Ombudswoman at the UN: ”Effective, accountable, inclusive and independent NHRIs important in achieving SGDs”

Ombudswoman of Croatia and ENNHRI Chair Lora Vidović emphasised the relevance of the work of national human rights institutions (NHRI) in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets, at the fourth Annual seminar series on national human rights institutions, set to open dialogue on their role in conflict and fragile contexts and ephasize their contribution to peaceful, just and inclusive societies, as set by SDG16. The seminar took place at the United nations in New York 17 June 2016., and was hosted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI).

”When speaking particularly about SDG16 – peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice, strong institutions – there is hardly another goal more relevant to the work of NHRIs, in addition to the strengthening of the national institutions being recognized as its target”, said Vidovic and continued with a short overview of the history of the ombuds institution in Croatia, a country with recent war experience and now an EU member.

Since its establishment in mid 1990s, the institution has for years primarily been focused on maladministration issues, with very limited capacities, low visibility among the general public and the stakeholders and no contacts with the international community. “But, even in those circumstances and in the years following the war, it worked successfully on some of the post – conflict issues, such as the establishment of the pre-war retirement payments, handling of the refugees' and returnees’ complaints on citizenship, housing care, restitution of property, police treatment and other issues. It was the type of work we would now label as the protection of human rights, or in the language of SDG16, the promotion of a peaceful society and access to justice for all. We even identified the so called grey areas – complaints we received were being resolved, but those cases not communicated to us were either not resolved, or were not resolved in favour of the party. These issues were raised with the relevant stakeholders, which contributed to the effectiveness and the accountability of the institutions”, said Vidović.

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In the years that followed, two subsequent developments have further contributed to the development of the Office, she explained. As a consequence, it developed the capacities for the further promotion and protection of human rights, precisely in the sense of SDG16: the status A accreditation and the pre-accession process to the EU.

“Status A was granted in 2008. With the legislative changes that followed, it brought some significant changes into our work and also increased the impact we were able to achieve, by bringing the international standards to the national and local levels and reporting to the treaty bodies and the UPR, by stronger work on promotion, awareness raising, access to information, communication and cooperation with the government, local communities, CSO’s, the media, the academic community and others. Secondly, as a part of the EU pre-accession process, the strengthening of the Ombudsman’s Office was a benchmark in Chapter 23. It also became National Equality Body, with the further strengthening of capacities and an even broader mandate in fighting against discrimination. It is worth mentioning that later on, we also became NPM under OPCAT. All of those mandates can and do find their fulfilment in achieving the targets of SDG16”, explained Vidović.

Nowadays, when it comes to post-conflict issues, a substantial part of her work is related to promoting and enforcing non-discriminatory laws and policies in the context of sustainable return, working to resolve the reintegration obstacles, such as underdeveloped return areas, insufficient social infrastructure and fighting against and the reporting of ethnic discrimination, social distance and exclusion. In 2016, the society is still dealing with the issues of the citizenship of the returnees, housing care, employment, use of language and script of national minorities, with a noted increase in discriminatory and hate speech in public discourse.

“But even beyond that, and very much relevant to the SDG16, is one of the main emphasis of our Annual 2015 Report, and that is the distrust citizens have in the institutions, which is reflected in the constantly increasing number and content of complaints we receive, regardless whether it is about judiciary or the administration at the state, regional or the local levels, and which seriously undermine the rule of law”, sad Vidović and added that citizens lack the information on their rights, which institution they should address and are sometimes hopelessly lost in the system. At the same time, inconsistencies in the legislative framework further contribute to the feeling of injustice and inequality, which result in even deeper distrust. “I see that my Office has a significant role in this regard, advocating for better policies and their implementation, building inclusive society, access to justice, and effective and accountable institutions at all levels”, noted Vidović.

Speaking about the Annual 2015 Report, she brought to attention an interesting fact that only two SDGs are not covered by it one way or the other - SDG12 on responsible consumption and production and SDG14 on life below water, and it proves the point that SDGs are relevant to NHRIs work, and NHRIs have a strong role in achieving the SDGs targets.

“In addition, I think we can all agree that, in order to achieve the targets of the other 16 goals, we need peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all and the establishment of effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. I am sure that globally, strong, effective and independent NHRIs that monitor, promote, protect and cooperate to achieve all that, are true voice of often the most underprivileged and marginalized, a voice which is often lacking in international forum. That is why there is particular importance of the General Assembly Resolution from December last year which allows NHRIs to participate and have an independent voice, both from the governments and civil society, in NY based UN processes, such as High Level Political Forum. I believe it is in our mutual interest that NHRI’s voice is heard there and that it will soon be realized, so that the potential of NHRIs, as I have tried to explain, can trully be taken advantage of at the international level", concluded Ombudswoman of Croatia and ENNHRI Chair Vidović.