How can the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces help to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Armed Forces Personnel”

The Office of a designated Military Ombudsman: The International Dimension

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The Office of a designated Military Ombudsman: The International Dimension.
In May 2009, I was invited to participate in the inaugural International Conference of Ombudsman Institutions for the Armed Forces. The conference was held in Berlin on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Office of the German Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces. This timely gathering was initiated by the then Parliamentary Commissioner Mr. Reinhold Robbe in co-operation with the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF). The conference was attended, not only by representatives of the many military Ombudsman Offices, but also by representatives from States who had expressed an interest in learning more about the Institution. May I refer you to the work of this event, and the two subsequent meetings of this group in Vienna in 2010 and Belgrade in 2011, (ICOAF) through a link on my Office’s website –
In October 2009, I was invited to deliver an address to the United Nations Training School at the Military College, in the Irish Defence Forces Training Centre, to a group of delegates which included members of armed forces and security forces from Spain, Zambia, Sweden, Egypt, two officers from the Irish Police Force - An Garda Siochana, together with members of the from the Command and Staff Force of the Irish Defence Forces and from the Reserve Defence Force. Participants were engaged in a Course entitled ‘Human Rights for Military Personnel in Peace Support Operations – International Train the Trainers Course’ which was part of the United Nations Training School in Ireland (UNTSI) programme. It was clear to me then that the subject of Human Rights for members of Armed Forces was now gaining the recognition that it deserves by forming part of United Nations Training Courses at this level.
UNTSI is the Irish Defence Forces Centre of excellence for Human Rights training and offers this Course in conjunction with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR). The overall objective is to provide participants with an understanding of the legal and operational Human Rights issues and the possible roles and functions of military peacekeepers to promote and protect Human Rights in the mission area and to enable them to provide high-level training on these issues.
I had the honour of addressing the delegates on the subject of:
Ensuring that the guardians of the peace are themselves the beneficiaries of fundamental freedoms and human rights’
My belief in the importance of this subject had been reinforced, shortly after I took up this job as Ombudsman for the Defence Forces, when I received an invitation to become a member of the Expert Group which was convened by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) (OSCE/ODIHR) in conjunction with the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) to compile a Handbook on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Armed Forces Personnel. The expert group met in Warsaw in December of 2006 and reviewed the vital chapters which covered, amongst others, subjects such as civil and political rights, military unions and representative associations, conscientious objection to military conscription and service complaints handling in the armed forces, discipline and military justice.
It was a privilege to be invited to speak at the launch of the Handbook on the 28th of May 2008 in Vienna. This book provides an overview of legislation, policies and mechanisms for ensuring the protection and enforcement of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of armed forces personnel. It presents examples from across the OSCE region of practices that have proved successful. It contains recommendations for measures that States should take in order to ensure that policies and practices are in full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments in its Code of Conduct on Politico- Military Matters.
The Handbook is aimed at providing a reference point to individuals who play a role in promoting, protecting and enforcing the human rights of armed forces personnel, such as parliamentarians, government officials, policy makers, military personnel, judges, professional military associations, and non-governmental organisations. It was hoped that the publication would encourage all interested parties to take the necessary measures to ensure that armed forces personnel are able to enjoy their full rights as citizens. In the acknowledgement of this principle, the concept was referred to as ‘citizens in uniform’. I am happy to advise that the Report was translated into many languages and that it is now being up-dated. It is a useful collation of the many Offices and includes recommendations on best practice models and components for a truly effective Office.
The Handbook reveals that in several countries, such as Denmark, Serbia or Poland, responsibility for the military falls under the remit of a general administrative or Human Rights Commissioner or Ombudsman. While this approach has the advantage of bringing military affairs to the centre of administrative oversight, I remain convinced that the appointment of a dedicated Military Ombudsman is to be preferred. An Ombudsman with sole responsibility for the military will more readily establish the trust of the serving personnel and will provide a single, defined point of contact for both government and the armed forces. The establishment of a dedicated military Ombudsman will also send a strong message that the needs of the armed forces are taken seriously by the State.
The precise powers and responsibilities of a military Ombudsman will differ from country to country. For example, the German Ombudsman may receive complaints as an alternative to the internal complaints system. This differs from the Irish model where the Complainant must first have sought redress through the internal military complaints handling system – in other words, the Complainant must have exhausted due process available before referring the matter to the Ombudsman by way of an independent outside appeal. It may be argued that the particular model of military Ombudsman adopted by a State should be responsive to the unique culture and environment in which the Ombudsman is to serve, however the founding requirements of true independence and impartiality cannot be sacrificed if the Office is to be truly effective.
In recognising that there is no single applicable model and that the particularities of individual contexts will always influence a given country’s approach, the Handbook provides guidance to OSCE participating states by advancing models that have proved to be successful in a number of countries. The Handbook is not aimed at setting new standards; instead, it seeks to contribute to the effective implementation of existing standards by presenting a number of models, or best practices, that demonstrate how military structures can successfully integrate human rights and fundamental freedoms without causing any threat of disruption to the requirements and disciplines of military service and a chain-of-command structure.
In the preface to the Handbook it states:
‘Armed forces are an integral part of a democratic State and society. By fulfilling their defence of national-security functions, the armed forces play a key role in enabling a secure environment that allows us to enjoy the inalienable rights and freedoms to which we are all entitled as human beings. As representatives of the State structure, armed forces personnel are bound to respect Human Rights and international humanitarian law in the exercise of their duties…’
There are grounds for confidence in the view that when the rights of members of armed forces are guaranteed within their own institutions, armed forces personnel may be more likely to uphold those rights when engaged on active service or in their own Units and Barracks.
The changing nature of military service, which increasingly includes international missions, requires that soldiers, as part of their overall training, have a solid ethical outlook based on human dignity, human rights, morality and tolerance. Part of the attainment of this goal is to recognise and treat soldiers as possessing the same rights and obligations as any other citizens. Excluding military personnel, in full or in part, from participating in the society in which they live and work, by restricting the application of any of their human rights, serves not only to deprive them of their fundamental rights but also provides no incentive for them to engage with the cherished principles and concepts of civil and human rights.

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