About the Catalan Ombudsman

Enric R. Bartlett Castellà's picture
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Síndic de Greuges of Catalonia and Defensor del Pueblo of Spain. Two institutions that can and should cooperate.

To protect and defend citizen’s rights and freedoms is the function of the “Síndic de Greuges” (Catalan denomination for Ombudsman). In the Anglo-Saxon world, the Ombudsman is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Public Administration that fights against bad administration. The Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia of 1979 (EAC) created the “Síndic” as a commissioner from the Catalan Parliament. Since 1984, when it began to act, it has contributed significantly to improving the quality of public administration behaviour and public services output in Catalonia.  In the Spanish Constitution, the Ombudsman is called the “Defensor del Pueblo.” In nearly 30 years of activity this commissioner from the Spanish Parliament has been especially effective in recommending several normative changes that have improved citizens’ rights. Both of them supervise the Administration. They are Magistrates of persuasion that can recommend changes in laws and bylaws, suggest more favourable interpretations to the rights’ effectiveness, and recall legal duties. The “Defensor” can appeal to the Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of laws. This empowerment, nonetheless, is similar to Tutankamons’ curse: it traps those who use it in the dialectic of parties and territories in favour or against a law. To write or interpret a binding Constitution is the most important political activity one can do within a legal framework. Therefore, the Ombudsman’s political neutrality weakens each time it appeals to the Court.

A golden rule for ombudsmen in a decentralized state is that their influence is only as strong as the influence of the Parliament that appoints them. This rule is not used in Spain (sentence 31/2010 of the Constitutional Court), which makes it even more necessary – and not less so – that the “Defensor” and “Síndic” cooperate closely and wisely use the resources that taxpayers provide them. There are at least three reasons to do so. First, the increasing number of restrictions that new laws impose on citizens’ civil rights and freedoms to effectively combat new kinds of crime and threats to public security. Second, the new caps that have been placed on economic and social rights to clean up the burden of public debt provoked by the economic crisis that originated in the financial markets. Third, the downsizing of public administrations, which is not always compensated with more efficiency. When faced with challenges of this magnitude, at a time of budgetary constraints that force people (and institutions) to do more with less, it would be smart to look for allies. “Sindic” and “Defensor” are natural allies if they prioritize what unites them: defending peoples’ rights. Institutions such as these that do not command, but that instead use dialogue as an instrument to carry out their tasks and purposes, can be an example of flexibility and articulate a new framework of cooperation.

To start with, they could work together to enforce the protocol of the Convention of United Nations against torture (Resolution 57/199 approved by the General Assembly the 18.12.2002), instead of excluding each other. By visiting the Defensor’s web page and consulting their links to numerous competent British authorities on the struggle against torture, one can easily see that to be effective it is not necessary to act alone.

Enric R. Bartlett Castellà
Associate professor of Public Law and Dean ESADE Law School (URL)
www.sindic.cat <http://www.sindic.cat/>
www.defensordelpueblo.es <http://www.defensordelpueblo.es/>

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