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On the role of human rights institutions in times of crises in Strasbourg

Slovenian Human Rights Ombudsman Peter Svetina attended a two-day conference of the European Network of Ombudsmen (ENO) in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Hosted by the offices of the European and French human rights ombudsman's offices, representatives of European national and regional ombudsman institutions and other participants active in this field discussed the role of ombudsmen in times of crises. At the forefront of the talks was action during the coronavirus pandemic, which has further accelerated the digitalisation of many aspects of people's lives, and tackling the consequences of the war in Ukraine, from where more than five million people have fled throughout Europe in recent months. To this end, the EU has activated the Temporary Protection Directive, which provides these Ukrainian refugees access to housing, employment, healthcare and education in the EU Member States. The conference was opened by European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

The participants of the conference agreed that digitalisation has gained further momentum due to the coronavirus pandemic in Europe and the world. It has had a significant effect on society and the economy, and its expansion will strengthen not only the positive, but also its negative effects on areas with weaker economies, poorer and less educated or uneducated populations without the opportunity to access the Internet and digital skills, and areas with a high unemployment rate. With the Digital Compass, the European Commission has set the increase in the number of adults with at least basic digital skills to 80% by 2030 as one of its key goals. Ombudsman Peter Svetina welcomed the fact that this goal is also pursued by the vision of Digital Slovenia 2030, which intends to improve the quality of life of the population of Slovenia in a sustainable, green and trustworthy way by means of the digital transformation of all segments of society. According to the Ombudsman, the gold standard for countries and governments in this field should be to maintain contact with people, which is certainly one of the major pitfalls of digitalisation. "Special attention must be paid to vulnerable groups of people who are facing health or other limitations. In the field of digitalisation of public administration matters, the availability of information and services is all the more important. It is necessary to have individual users and their limitations in mind and to offer them friendly, advanced and safe services that they will be able to use, regardless of age or psychophysical abilities," Ombudsman Svetina noted in the European Parliament.

The human rights ombudsmen agreed that the institutions they lead are of paramount importance in supervising the functioning of national, regional and local authorities. At the moment, one of the most important areas is certainly the so-called refugee issues. In talks on the fringes of the conference with counterparts from Brussels, Catalonia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Estonia and Finland, Ombudsman Svetina again called for a single mechanism for monitoring refugees to be established in the EU Member States and for non-discriminatory treatment and proper registration of refugees in order to protect them against possible abuse. He said that, to this end, countries should include structures for fighting trafficking in human beings, as should the police, in their refugee-related activities, as well as strengthen cooperation with relevant non-governmental organisations. According to Svetina, enhanced cross-border cooperation and the flow of information, including through Europol, are also needed to prevent abuse. As he noted, it should be borne in mind that refugees who are coming from Ukraine are mostly women, children, persons with disabilities and the elderly, i.e. groups of people who are vulnerable by default, which is why protection of refugees must be strengthened in all receiving countries. He also discussed this in a bilateral meeting with Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova.

On the fringes of the conference, Ombudsman Svetina also met Andrej Slapničar, the head of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Slovenia to the Council of Europe. At the initiative of the Slovenian Ombudsman, the Greek Ombudsman Andreas Pottakis and the Dutch Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphe, they also met with the European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly. They discussed the work and role of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in the field of protection of fundamental human rights at the external borders of the EU and noted the expectation that the mandates of ombudsman institutions to carry out border monitoring would be strengthened. The interlocutors also touched on the possibility of active cooperation with the institution of the European Ombudsman in the field of training and education.

The European Network of Ombudsmen (ENO) was established in 1996 to connect the European Ombudsman, national and regional human rights ombudsmen and the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament. The network is coordinated by the European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly.