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The Ombudsman of Sri Lanka - A Guardian of Rights or an Ornament of the State?

THE OMBUDSMAN OF SRI LANKA –

A GUARDIAN OF RIGHTS OR AN ORNAMENT  OF THE STATE ?

                                                                                                                        by M.C.M. Iqbal

The term of office of the current holder of the post of Ombudsman or Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is to come to an end shortly. There is speculation as to who is going to be the next Ombudsman.  The time is therefore appropriate for one to take a close look of the role so far played by the Ombudsman to see to what extent the office of the Ombudsman,  has achieved the objectives for which it was set up.

The Ombudsman was created in 1978 by the Second Republic Constitution. He was empowered to investigate and report on complaints against  State Officers, be it from a Corporation, Local or Central government institutions that, allege fundamental right violations. It was intended that the Ombudsman would provide an informal mode of granting relief to persons affected by such violations. The option of seeking a legal remedy though is more cumbersome and less accessible to those who do not have the financial resources for obtaining such relief. However, at the beginning anyone seeking relief through the Ombudsman had to reach him through a Member of Parliament. The Ombudsman was then debarred from entertaining complaints direct. This inhibited people seeking relief from the Ombudsman. However, with an amendment to the law in 1994, this fetter was removed and enabled the Ombudsman to receive complaints direct. Consequently there was a flood of complaints which inundated the Ombudsman’s office which was ill equipped to meet such as exigency.

Unfortunately repeated requests by the Ombudsman for additional resources to meet the demand for his services were fruitless. This was partly due to financial constraints and partly to the importance of this office for good governance was not adequately realized by those in Parliament. Consequently, it became virtually impossible for the Ombudsman to provide speedy relief. He could only inquire into about 8 to 10 complaints a week and at present has a backlog over 4000 complaints to be inquired into.

With a staff of less than 25 in a crowded office in Colpetty with key posts such as a Deputy Ombudsman being not filled, it would be ludicrous to expect the Ombudsman to have performed better. In any case where he has failed in his attempts to bring about a reconciliation and finds that a state officer or department has  violated a right of a person, all that he could do is to report such official to the President and the Parliament. So far it appears that such reports have not had any forceful effect to either to prevent such things happening in the future or even provide adequate relief to those affected or even to punish the offender.  All that it could do against such offender is perhaps to embarrass the officer or department concerned !

Another matter that has fettered the work of the Ombudsman is that his hands are tied from getting the requisite staff. Even though the law allows him to delegate some of his work to deputies, no deputies have been appointed. His staff consists of officers transferred to his office from other departments. They may not continue to be with him as they could be transferred out of his office to other departments.  This inhibits such officers being given special training. There are no other incentives provided to motivate the officers to continue to be with the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman has no branch offices. Consequently persons from far away places have to travel to Colombo to attend inquiries. Their expenses for such trips are not reimbursed by the Ombudsman.  This casts additional burdens on the complaints.

All these factors have made the Ombudsman merely as ornament among the administrative institutions in Sri Lanka rather than being a guardian of fundamental rights of state officers. In a place like Canada for instance the Ombudsman is seen as evidence of the  government’s  concern to be accountable for its administration and for its human rights record. It is provided with adequate resources to enable it to function effectively. The Canadian public service is said to protect itself against leaving room for complaints to the Ombudsman. The number of complaints to the Ombudsman against any department of State is seen as an indicator of the performance of such department. This prompts the government to take timely remedial action. In the circumstances the Canadian Ombudsman is said to play a key role in ensuring good governance.  There is a need to make the Ombudsman of Sri Lanka place such a role if we are to minimize administrative indiscretion with regard to rights of State employees.

Professor G.L.Peiris, the Honorable Minister under whom the Ombudsman’s office falls, had recently given an assurance that he would do whatever is possible to strengthen the Ombudsman’s office to make it play a key role in the administrative set up in Sri Lanka. He had been very receptive to the suggestion of late Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam of the need to appoint Deputy Ombudsmen. Prof. Peiris had stated that a policy decision has to be taken to either appoint Deputy Ombudsmen on a subject wise basis as for instance “teachers’ problems” or “bank employees problems” as in UK and Australia. The other option suggested is to appoint Deputies on a Regional basis to make the Ombudsman easily accessible and available at the regional level. The latter suggestion appears to be more appropriate and is in keeping with the present trend to devolve power to the regions. It is hoped that with the Constitutional changes that are being contemplated, alteration will be given to transform the office of the Ombudsman from that of an ornament to a very vibrant institution that ensures government officers or departments are made accountable for their actions in matters pertaining to their personnel. There is also a need to give more teeth to this institution to make it effective.

 Perhaps with the new Ombudsman to be appointed shortly it is hoped steps would be taken transform this “ornament” into an effective instrument that safeguards the rights of state officers and act as a deterrent to violations.

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