Q & A
The term "ombudsman" comes from Scandinavia; it originally meant something akin to ambassador; a person or office established to safeguard the rights of individual citizens, or a particular group of citizens, in relation to the powers and actions of government.
An ombudsman for justice was appointed in Sweden in 1809. In the numerous countries (more than 40) which now have general ombudsman offices the most common functions are to receive and investigate complaints, to act as a spokesperson and to advocate changes to improve things for individuals or for a particular group.
Many ombudsperson offices are established in relation to particular services (health, local government), or particular groups of citizens (prisoners, consumers, disabled people, minority groups). Some countries have "general" ombudsmen, covering a variety of human rights issues.
As with many positive developments for children, the idea of a children’s ombudsman was first developed by NGOs. Radda Barnen, Swedish Save the Children, established an Ombudsman for Children in the 1970s and promoted the idea internationally during International Year of the Child (1979).
If established by Parliament, ombudsman offices can have powers set out in an Act of Parliament, or at least some recognized official status.
Norway’s Government was the first to use legislation to set up an independent body for children. The Norwegian Parliament passed an Act establishing the Barneombud in 1981.
In 1975 the Ministry of Justice had established a committee to look at legislation on parents and children and to consider whether there was a need for some special public body for children.
The unanimous proposal of the Committee in its 1977 report was that a public, national office of Ombudsman for Children should be established.
An inter-departmental committee representing the six departments with major responsibilities for children examined the proposal. The Act establishing the office as an autonomous body is short; the statutory duty of the Barneombud is to "promote the interests of children vis-à-vis public and private authorities".
"Ombudsman" is a popular concept, but by no means all the independent offices fit the common perception of an ombudsman as a person or agency taking up and investigating individual complaints.
In 1998 the Act was amended to link the role of the Ombudsman to implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
ENOC stands for European Network of Ombudspersons for Children and is a not-for-profit association of independent children’s rights institutions (ICRIs). Its mandate is to facilitate the promotion and protection of the rights of children, as formulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, symbolizes a new worldwide determination to do better for children. At the World Summit for Children in 1990, the largest gathering of world leaders stated: "The well-being of children requires political action at the highest level. We are determined to take that action. We ourselves make a solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children".
Between 1989 when the Convention was adopted and 1997, almost all the world’s countries have ratified - fully accepted - the Convention. This gives these States serious commitments under international law to respect the principles and detailed standards set out in the Convention.
The Convention requires "States Parties" - the 191 states that have ratified it - to report regularly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The Committee, established by the Convention, consists of 10 experts, elected by States Parties to monitor progress towards implementation.
As States go through the process of gathering information for these reports on how their laws, policies and practice affect children, and on the situation of children themselves, they find not just that they need new laws and new policies. They also need new mechanisms, structures and activities to promote a new priority for children.
The full Convention on the Rights of the Child is available here.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has consistently encouraged all the States whose reports it examines to establish special mechanisms, structures and activities for children (terming them "general measures of implementation"). It has placed particular emphasis on the development of independent offices to promote the human rights of children.
In 2002 the Committee adopted General Comment No. 2 on “The role of independent national human rights institutions in the protection and promotion of the rights of the child”.
The Committee argues: “It is the view of the Committee that every State needs an independent human rights institution with responsibility for promoting and protecting children’s rights. The Committee’s principal concern is that the institution, whatever its form, should be able, independently and effectively, to monitor, promote and protect children’s rights… While adults and children alike need independent NHRIs to protect their human rights, additional justifications exist for ensuring that children’s human rights are given special attention. These include the facts that children’s developmental state makes them particularly vulnerable to human rights violations; their opinions are still rarely taken into account; most children have no vote and cannot play a meaningful role in the political process that determines Governments’ response to human rights; children encounter significant problems in using the judicial system to protect their rights or to seek remedies for violations of their rights; and children’s access to organizations that may protect their rights is generally limited.”
The full text is available here.
