What Are Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces?
Ombuds institutions for the armed forces are an essential part of any transparent and accountable security sector. While they exist in a number of forms, ranging from national human rights institutions mandated to oversee and address complaints and concerns relating to all government bodies, of which the armed forces are just one narrow responsibility, to independent bodies mandated to oversee only the armed forces. However, while they may have varying mandates, all ombuds institutions for the armed forces share a number of elements. They are all independent and impartial, and they all play a crucial role in preventing and responding to both maladministration and human rights abuses within and/or by the armed forces.
By receiving and investigating complaints, as well as through reporting on thematic questions and systemic problems, ombuds institutions can have an important impact both on individuals, as well as improving good governance of the security sector and legislative environment as a whole. The prevention of maladministration and human rights violations are essential in a democratic society. Their prevention relies, in part, on the existence of a security sector that is both transparent and accountable. Such transparency and accountability can only be guaranteed through the establishment of independent and impartial bodies and the endowing of such bodies with the necessary resources and powers.
This model is integrated within the armed forces itself (usually under the title of inspector-general [IG]). IGs are usually (although not always) serving members of the armed forces and are usually situated within the chain of command. They may thus report to and/or take direction from superior officers. For this reason, this model of ombuds institution may be favoured by the armed forces. Advantages of this model are that IGs may be more receptive to command and control issues and more attentive to the need to protect and promote the operational effectiveness of the armed forces. IGs may also possess specialist knowledge of military life, making them more receptive to military-specific problems and issues. Finally, IGs are commonly deployed alongside other members of the armed forces, making them potentially more accessible for those posted abroad or otherwise remotely. On the other hand, however, such integrated mechanisms may lack independence. Their position within the armed forces may reduce their ability to address controversial issues or pursue investigations that run counter to the interests of the military hierarchy. This may in turn reduce the legitimacy of and undermine confidence in the complaint mechanism in the eyes of the complainants or the public. Such a system is found, for example, in France, the Netherlands and the United States (US), where the inspector-general of the armed forces has both an advisory and a mediation function; the office also exercises the function of inspector for veterans. Denmark has a similar, although quite unique, model that fits under this heading.
Military Ombuds Institutions
The laws of several countries provide for an independent ombuds institution, which has jurisdiction only over the armed forces but is a civilian office, independent of the military chain of command. An independent armed forces oversight mechanism has the advantage of being able to devote its attention exclusively to military matters, thus developing a specialized knowledge in the field. Its ability to issue public reports strengthens the oversight capacity of other democratic institutions, such as the legislature (by providing them with information to which they may not otherwise have ready access), and ensures greater transparency and accountability of the armed forces. Such institutions can be powerful examples of independent oversight. In addition to having specialist knowledge of military matters, an independent ombuds institution for the armed forces has an advantage in that its independent status gives it credibility in the eyes of complainants, the legislature, and the public. The main disadvantage is that its establishment may be costly and that, for states with small or inactive militaries, a dedicated office may be unnecessary given the small volume of complaints that may be generated regarding the armed forces.
Examples of such institutions include: the Parliamentary Ombudsman for the Norwegian Armed Forces, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces in Germany, the Austrian Parliamentary Commission for the Federal Armed Forces, and the Ombudsman for the Defense Forces of Ireland. Under this heading can also be included the National Defense and Canadian Forces Ombudsman, although unlike those listed above, this institution is located within the Department of National Defense and Canadian Forces.
General Ombuds Institutions
In some countries, the armed forces oversight function is subsumed within the mandate of a broader civilian oversight mechanism (such as a general human rights ombuds institution or classical ombudsman), with a mandate to contribute to the protection of the rights and freedoms of all members of society and to address complaints and concerns relating to all branches of government. In many states, such institutions are extremely important and hold a powerful position within the political system. The Serbian Protector of Citizens, for example, is recognized among the most powerful individuals in the state. Civilian ombuds institutions with a broad mandate of this type have several advantages. First, their broad mandate may make them significant and well-known figures within the political system. Their recommendations may thus be difficult to ignore. Their prominent status also means that the public (including members of the armed forces) are likely to have some understanding of their role and thus be more likely to approach them with problems or concerns. Second, their general mandate ensures that both civilians and members of the armed forces are likely to be treated equally and their interests balanced in any recommendations. Third, the concentration of the ombuds institution’s function in one office can also be less costly than having several specialized offices.
On the other hand, a civilian ombuds institution may lack specific knowledge and credibility within the armed forces and may fail, due to its broad mandate, to focus attention on the particular problems facing armed forces personnel. Furthermore, insufficient resources devoted to military-specific cases may cause significant delays in the resolution of complaints. A solution to these problems could be to introduce specializations within the ombuds institution’s office, for example, by appointing a deputy to deal specifically with military affairs. This is the case in the Philippines and in Sweden, where the ombudsman’s work is subdivided into several areas of responsibility, including the armed forces, noncombatant national service, and other cases relating to the Ministry of Defense.
Countries with such model: Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Croatia, Côte d'Ivoire, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Honduras, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malta, Mongolia, Montenegro, Niger, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Romania, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Togo, Ukraine ...
For a more detailed discussion about the different models of ombuds institutions, please refer to "Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces: A Handbook"