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Human Rights Quarterly 27.3 (2005) 1137-1142



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Linda C. Reif, The Ombudsman, Good Governance, and the International Human Rights System (Leiden; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2004).

National Human Rights Institutions: The Ombudsman and its Hybrid Versions—The Emerging Actors on the Constitutionalism Scene

Constitutionalism is an elusive term. However, democratic governance and rights protection are broadly accepted to be its essential elements1 and judiciaries have traditionally been regarded as its key promoters. The decade of the 1990s has however, witnessed the proliferation of a new class of actors collectively called National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Minted at the United Nations (UN)2 and treading the non-judicial path to promoting constitutionalism, they encompass a range of institutions from "national human rights commissions through ombudsman offices, public interest or other human rights 'advocates,' to defenseurs du people and defensores del pueblo."3

Thus, although the classical ombudsman is of ancient vintage and was tasked with increasing public accountability and transparency of governments, it falls within the definition of a NHRI. In the [End Page 1137] age of human rights, this traditional mandate of the classical ombudsman however ostensibly shifted to the explicit promotion of citizens human rights. What ensued was the emergence of the "Human Rights Ombudsman," which has both administrative oversight and human rights protection functions. Broadly speaking, these institutions are essentially old wines—spiced up with the human rights flavor—in new bottles; though some of them do not resemble the classical ombudsman but are much more akin to human rights commissions. The contribution of the classical ombudsman and its hybrid versions—primarily domestic actors—to good governance and international human rights is the central theme of Linda Reif's book: The Ombudsman, Good Governance and the International Human Rights System.

Reif's opening chapter takes us through a brief historical excursion of the origin of the Swedish ombudsman and the reasons behind its increasing popularity. Reif argues that the unique "soft non-coercive" powers of the ombudsman, far from being a drawback are indeed its most appealing feature and have enabled it to serve as a mechanism of horizontal and vertical applicability.4

Indeed, the endurance of the ombudsman concept is attested to by the numerous variations that have sprung up on the classical ombudsman theme. Some of these variants are: the Public Sector Legislative Ombudsman; Public Sector Hybrid Ombudsman: Human Rights, Anti-Corruption, and Leadership Code Enforcement; the Single Sector Ombudsman; the International Organization Workplace Ombudsman; and the Classical Ombudsman at the International or Supranational Level of Governance.5 Reif provides an overview of these variants in Chapter Two.

The core of Reif's book is situated in Chapter Three ("The Ombudsman: Democratic Accountability and Good Governance") and Four ("The Ombudsman: Domestic Protection and Promotion of International Human Rights"). Tracing the emergence of good governance as a standard at the international level, Reif shows how this term has been treated as an "expandable container" of many practices—including both political elements and economic aspects of governance—by the international community.6 Still, this concept retains such core elements as respect for democracy, rule of law, democratic institutions, and public participation.7 Ombudsmen—essentially mechanisms of horizontal and vertical accountability—are typically involved in strengthening "public participation in governance, transparency of public administration, the accountability of public authorities to the people and fairness in administration."8 These core functions of the ombudsman, argues Reif, clearly come within the definition of good governance. Therefore, the ombudsman's basic role interfaces with the concept of good governance as understood at the international level.9

She then moves on to examine how the ombudsman contributes to the domestic [End Page 1138] protection and promotion of international human rights. Pointing to the implicit human rights protection aspect to the classical ombudsman's key functions, Reif traces the growing recognition of this human rights role of the ombudsman by the international community which culminated in the evolution of the office of Human Rights Ombudsman (a hybrid of the classical ombudsman).10 Reif then demonstrates the methods by which an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1085-794X
Print ISSN
0275-0392
Pages
pp. 1137-1142
Launched on MUSE
2005-08-01
Open Access
No
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