Region's ombudsmen see human rights gains in EU accession
Ombudspersons from Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia gathered in Zagreb on 7-8 November 2013 to share the experience of national human rights institutions in two processes: European Union (EU) accession and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Human Rights, which the United Nations introduced in 2008 as a mechanism to monitor the conditions of human rights in member states every four years.
The event was organized by the Croatian People’s Ombudsman and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to provide a forum for representatives of countries seeking EU membership to learn from colleagues in new EU member states, including Croatia, Romania, and Slovenia, while also providing an opportunity for to share experiences of national human rights institutions from across Southeast Europe in different UPR rounds.
The ombudsmen participating in the workshop underlined that their job is often a lonely one, but they received a potent endorsement from Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljenić. “From the perspective of executive bodies we often see the ombudspersons as a ’nuisance,’” Miljenić conceded in opening the workshop. “It is easy to write laws, but when it comes to their implementation we encounter difficulties. The question becomes the budget, where should the money go, especially now, in a time of crisis. Human rights are often not our priority. Here is where I see the role of the ombudspersons, to point us to the right priorities, to put pressure on the executive branch and familiarize us with what is going on, because they are dealing with people whose rights should not be compromised. In this way, you aid us in making informed decisions. As a result, we create a better society."
One of the main themes of the workshop was the mutually reinforcing nature of the UPR and the human rights issues covered in Chapter 23 of EU accession negotiations. “The UN’s Universal Periodic Review goes hand in hand with EU accession,” said Croatian People’s Ombudsman Lora Vidović. Now that Croatia had become an EU member, she added one could look back and see how much had been achieved through arduous negotiations. “The role of the Ombudsman has been strengthened, as a central body for fighting discrimination and for promoting human rights.” Sharing this experience could help colleagues in other countries, since although they work in different contexts, they face similar challenges.
“Respect for human rights is a central criterion for EU membership,” agreed UNDP Resident Representative Louisa Vinton, “and its role in accession negotiations has become more and more prominent with each wave of enlargement.” She noted that the European Commission was now even demanding that prospective members show improvements in judiciary and fundamental rights even before opening formal negotiations. This puts pressure on ombudsman institutions, but it also provides opportunities, especially when their mandate is expanded from the limited responsibility of working with individual complaints to a broader role of providing guidance on policy and legislation to national institutions.
“The work of human rights protection is always a work in progress – long-term, intense, at times, frustrating due to lack of visible progress” – stressed Monjurul Kabir, UNDP Policy Adviser for Rule of Law, Justice and Human Rights. “Therefore, it is important to position the work of Ombudsman and National Human Rights Institutions strategically, at the heart of both national and international policy processes. Implementing agreed human rights recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council within the framework of the EU Accession is a solid step in the right direction, especially in Southeast Europe. UNDP through the UPR Follow-up Facility [UPRF] is very pleased to offer its technical assistance to the governments, Ombudsman institutions, and CSOs across Europe and the CIS region.”
During the two-day workshop, the participating countries had the opportunity to hear from human rights experts about the latest trends in human rights monitoring systems. The outcomes of the event will be taken on board during the next UPR rounds and will contribute to further strengthening of the human rights systems in the region. Croatia underwent the first cycle of the review in 2010, and the second round is scheduled for 2015. Supporting national human rights institutions is a priority for UNDP across Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The UPR Follow-up Facility [UPRF], a regional support mechanism launched by UNDP Regional Center for Europe and the CIS, has already been in operation to facilitate engagements of Ombudsman offices and national human rights institutions with international human rights mechanisms, the follow-up to UPR recommendations in particular. To date the UPRF projects have been successfully implemented in 14 countries across the region.