discussion that followed, unanimously shared the opinion that the ombudsman shall not impose sanctions to make the administration comply with its recommendations but find and use other mechanisms of persuasion, including the mass media, and keep its role of an impartial mediator in the relations between the citizens and administration.

The main speaker at the second session, dedicated to the rule of law and human rights, was the Director of the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Mr. Christos Giakoumopoulos. He spoke on the close connection between the rule of law and human rights and the considerable role the different ombudsman institutions can and should play in counteracting violations of human rights. Mr. Giakoumopoulos underlined that the ombudsman’s duty is to push the state to take measures whenever human rights are being violated either by the administration (in cases of maladministration) or by other citizens.

The next three working sessions were moderated by the Chair of the Court of Arbitration with the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Dr. Silvy Chernev.

The third session, dealing with the role of the ombudsman institution in the environmental and social protection, featured presentations by the Senior Investigators at the Office of the Greek Ombudsman Ms. Ioanna Koufaki and Ms. Rena Papadaki. They presented the specific character of the ombudsman’s activity in these fields, pointing out that the number of complaints concerning these matters increases every year. The broadening process of privatization of social services was stated as one of the most significant problems in the field as the question of whether the ombudsman may monitor and control social services in such cases stays open.

The fourth session was dedicated to the ombudsman and public communication featuring as key speakers the Chief Legal Advisor at the Office of the Austrian Ombudsman Board Mr. Michael Mauerer and the Senior Investigator at the Office of the Greek Ombudsman Mr. Miltiadis Pavlou. They both emphasized on the fact that the mass media and the consequent public communication opportunities are indispensable for promoting public awareness about ombudsman, gaining credibility and acceptance by the public and achieving greater accountability. Mr. Mauerer described the unique experience of the Austrian Ombudsman Board, which presents a weekly television program ever since its establishment in 1977. Both speakers noted that objectivity is the most important aim to be achieved in the relationship between the ombudsmen and the media.

The need of and the correlation between the national, regional and local ombudsman institutions was the fifth session topic, presented by the Deputy People’s Defender of Catalonia Dr. Enric Bartlett and the Investigator of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Human Rights Ombudsman Mr. Boris Topic. Both speakers presented the structure and operation of their offices and discussed the two main possibilities: either establishing ombudsman institutions on regional and/or local level or creating special units within the office of the national ombudsman, underlining that the state organization of the country is always to be kept in mind. During the course of the discussion that followed, different models and practices were debated, but the principle of proximity of the ombudsman to the citizens was considered to be of greatest importance.

The last two working sessions were moderated by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Religions Mr. Latchezar Toshev.

The sixth session was dedicated to the children’s rights with key speakers the Children Rghts Ombudsman of Greece Mr. Georgios Moschos and the FYR of Macedonia Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights Ms. Nevenka Krusarovska. Mr. Moschos presented the activity of the European Network of Ombudsmen for Children (ENOC) and enumerated its main tasks, among which is not only the investigation of the complaints received but also communicating with, informing for and educating children on their rights and promoting their participation in public life as well as education of adults on children’s rights and making policy and legislative proposals to the relevant bodies. Ms. Krusarovska presented the activity of the FYR of Macedonia Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights.

The speakers at the last session the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina Ombudsman Ms. Branka Mijatovic and the Senior Investigator at the Office of the Greek Ombudsman Ms. Andriani Papadopoulou delivered speeches on the ethnic relations: minorities and migration, pointing out some specific features of the ombudsman’s activities in that field.

The last working session was followed by a conference, moderated by the Justice at the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria Professor Emilia Drumeva, was aimed at summarizing the main topics and ideas discussed.

The concluding part of the event was a brief brainstorming round table, at which the participants shared their impressions of the conference work.

The Eunomia Project Manager Mr. Dimitris Christopoulos and the Eunomia Project Officer Mr. Dimitris Hormovitis presented the Eunomia Project, established within the framework of the cooperation between the Office of the Greek Ombudsman and the Directorate General for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and focused on the promotion of the ombudsman institution in South-Eastern Europe. They also described the activities undertaken under the project since its start in January 2001 and the plans for its development in the future.

The Rule of Law Expert at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mr. Berry Kralj and Mr. Enrico Vannucci from the Human Rights Awareness and Cooperation Division of the Directorate General of Human Rights of the Council of Europe presented the activities of these organizations for promoting the ombudsman institutions in South-Eastern Europe and their role for establishing democratic societies and strengthening the rule of law in the region.

The networking activities of CSD and the creation and work of the Ombudsman Information Network were presented by the Director of the CSD Law Program Dr. Maria Yordanova and the CSD Law Program Project Coordinator Mr. Dimitar Markov.

At the end of the conference representatives of all delegations expressed their gratitude to the organizers for providing them with a great opportunity for experience sharing and in-depth discussion and their readiness and desire for future cooperation. They wished good luck to the forthcoming establishment of the ombudsman institution in Bulgaria and successful work to the future Bulgarian Ombudsman who should be elected in the beginning of 2004.

Agenda of the conference
Media coverage
Law on the Ombudsman
Ombudsman Information Network
National and/or regional/local Ombudsman - presentation by Dr. Enric Bartlet, Deputy People's Defender of Catalonia
Comments and Notes on the Legal Framework Governing the Ombudsman Institutions in Bulgaria by the CSD Task Force
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