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

The Military Ombudsman and the Citizen in Uniform

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The Military Ombudsman and the Citizen in Uniform.
An Armed Forces Ombudsman will perform many functions, which range from monitoring the internal complaints handling processes and ensuring that every complaint is satisfactorily processed within the military complaints procedures. An Ombudsman provides an independent appeals mechanism for those not satisfied with the handling or outcome of their complaints. The Ombudsman provides an independent and autonomous Office of oversight and redress and, being complaint focused, an Ombudsman is well placed to identify systemic issues which may arise in large organisations, particularly those with a hierarchical structure and a long established culture which is rooted, for the most part, in secrecy. This is an environment in which abuses can thrive if there is no Office of oversight with the power to shine a light into the darker corners and expose any wrong-doing or unfair practices.
If we keep in mind the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where it is emphasised that a common understanding of the avowed rights and freedoms was of the greatest importance to bring about the full realisation of what we were signing up to in the Pledge, we are left in no doubt about the need to provide a meaningful understanding of the protection of Human Rights and freedoms of members of our armed forces, who have the job of guarding our rights and freedoms and supporting our States.
In a democracy it is essential that the government must exercise control of the armed forces. Civilian oversight of the armed forces is a vital aspect of a modern democratic State. The Government will be responsible not only for the actions of the armed forces but also for ensuring that it is fit for any of the roles they may be called upon to perform. The Government will, for example, be responsible for ensuring that the armed forces are paid and that the equipment is up to standard. The Government of a State has a responsibility to both soldier and civilian to ensure that the armed forces are effective and well managed. The discipline and morale of the armed forces therefore is a matter, not only for the armed forces themselves, but for the State.
One of the core objectives of the ’Handbook on Fundamental Freedoms and Human Rights‘ for members of armed forces is the “Citizen in Uniform” approach which carries with it the belief that armed forces personnel, whether professional or conscripted, are entitled to the same rights and protections as all other persons subject to certain limitations imposed by military life.
The “Citizen in Uniform” concept emerged in Germany, in the aftermath of the Second World War, to ensure that a soldier in the newly re-formed Bundeswehr viewed himself as an equal member of the nation and not as a member of an elite. The German army was widely perceived by the German public to have been a vital and willing tool of the Nazi regime. It is notable that the concept emerged during a time of crisis for the German nation. It was the response to an urgent need for faith to be restored in a military that had lost the respect and confidence of the general public. The ‘Citizen in Uniform’ therefore is not an “ideal world” concept, but one designed in a time of catastrophe for the standing and respect of the German armed forces where the primary objective was to establish meaningful oversight and, with that, confidence and peace of mind that the past abuse of power could never be repeated.
The post war German military was consciously designed as a democratic institution. The “Citizen in Uniform” concept was to ensure that the military was a reflection of the State and fully integrated within it. A major part of this programme was the establishment, in 1959, of the Office of the Parliamentary Military Commissioner who was charged with enhancing parliamentary control of the armed forces and to serve as an Ombudsman to protect the rights of service personnel.
Military life brings with it certain obligations and duties which distinguish it from other professions, not least because the soldier is expected to risk being in the way of harm on behalf of the protection of the people and the State. Military discipline is vital to the continued effectiveness of the armed forces. The institution of the Military Ombudsman is a necessary buttress to internal disciplinary procedures, ensuring they are fair and consistent. The particular constraints of military life, such as discipline and collegiality, do not mean that human dignity may be denied to serving personnel, rather it means that in upholding that dignity the peculiar aspects of military life must be acknowledged.
It is difficult to conclude that, by the mere fact of joining the armed forces voluntarily, a person has consented to all the treatment to which he is subjected in the armed forces, or that he has waived those of his human rights available to him as a citizen. He will not have waived any specific Human Rights by enlisting although those rights must be considered in a military context.1
The need for fair and accountable complaints processes within the armed forces is vital, not only on a theoretical basis, but for very practical reasons of recruitment and staffing. A non-conscript army must compete for recruits with civilian organisations who will often be in a position to offer more attractive remuneration. Military training is expensive and involves imparting some skills which can be directly transferable to a civilian context. This is particularly the case with highly skilled or technical military professions. Members of the armed forces must be attracted to join the service and encouraged to remain after their initial training. In this respect the army must behave like any other large employer and make human resources management a core aspect of its work. Peter Rowe, whose book I have cited, states:
‘Where recruitment to the armed forces is purely on a voluntary basis the government will need to pay attention to the terms and conditions of service in the armed forces, including the harshness or otherwise of the discipline system, if it is to maintain recruitment at the level it requires.’2
The European Organisation of Military Associations (EUROMIL)3 founded in 1972 is the umbrella organisation of thirty-four military associations and trade unions in Europe. Together EUROMIL’s member associations promote the social and professional interests of about five hundred thousand Europeans in twenty-four countries, soldiers of all ranks and their close relatives. As it approaches 40 years since its foundation, the main Europe-wide forum for co-operation and exchange of experiences, among professional military associations on issues of common concern, is vital in reinforcing and supporting the right of association and representation. Funded exclusively by membership fees, EUROMIL keeps to strict non-denominational and politically independent policies.
EUROMIL has participatory status at the Council of Europe and observer status of the NATO parliamentary assembly. It upholds contacts with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and is an accredited lobbyist at the European Parliament and Commission. EUROMIL has a co-operation agreement with the European Trade Union Confederation since 1998.
EUROMIL promotes the human rights, fundamental freedoms and socio-professional interests of military personnel in Europe. EUROMIL’s member associations and unions are committed to the principle of the “Citizen in Uniform”. A soldier has the same rights and obligations as any other citizen. A serviceman or woman, who is to protect and defend the rights and freedoms of his/her fellow citizens and the constitutional order of his/her country, must be entitled to enjoy and celebrate the same democratic civil rights and freedoms. This requires certain States to lift all existing restrictions on the civil and social rights of soldiers, which do not result from a military assignment.
EUROMIL emphasises particularly the right of servicemen and women to join trade unions and independent staff associations. Soldiers are highly skilled employees who have the legitimate right to promote their social and professional interests like other workers do. Decade-long experience in many countries has shown that military associations are reliable partners of the defence administration. Military representative associations fully respect the chain-of-command and do not condone insubordination within Armed Forces in European member States.

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