The appointment of independent offices has been strongly promoted by the Council of Europe, whose "European Strategy for Children" (1996) proposes the appointment of "a commissioner (ombudsman) for children or another structure offering guarantees of independence, and the responsibilities required to improve children’s lives, and accessible to the public through such means as local offices". The Strategy puts all its recommendations in the context of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Recommendation 1286 on a European Strategy for Children, adopted by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, January 24 1996).
A key aim of an independent office for children is to make children and their rights more visible and to promote a higher political and social priority for children. This can be achieved either by establishing a separate independent human rights institution for children, or by ensuring a distinct focus on children’s rights within a national human rights institution (a human rights commission or general ombudsman).
Human rights are universal, and it is important that the promotion and protection of the human rights of children should be an integrated part of the mainstream human rights movement. But integration must not mean invisibility.
There is no overwhelming case for separation or for integration. The debate should revolve around establishing an office that can pursue the promotion and protection of children’s human rights effectively and ensuring that it has the necessary profile, powers and duties.
This is the model adopted in the following European countries: Austria, Belgium, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
- Ability to take a distinctive and exclusive children’s perspective;
- Providing a high profile individual(s) that children can relate to;
- Designed specifically to relate to children - in touch with children’s views and feelings;
- Emphasizing the priority which should be accorded to children;
- Able to take on specific tasks relevant to the particular situation of children (for example, certain child protection functions);
- Guaranteeing a distinct budget devoted to children’s rights.
- Lack of integration with "mainstream" human rights promotion;
- Possibility of marginalization/lower status/less powers than national human rights institutions;
- Possible lack of adequate resources
In some countries in Europe - Hungary, Portugal, Spain and Ukraine - specialist offices for children have been or are being established within national human rights bodies.
- Promotion of children’s rights integrated into the mainstream promotion of all human rights;
- Should ensure that discussion of children’s rights is not marginalized or accorded lesser status;
- Resources may not be adequate to support a range of separate offices, whereas a children’s commissioner within a human rights commission would be able to use the power and resources of the whole institution;
- Ability to work closely with other commissioners, for example on race or disability issues.
- Children’s concerns tend to get lost in adult agendas;
- An institution designed primarily to respond to adult issues may not be accessible to children;
- Children may not identify with and use an institution primarily designed for adults;
- Problems over implementation of children’s rights often arise through conflicts between children and adults. A separate office would have more freedom to advocate from the child’s perspective.
Some national human rights institutions have been limited to reviewing only issues arising from an individual’s relationship with the state; respect for children’s rights also requires consideration of their relationship with those in authority over them, in the family, in schools and other institutions.
To ensure that the focus on children is not obscured it is important that:
- the design and development of the national human rights institution takes full account of the special status of children;
- the legislation establishing the national institution is linked specifically to implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (thus covering children’s economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights) and includes provisions setting out specific functions, powers and duties relating to children, linked to the Convention.
- the duty to pay particular regard to the views and feelings of children and to take active steps to maintain direct contact with children;
- power to have regard to the situation of children in the family, in schools and other institutions;
- power to consider the promotion and protection of children’s rights in relation not only to government but also private bodies;
- the right to have access to children in all forms of alternative care and all institutions which include children;
- the right to report separately on the state of children’s human rights;
- there is an identifiable individual "ombudsman" or representative for children (ideally someone who will bring status and public and political respect to the office, have a high public profile and so enhance the status and visibility of children);
- this individual has appropriate staffing and a ring-fenced minimum budget and is able to attract and use funding from other sources than government.
- There are many different models in European countries: some states have more than one federal or national children’s ombudsman (for example, in Belgium there are commissioners operating on a completely different basis in the Flemish and French communities). Other states have independent regional and/or local children’s ombudsmen, linked together for various purposes (for example in Austria there is a federal children’s ombudsman and one in each of the nine lander (regions) who together form the Conference of Ombudsmen); in Spain there is the federal ombudsman with a specialist representative for children and independent children’s ombudsmen are also established in the city of Madrid and in the autonomous region of Catalonia.
- If the independent office is to have the function of responding to complaints or concerns from individual children, then it will need to have some local structure, making it genuinely accessible to children. A phone line can provide one form of contact, but complaints procedures and advocacy services will need to be locally based.