Democratic Security Sector Governance

  • en
  • uk
  • ru

family-insurance-symbol freepikWhat is an Ombuds Institution?

An ombudsman is defined by the International Bar Association as:

an office provided for by the constitution or by action of the legislature or parliament and headed by an independent high-level public official who is responsible to the legislature or parliament, who receives complaints from aggrieved persons against government agencies, officials and employees or who acts on his own motion, and who has the power to investigate, recommend corrective action, and issue reports.[1]

According to Dean Gottehrer, the former president of the United States Ombudsman Association, an ombudsman must have the following essential characteristics:

  • Independence
  • Impartiality and Fairness
  • Credible review process
  • Confidentiality

Ombuds institutions may have highly specific focus areas from banking to human rights or other issues. In terms of the security sector, human rights ombuds institutions, specialised police complaints and armed forces ombuds institutions are those dealing most with security governance issues.

How does it work?

The objective of the ombudsman is to protect the people against violation of rights, abuse of powers, error, negligence, unfair decisions, and maladministration. By doing so, the ombudsman contributes to improving public administration and making the government more transparent and accountable. A military ombudsman safeguards the rights of military personnel and encourages democratic and civil control of the armed forces. The ombudsman has the power to oversee the performance of the government and the ministries and, as a result, issue recommendations. Ombudsman should make oversight results public knowledge. Most commonly, the ombudsman institutions fulfil their mandates by:[2]

  • Receiving and investigating complaints from individuals, legal entities, or groups
  • Monitoring the general situation of human rights within a country
  • Educating the general public and government officials about human rights
  • Developing, or improving, national legislation for the protection of human rights[3]
  • Investigating
  • Issuing reports and recommendations


What should an effective Ombuds Institution look like?

The creation of an ombudsman institution should be an inclusive, multi-stakeholder process that considers the interest and needs of all relevant parties. Ombuds institutions should be established on a firm, legal foundation.

An essential function of the ombuds institutions is to receive and investigate complaints and to identify areas of public administration that are in need of improvement, or greater accountability. Investigations aim to resolve issues independently and impartially and to prevent their recurrence. Issuing reports and recommendations to the legislature and to the public at large is a key function of ombuds institutions. It is important that ombuds institutions are given appropriate power and resources in order to carry out their functions. Since effective monitoring is essential to ensuring that recommendations are properly and promptly implemented, ombuds institutions should set up comprehensive monitoring and information-gathering processes.

When it comes to ombuds institutions for the armed forces or police, they must acquire specialised knowledge required to perform their functions effectively with regard to relevant security sector components. This may require setting up dedicated, specialised bodies with a specific mandate to deal with complaints related to the armed forces.

For example, ombuds institutions for the armed forces should be independent from the government and the bodies that they are mandated to oversee. They should obtain and manage their funds independently from any institution over which they have jurisdiction.

Ombuds institutions should have the freedom to decide which matters and priorities to pursue and the freedom to investigate them to their conclusion. They should be able to choose their method of work. Access to information is crucial for the work of ombuds institutions, a matter that should be guaranteed by law. They should have the power to address the public and the media. Ombuds institutions should possess powers which impose legal requirements on relevant persons to appear before them or to provide them with specific information when requested to do so. They should also have the ability to communicate any lack of cooperation in their public report. Public reports are an important way of ensuring compliance with recommendations and drawing attention to issues that may not otherwise be open to much public or media scrutiny.

Additionally, there should be no limitation placed on the category of persons and organisations who can file a complaint with the ombuds institutions as long as those complaints fall under the mandate of the ombudsman. Ombudsman should offer their services free of charge and facilitate wide access to those services. A wide range of communication channels for filing complaints should be offered such as e-mail, post, and a dedicated hotline. Regular feedback on the status of complaints and investigations should be provided to all interested parties. A decision to reject a complaint should be accompanied by help, advice, and referral to alternative means of recourse.

Ombuds institutions should protect complainants from reprisals. An information management plan should be prepared covering confidentiality and including a communication policy.

Overall, an effective Ombuds Institution needs to have the capability and power to execute its mandate. This capability should be clearly established by legislation. An effective institution also needs to be financially and institutionally independent. Developing collaborative relationships with other oversight institutions and civil society is crucial, as well as raising awareness and educating the public about security sector governance.


Born Hans, Wills Aidan, DCAF-Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands (2012), Overseeing Intelligence Services: a Toolkit.

Centre for Integrity in the Defence Sector: Guides to Good Governance

Centre for Integrity in the Defence Sector. Criteria for good governance in the defence sector. International standards and principles (2015)

DCAF-UNDP (2007), Monitoring and investigating the Security Sector.

DCAF (2009), Security Sector Governance and Reform Backgrounder. New edition available here.

DCAF (2009), Security Sector Reform and Intergovernmental Organisations. Backgrounder. New edition available here.

DCAF – UNDP (2008) Public Oversight of the Security Sector. A Handbook for Civil Society Organizations.

NATO-DCAF, (2010). Building Integrity and Reducing Corruption in Defence. A Compendium of Best Practices.

OSCE Code of Conduct on Politico- Military Aspects of Security

Transparency International (2013) Watchdogs ? The quality of legislative oversight of defence in 82 countries. Government Defence and-corruption index.

Transparency International (2012). Building Integrity and Countering Corruption In Defence and Security. 20 Practical Reforms.

United Nations SSR task force, Security Sector Reform Integrated Technical Guidance Notes. 2012.

[1] In Dean M. Gottehrer (2009), “Fundamental Elements of an Effective Ombudsman Institution.”

[2] DCAF-UNDP (2007), Monitoring and investigating the Security Sector. p17.

[3] Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

 © Icon Credit: Designed by Freepik from

Monitoring Security Services. A Guide for Ombuds Institutions

This Series of Monitoring Products is designed to facilitate the work of National Human Rights (Ombuds) Institutions on monitoring the security sector. The series provides guidance on relevant best practices and may also be used for relevant capacity d … read more

Monitoring Law Enforcement. A Guide for Ombuds Institutions

This Series of Monitoring Products is designed to facilitate the work of National Human Rights (Ombuds) Institutions on monitoring the security sector. The series provides guidance on relevant best practices and may also be used for relevant capacity d … read more

Key Issues and Policy Recommendations , Conference 5

This publication offers the Key Issues and Policy Recommendations based on the results of the Fifth International Conference “The Role of Ombuds Institutions in Security Sector Governance”. Conference Five, following to the previous conferences recomme … read more

Conference 5: The Role of Ombuds Institutions in Security Sector Governance

The fifth multi-stakeholder conference on “The role of the ombuds Institutions in security sector governance” took place on 29-30 November 2016 in Kyiv. The Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights opened the conference by clarifying the stat … read more

Gender and Complaints Mechanisms: A Handbook for Armed Forces and Ombuds Institutions

This handbook brings together knowledge and experience as regards prevention of misconduct, and handling and monitoring of complaints within armed forces, with particular regard to gender. The Handbook is a resource for armed forces, ministries of defe … read more

Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces: A Handbook

This handbook examines Ombuds institutions for the armed forces and their role in the promotion and protection of human rights as well as in the prevention of maladministration. Developed in cooperation with the International Conference of Ombuds Insti … read more

Photo credit: Ivan Bandura (Flickr)

© Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved

Web Development by Activate Media