Asida Shakryl on the objectives and perspectives of establishing an Ombudsman’s office in the country.
13 August 2018

Asida Shakryl on the objectives and perspectives of establishing an Ombudsman’s office in the country.

Sukhum. August 13. Apsnypress. Commissioner for Human Rights of the RA, Asida Shakryl, informed the Apsnypress agency of the key objectives set before the newly established office.

Asida Georgievna, for many years Ombudsman’s office was a part of the Presidential Commission, now it has become an independent agency. What tasks do you set for yourself?

First of all, I would like to note the importance of this establishment for our young sovereign, democratic country. This step suggests that although human rights are enshrined in our Constitution and other laws, a structure is needed that will ensure that these principles are being implemented and turn out viable. Today we frequently face violations of human rights. The institution of the Ombudsman can be another important mechanism in protecting the rule of law in the country. It is important to realize that this body is not a facade (unfortunately, as often appears to be with some provisions of our Constitution), not just a checkmark in the event schedule. The Ombudsman’s institution is needed to act as a guardian of citizens’ rights, to make sure citizens are not left without access to life-supporting areas and without much else that a person needs for a full, dignified life. The institution of the Ombudsman is called upon to ensure that human rights are not violated by government agencies. This is our main task.

But are people aware that they can address their complaints to the Ombudsman?

I don’t think so. In fact, we still don’t have an office where people could come to and speak about their problems privately. So far we have temporarily settled in the premises of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, where we already receive visitors. The office was allocated for us in the building of the National Library, but its condition remains unfit for work. The money was transferred to our account, and the repair and maintenance works are being carried out. It is necessary to create appropriate conditions for our visitors.

But perhaps it is even more important for people to understand what problems should they address to the Ombudsman, and how you can help them?

Our challenge among others is to educate people to identify violations of their rights. When responding to individual problems, or helping a specific person, it is important to draw attention to the fact that this is not just about injustice in a specific structure, but about human rights violation, and that this violation stems from an official. And it is necessary to respond in such a way as to make this authority realize that he has no right to certain actions. Here a change of paradigm must take place - negligence in fulfilling a duty should be perceived precisely as a violation of human and civil rights.

Moreover, when analyzing various cases of human rights violations, it is necessary to identify the causes for these violations. If the problem is systematic, then perhaps the issue lies in a poorly written law, where legal inconsistencies create space for corruption. Or maybe the law is irrelevant, unmodified since the Soviet period. Or the meaning of the law is discriminatory, such as with the Law on Citizenship, where a “legalized” violation of human rights takes place. In such cases, it is necessary to review and correct the law to protect people from legal arbitrariness. It is also possible that violations are associated with a systematic non-compliance with the law and, in general, a management reform is required. Therefore, our task is to respond to specific issues, while identifying systemic problems and promoting positive change.

Where did you begin and how much were you able to accomplish?

First of all, we had to set up a cabinet while we didn’t even have a proper office. We were able to do that. We gathered lawyers, now we have a small team that can promptly react to all the complaints coming from citizens. Our lawyers are young professionals, passionate about their work. Of course, experience comes with time, but we plan to expand the cabinet in the future, dividing it into different areas of expertise and hiring more professionals well familiar with criminal and civil law. This is necessary because the letters we receive are often linked to the cases that are pending in court. We need to establish effective communication with authorities at different levels: with top management, various ministries, and municipalities. If due to various reasons there is no link between the Ombudsman and these structures, the work will stall.

Are you saying that today’s government is not open enough to communicate with the Commissioner for Human Rights?

Officials in dissimilar situations will be governed by different rules. Of course, some officials are willing to actively cooperate in solving the emerging problems. But in general, there is a serious lack of constructive cooperation between the Ombudsman’s office and other departments. People often come to us with unresolved cases that require a quick response from the local authority and the Prosecutor's Office. We write requests but don’t get any feedback.

What can be done in such situations?

That is the main question. Much depends on the Ombudsman’s approach. It is important to act by the law. When a civil servant ignores a signed appeal, the Ombudsman should contact the General Prosecutor's Office so that this official would be held accountable before the law. However, by taking this approach you aggravate communication and can expect to end up in conflict with one or few authorities. But you don’t always have to go to Prosecutor’s Office or a court with a certain problem. The aim is to establish a mutually respectful relationship, to convince colleagues that together we work at a common cause and that it’s important to respond timely to each appeal.

The other issue I face, however, is non-cooperation on the part of the General Prosecutor’s Office. In my opinion, this is the biggest problem. The main responsibility of the Attorney-General’s office is to safeguard human rights and the rule of law in the country. But if the Prosecutor's Office ignores complaints, does not respond to requests, does not provide any information, what the next step should be? It turns out that I have to sue the Attorney-General’s office? This is an abnormal situation. If the state is not guided by the law and democratic principles, what should my reaction be? We lack any leverage here.

It turns out to be a vicious circle. Why is this happening?

