A view of a tree in autumn colors next to the Japanese Peace Bell. The Peace Bell is a gift to the United Nations by the UN Association of Japan

Independence of the Office of the UN Ombudsman
The UN Ombudsman and her team are never directed or influenced by anyone outside the Office
1 Apr 2023

Independence is often described as the bedrock underpinning the other three fundamental principles -neutrality, confidentiality, and informality – supporting the policies and practice of any Ombudsman’s Office.

The principle of independence was a major driver behind the creation of the world’s first Ombudsman’s Office in Sweden in 1809. After the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, a desire in Stockholm for a new political settlement led to opportunities for innovations in governance to respond to the new reality. One of these was a mechanism, to sit outside – and thus avoid shortcomings like cost and delay in the formal court system – to consider and report on concerns about failures in governance. This approach – a radical new departure in at its time – is now recognized as necessary good practice for any Ombudsman Office. 

Term limit, non-affiliation, and no concurrent appointments

The independence of the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation Services (UNOMS) is affirmed by the current terms of reference promulgated by the Secretary-General in 2016 (ST/SGB/2016/7), which constitute the mandate of the Office. The UN Ombudsman is subject to term limits: appointed at the level of Assistant Secretary-General, the UN Ombudsman may serve only a fixed 5-year term, with the possibility of reappointment restricted to a maximum further single 5-year term, after which there can be no further offer of employment with the UN. This way, any impulse or incentive to operate in a way preferable to the interests of the Secretary-General, any senior manager, or any other relevant body or institution that might influence a decision to appoint or reappoint, is obviated. In order to further safeguard the independence of the Office, paragraph 3.5 of the terms of reference requires the UN Ombudsman and team to refuse to accept or follow any reporting line to or via, or any affiliation or alignment with any UN entity. 

To similar effect, ombudsman are forbidden to hold any other office in any UN entity concurrently with their UNOMS appointment.

Independence of regional ombudsman

In recognition of the global presence of the Organization, paragraph 1.8 of the terms of reference authorizes the UN Ombudsman to appoint regional ombudsman. The particular term of reference goes on to stipulate that staff so appointed, report only to the UN Ombudsman and may not have a local reporting or affiliation relationship. Using my region as way of example, let’s consider why this provision is so important in ensuring that in the Asia Pacific Region, I can do my job. In my case, the regional UNOMS Office is located within ESCAP premises; because of the requirements of the terms of reference, however, there is no reporting relationship between me and anyone in ESCAP or in any of the UN entities present in Bangkok and the region. A supervisory or evaluative role necessarily implies a dependency – for the supervisee – on the continued regard for their competence on the part of the supervisor. Any such localized reporting relationship for an official required to act independently would struggle to achieve the reality, let alone the outward appearance, of the official’s ability to act independently when dealing with concerns arising in their supervisor’s entity.

Sole discretion to take action, and own-motion-authority to act 

Paragraph 3.8 is clear that the UN Ombudsman and UNOMS staff must make decisions and take action in reliance not on the basis of any external feedback but rather by the application of their own expertise and experience, as well as the application of basic norms as set out in the UN Charter. Moreover, the standing orders confirm that an ombudsman does not require a complaint, or even a complainant, in order to look into any matter. 

A principle that continues to be honored and defended

This article outlined the legal basis on which the principle of independence of UNOMS is constituted, as well as some of the detailed provisions that make that vision operate as a day-to-day reality. Within UNOMS, my colleagues and I understand why independence is so important. Without the protective regime set out in the terms of reference, we know that we simply could not perform our jobs credibly, appropriately, or effectively. As the oldest and most fundamental attribute of our work, the principle of independence must continue to be honored and defended. 

For all these reasons, I am very confident to conclude here with an assurance that my colleagues and I will, under no circumstances, be influenced and directed by anyone outside the Office concerning our professional conduct.

This is the last in a series of four articles on the fundamental principles underlying the design and function of UNOMS. The others, respectively relating to neutrality, confidentiality, and informality, should be read together with this one and with an understanding that each principle overlaps at the level of implementation, and complements the others at the conceptual level. 

* Charles Chauvel is Regional Ombudsman for Asia and the Pacific.
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