Conference in Kiev: Human Rights Online & Ombuds(wo)men in the Eastern Partnership and Russia
The International Society for Human Rights was honored to host the second of three conferences as a part of its project in support of human rights bloggers from the Eastern Partnership and Russia in Kiev, Ukraine this past weekend.
The themes of the conference were related to the blog forum for activists ‘Human Rights Online’, and to the ombudsman/woman structures in each country of the Eastern Partnership and Russia. Representatives from ISHR sections in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and the Ukraine, as well as from the German section, were in attendance and contributed to a lively exchange of ideas and information throughout the weekend. This meeting, as with the previous meeting in Bonn, Germany, and the coming meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia, was supported by the German Foreign Office.
Day one was devoted to discussing the future of Human Rights Online, including how to improve its structure, its functionality for bloggers, and its appeal for viewers, as well as strategies for attracting more visitors and spreading the word about the site. Google analytics was used to judge which posts received the most clicks, and which pages were most popular with viewers, which helped bloggers to identify what types of content is most interesting and effective. A further discussion addressed creation of high quality content, including what kinds of information and news are the best fit for blogs on the site. Later in the evening, time was spent together as a group, exploring the city and enjoying one another’s company over dinner.
Day two revolved around the ombudsman/woman structures in each country represented at the conference. Ombudsmen/women are individuals and/or institutions tasked with acting as mediators between society and the state, which are responsible for observing public institutions, agencies, and authorities, and investigate and respond to the claims of citizens who believe their rights have been violated. A representative from Azerbaijan explained the background of ombuds-institutions in the country, as well as the current ombudswoman, who is in her 16th year of service, reaching age 80 this month. It was implied that her role is indeed a state one and not an independent one, which limits her ability to carry out her role. According to a representative from Russia, the situation and limitations of the current ombudswoman are similar to those in Azerbaijan and in other countries of the region.
An ISHR representative from Armenia reported on the Armenian ombudsman, who is able to visit any prison or government institution; however, because he/she is chosen by the sitting parliament, he/she is typically a member of the majority party in power. She noted that frequently, after their terms end, ombuds(wo)men frequently join oppositional parties. Representatives from Belarus noted that the ISHR section in their country has long lobbied for a structure similar to an ombuds(wo)man, but at this point there is no independent ombudsman operating in the country. It is written in the Belarussian constitution that the duties of the ombudsman are to be carried out by the sitting president.
Representatives from Georgia explained that their ombuds(wo)man, or public defender as he/she is referred to, has a relatively strong role and position in their society. Last year, he received over 8,800 claims to investigate. In Moldova, according to a Moldovan representative, has a central office and four regional offices for ombuds(wo)men with more than 30 staff members. As in most other countries, it has a modern website, and it issues a report in Romanian, Russian and English languages each year. However, despite their high quality reporting work on the human rights violations occurring in the country, their influence in making actual changes remains very limited. In the Ukraine, the ombuds-institution is referred to as the Commission for Human Rights, to which over 19,000 appeals were filed in 2015.
On day 3, time was spent with board members of the Ukrainian section, in discussion over their current work and the status of the country as a whole. They reflected that there were continuing problems in the country, which had not improved as a result of the protests on the Maidan and the change of regime. They mentioned that nationalism was rising, people continue to be killed daily in the eastern Ukraine, and the education system and the economy are deteriorating. Overall, they illustrated a grim picture that demonstrates the ongoing need for advocacy for human The results of the conference have showed a general pattern, that the stronger the democratization in the country, the stronger and more independent the ombuds(wo)men structures. Nearly all of the countries have ombuds(wo)men operating in the country, but often they are unable to act independently of the state, and therefore are very limited in the extent to which they can objectively investigate and criticize the functioning of the government. However, that these structures exist at all is a positive starting point for future efforts to further democratization and uphold human rights. In other words ‘something is better than nothing’, but there is still a lot of work to do! This makes the work of Human Rights Online and its contributors all the more important for the future of the region.rights and democratization in the country and in the region more generally.
The results of the conference have showed a general pattern, that the stronger the democratization in the country, the stronger and more independent the ombuds(wo)men structures. Nearly all of the countries have ombuds(wo)men operating in the country, but often they are unable to act independently of the state, and therefore are very limited in the extent to which they can objectively investigate and criticize the functioning of the government. However, that these structures exist at all is a positive starting point for future efforts to further democratization and uphold human rights. In other words ‘something is better than nothing’, but there is still a lot of work to do! This makes the work of Human Rights Online and its contributors all the more important for the future of the region.