Perhaps, it has to do with the fact that our authorities are still not well familiar with the purpose of the Ombudsman’s institution. They are not certain how to react to my appeals. But one should note that the Law on the Ombudsman obliges officials to explain their illegal actions and to be responsible for human rights violations. The Ombudsman has a wide range of powers to expose injustice and offenses.

A public defender has the right to request and receive documents; request explanations from public authorities, municipalities, and officials; get acquainted with criminal and civil cases, with cases in respect to which proceedings have been terminated, with materials for cases that were dismissed. An official of any level is obliged to immediately receive the Ombudsman with issues related to his/her work. ... If the state authorities and their officials do not inform promptly on the measures taken to restore violated rights, Public Defender has the right to go to court. “I will have to go to court if officials begin to sabotage our work and deliberately hinder the implementation of our statutory powers”.

What kind of issues do people raise? Were you able to process a complaint and help a particular person so far?

Of course. We’ve handled numerous complaints so far. If the case is not connected with legislation, i.e. citizenship, it has perspectives. But we mainly deal with citizenship issues. The process of replacing the old-style passport of RA citizens with a new one was officially substituted with the process of confirming RA citizenship. The legal regulation for this process was at a dead end. The recently adopted amendments resolved some controversy, but unfortunately, not all of it.

People also refer complaints to us concerning violations in the law enforcement system and places of detention. We’re talking about abuse of authority by law enforcement officials. There are complaints in response to the facts of violation of the rules governing detention, with regard to ill-treatment, denied medical treatment, poor sanitary conditions. However, our requests are often being dismissed by law enforcement agencies. If this situation continues, we’ll have to raise the issue with Parliament. Moreover, in our Annual Report on the human rights situation in the country, we will lay out all the cases of non-compliance with the duty to cooperate.

Will you publish an Annual Report on the human rights situation?

Yes, according to the law we must publish the Annual Country Report on Human Rights Situation. The report will outline the dynamics of particular issues and their possible evolution and implications in the areas where they arise. It will not be an abstract document, but quite a specific report with case studies of violations.

You’ve been involved in human rights work for quite a long time. From your experience, what would you say are the main issues that lead to violations of human rights?

The main problem is that authorities are not being held accountable for breaking the law. A mid-level official easily violates the law and since his management does the same, he is not being punished. This is a vicious circle. During the Soviet period, local officials feared the reaction from Moscow. Many get the feeling that since no one comes to us with inspection, it is possible to violate both human rights and the law and not be held accountable. If we were widely recognized as a state by parties to international conventions, the responsibility of the state would be internationally secured and there would be control. In this sense, our officials are unregulated, there is no international control. But we must not forget that Abkhazia has an ample task ahead - to establish itself as a modern state, and this cannot be done without respecting human rights and freedoms, without compliance with laws adopted in our country.

What the first step towards change should be?

First and foremost, there must be a fair and independent court in the country. By tolerating unlawful decisions at the judicial level, we stall progress. If it is possible to circumvent the law by coming to an agreement with Prosecutor’s Office, there will be no lawfulness and order. If the law enforcement system lacks the concept of human rights as a value, how a person and a citizen be protected? Major reforms are needed to build a state of law.

On the other hand, it’s crucial that people understand more deeply what our work is about, so there would be fewer unwarranted fears. If human rights were ensured as they should have been in a just society, it would be unthinkable to imagine the events in Abkhazia in the 40s. When thousands of documents were prepared overnight, in which the surnames of Abkhazian people, as well as their nationality, were changed into Georgian. We must not forget those lessons from the past.

As an Ombudsman I consider both civic and human rights education crucial. A reform in the public education system is needed. It is necessary to introduce civic education into the school curriculum at an elementary level. Young people graduate without knowing anything about civic values, they do not reason in terms of human rights. If civics becomes part of the curriculum, people will know how to defend their rights at any level, while using democratic principles.

Right now the majority of citizens believe that someone should deal with their problems for them. That the newly established institution of the Ombudsman can be summoned on any issue. People speak out “Where is the Ombudsman? Why isn’t she reacting?” There is no understanding that an Ombudsman plays the role of a public advocate, representing the interests of the clients and taking part in disputes.

The role of the Ombudsman is to contribute to the fulfillment of human rights. Therefore, today I am already faced with disappointment when I refuse to be a defender of the interests of some citizens in individual cases when they are not related to violations by state structures.

What is the difference between personal interests and rights?

Individual interests can also be in conflict with human rights. Let’s assume, that a person wants to solve a problem by all means. And this problem is not necessarily connected with human rights violations. I’m often being addressed in connection to high-profile crimes, with demand for my reaction. Of course, a timely response from an Ombudsman on the subject of misconduct is important. But it is not always within my competence to substitute for law enforcement agencies, the Prosecutor’s Office, and the court. My task is to monitor the lawfulness of their actions.

When should we expect the first Annual Report on the human rights situation in Abkhazia?

At the end of the year.

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