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Slovenia's Ombudsmen Looking at Their Terms in Office (feature)

01.01.2015 16:17
Category: work and news


Ljubljana, 1 January (STA) - The Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman in Slovenia is celebrating today 20 years since its establishment, in which it has taken huge steps from the humble beginnings to an institution which is recognised as the protector of human rights and whose opinion ought to be respected by politics.

Ivan Bizjak, who officially took over at the office on 1 January 1995 as Slovenia's first human rights ombudsman, looked back at the beginning of the institution in a statement for the STA, noting that he started "almost virtually from nothing".

According to him, the office faced tough challenges: establishing an institution, selecting candidates for deputies and other employees and finding suitable premises. The key challenge was making sure that the new institution is truly independent.

There was a risk of the institution becoming a toothless tiger, said Bizjak, who is convinced that the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman has become an institution trusted by the people and respected by politicians, which is "quite an achievement".

The institution also quickly gained international reputation, and contacts at the international level enabled the first human rights ombudsman in Slovenia to transfer good practices from well-functioning institutions to the fledgeling office.

Bizjak is happy that the concept has not disintegrated into several ombudsmen covering individual fields. "There were many such initiatives, and such a development would strongly relativize the role of the institution and undermine its importance and role."

Bizjak handed over the office in 2001 to Matjaž Hanžek, whose six-year term focused on solving the issue of the erased, thousands of ex-Yugoslav nationals who were deleted from Slovenia's permanent residence registry in 1992, and the Roma issues.

According to Hanžek, his term was marked by "settling of the relations between the majority population and various minorities", including the Roma, ex-Yugoslav nationals living in Slovenia and the Muslim community.

He told the STA that the conflicts between the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the state at the time were pronounced because "politics frequently instigated them, while hiding from the public other problems equally important for the country's development".

Hanžek pointed to non-payment of social security contributions for workers, which became a serious problem already in 2004. The ombudsman was warning about catastrophic consequences, but the government "shrugged" and presented the plans to build a mosque in Ljubljana as the main problem, he added.

The term of the third Human Rights Ombudsman Zdenka Čebašek Travnik between 2007 and 2013 was marked by the economic crisis and the resulting increase in poverty. She told the STA that the problem was identified by the office already in 2007, but the warnings were ignored by politics.

Čebašek Travnik noted that the national preventive mechanism under the UN Convention against Torture was established during her term, with the Slovenian model becoming an example for a number of other European countries.

Another important project in the 2007-2013 term, according to her, was the Children's Advocate project, which "developed a special model for providing help to children who find themselves in various legal proceedings".

Čebašek Travnik also pointed to the role of NGOs, which always had a wide open door at the ombudsman's office. The office and NGOs together detected irregularities in the work of state bodies and gave proposals for improvements, she said, adding that the most had been done in environmental protection.

Incumbent Ombudsman Vlasta Nussdorfer, who took over in February 2013, claims that the numbers show that the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman is a well recognised and successful institution whose recommendations should be respected and implemented.

The office receives around 12,000 calls and at least 4,000 written initiatives every year, she told the STA, adding that the institution is also becoming increasingly active when it comes to cooperation with NGOs and drafting legislation.

The office will carefully monitor which recommendations are being implemented and which not, instead of focusing only on writing new and repeating old recommendations, according to her.

With each annual report, which is submitted to parliament for debate, the human rights ombudsman puts a mirror in front of the state and its bodies, in which they have to take a look and react. Respecting and implementing the recommendations shows the state's attitude to individuals, associations and NGOs, Nussdorfer believes.

The main issues the office keeps pointing to in the annual reports are poor performance of inspection services, violations of labour legislation, the living conditions of the Roma community, overcrowded prisons and increasing poverty.


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