Features — 15 March 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Ombudsman’s reports, 2009-2011, highlight injustices in the public sector

85% of the 790 cases remain open or unresolved

Ombudsman Lionel Arzu, appointed this January after the office had been vacant for about a year, has his work cut out for him. Apart from having to catch up with the backlog of work at the office, he will have to appear at the meeting of the Ombudsman Report Committee, slated for Wednesday, March 13, 2013.

Also present at the meeting will be former Ombudsman Cynthia Pitts, who prepared the 2009, 2010, and 2011 reports, which were tabled at the last Sitting of the House of Representatives.

There has been a marked downturn in the number of complaints taken to the Office of the Ombudsman: The office processed 332 complaints in 2009, 275 cases in 2010, and 183 cases in 2011. Of those 790 cases lodged over the three-year period, 85% of the cases remain open or unresolved.

Pitts told us that the bulk of the complaints she had to process alleged abuses by the police. Next in line were complaints involving lands, such as problems getting land titles or complaints that private lands had been sold off without the knowledge or consent of owners.

One woman made over 20 trips to resolve problems with her land title, and Pitts has requested that she be reimbursed for over $2,000 in expenses she reportedly incurred.

There were multiple complaints by citizens who alleged theft or damage to their property held as police exhibits. In one case, some of a woman’s jewelry held as a police exhibit, which was to have been returned to her after the accused received a guilty verdict, disappeared.

Police claimed that the jewelry had been auctioned off, and so the Ombudsman’s office recommended that she be reimbursed for the value of her jewelry. (The value of the jewelry held as exhibit was not cited in the report, although the woman claimed that $24,650 worth of jewelry had been stolen from her.)

Tampering with vehicles held for exhibits was also reported.

Then there was the odd case of a regional health manager who got promoted to the post of Director of Environmental Health for less pay. The Ombudsman requests that the officer be compensated for lost pay.

Arzu indicated that the person who held over the office between the time Pitts demitted office when her contract expired in December 2011, and when he assumed duties this year could not get anything substantial done, because the correspondences were essentially ignored.

Of note is that Pitts, in her report, has recommended that the Office of the Ombudsman be upgraded to the status of a national human rights commission.

“The introduction of a Belize National Human Rights Institution (BNHRI) would mean the introduction of a far different system than that currently represented by the Ombudsman’s Office,” she said in the 2011 report. “The pertinent issue, however, would remain the protection and promotion of fundamental human rights,” she went on to stress.

The change, Pitts told Amandala, would have to be put in law. The office, she said, would also have to be resourced with proper staff, which should reflect the balance in society, such as the various ethnicities that make up the population, according to The Paris Principles. The head of the office, said Pitts, can still be the Ombudsman.

This, she explained, would ensure that breaches of human rights are better addressed.

Pitts also informed that a person’s decision to seek redress for rights violations via the courts in no way means they can’t also lodge their complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman.

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