Appointment of new justice ombudsman sparks concern

The appointment this week of Angola's first Justice Ombudsman has sparked concern among human rights activists, who fear a lack of transparency and consultation in the process will render the position ineffective.

Former Justice Minister Paolo Tjipilica - the sole candidate for the post - is expected to be confirmed by a vote in the National Assembly on Friday.

Human rights organisations and civil society groups are up in arms because they have had no part in the selection procedure.

"The Angolan government has violated the rules of the game," said one human rights worker. "They are going against international guidelines - the Paris Principles - which expect a consultation with civil society over the nomination of the candidates, as well as the structure and function of the whole institution."

Parliamentarians at a workshop held last month to discuss such a role, promised in their concluding remarks that: "The Ombudsman should be a credible individual, and acceptable to all sectors of society."

"They committed themselves to an open consultative process, which they have now not followed," the human rights worker told IRIN.

In an effort to quell the rising tide of criticism, the government has taken the unusual step of organising a special hearing on Thursday, at which civil society representatives will be able to ask questions. But human rights activists say this is too little, too late.

"This is certainly a concession - recognition of a failure to consult in advance - but the fact remains that this candidate is hand-picked by the president, and there is no way we can change that," the human rights worker commented.

RIGHT DIRECTION

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has applauded the government's willingness to set up a national human rights institution, which is regarded as a top priority in post-conflict countries such as Angola, where a brutal 27-year civil war ended in April 2002.

Such institutions are seen as vital to the peacetime development of a culture of human rights, creating a space for dialogue and complaints, and assisting the state to improve its human rights framework and reporting mechanisms.

"We welcome the establishment of a national institution [for human rights] in Angola, but we very much stress that the process is critical to its eventual success," Orest Nowosad, coordinator of the National Institutions Unit at OHCHR, told IRIN.

He is apprehensive that any individual appointed to the post of ombudsman without extensive discussion by civil society would lack the public legitimacy needed to make the office a success.

"This is a public institution meant for the people of Angola. Our experience shows that the institution will have greater problems gaining public credibility if there is no consultation," Nowosad said. "We are saying: slow the process down; don't be in such a rush - invest in the time you have and the support for this process, and don't go too quickly and create suspicion and uncertainty where it is not warranted."

He agreed that the state had the right to implement whatever appointment process it chose, but warned that without transparency it would not work. "People have to feel that it is their own initiative: it's not a government body; it's not an NGO - it is a bridge between the two and, to be strong, that bridge should have the contribution of both sides," he pointed out.

Based on its experience in other countries, OHCHR has advised Angola to establish strong legislation, clearly spelling out the mandate and function of the ombudsman and any future Human Rights Commission.

"These institutions are established by law and, at the moment, in Angola there is no parliamentary legislation concerning such an institution - we need that to add meat to the bones, to give the institution its power; its mandate," Nowosad said.

Arvind Ganesan, the director of Human Rights Watch, agreed that an unclear process and undefined structure were problematic. "The absence of legislation or process is disturbing," he commented. "It is critical at this point in time, in a post-conflict period and with elections on the horizon, that things are done well, and institution-building like this is done in an open and transparent manner."