Karachi, Pakistan - Access to justice is a major concern in Pakistan. Pakistan was ranked 134 in the world, lower than Rwanda and Libya, in the 2008 annual Corruption Perception Index released by Transparency International. In fact, one reason some communities in the North West Frontier Province cautiously welcomed the Taliban was the promise of a more efficient, less corrupt justice system.
The Taliban may have proved incapable of meeting those demands, but filling the justice gap is central to improving stability in this strategic South Asian nation. And it is more than a matter of improving the courts.
Maladministration, a term broadly defined to include a range of government actions considered inappropriate or unlawful, is the core grievance that the nationís Federal Ombudsman seeks to address. Established in 1983 by the Pakistani government, it remains one of the few ostensibly independent organs of government where citizens can seek redress, free of charge, for a variety of complaints relating to, for example, federally administered education, employment and health services. Since the creation of the first ombudsman office 26 years ago, several others have proliferated at the federal and provincial levels, including in the taxation and banking sectors.
But the challenges remain largely the same across provincial and federal boundaries. One of these challenges is jurisdiction. The Ombudsman has no power to investigate matters of defence or external affairs, or cases being heard by the courts. This is perhaps the greatest weakness in the current system as it effectively limits independent scrutiny of some of the most critical aspects of governance in Pakistan.
Another issue is the extent to which the Ombudsman has the political clout to affect decisions. In the event that the Ombudsman concludes that a government department is errant, he sends recommendations for redress. If they are not implemented, the Ombudsman will file a formal request for review with the President of Pakistan.
Therein lies the problem with the process. If redress is considered politically disadvantageous, the ombudsman is effectively rendered incapable. Making the Federal Ombudsman's task even more difficult is that the Ombudsman has a four-year term, making him or her vulnerable to the whims of the government of the day.
Last month, the Federal Ombudsman organised a forum in Islamabad on administrative justice and accountability that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders including senior parliamentarians, government officials, academics and civil society representatives. Federal Ombudsman Javed Sadiq Malik reminded all of the representatives that they are working toward the common aim of improving governance by promoting public accountability and upholding the rights of citizens.
Concurrently, the United Nations Development Programme announced in July that it was working with the Federal Ombudsmanís office to strengthen its capacity to respond to public grievances on a $1.6 million project, Strengthening Public Grievance Redress Mechanisms, which will run until the end of next year.
The project will try to strengthen the Ombudsmanís capacity to deal with instances of maladministration, make governmentís delivery of education and trade-related administrative services more efficient, while also improving outreach and access to grievance-redress services. Another key requirement identified by the project is ensuring transparency in the exercise of the Ombudsmanís functions, an important and often missing aspect of governance in Pakistan.
Already the project has borne some fruit. Complaints may be lodged online or over a toll-free number, the latter a significant step towards greater access to justice for Pakistanís largely poor society that has no access to the internet or lawyers.
It is an ambitious project and its facilitation is a daunting task. There is a prevailing sense that the most powerful in Pakistan are above the law, and that the Ombudsman canít change this. After all, injustice and unaccountable governments have been rife in Pakistan despite the existence of the Ombudsman position for over two decades.
But it isnít all doom and gloom. According to figures released by the Federal Ombudsman, 21,368 complaints were addressed last year, up from 13,388 addressed in 2007. Complaints have also been resolved increasingly quickly over the last three years: most are settled within a year and 28% within the first 3 months.
The successful end to Pakistani lawyersí Ďlong marchí to restore an independent federal judiciary this year, and the armyís own recent admission via an article posted on its public relations website that military rule has been highly damaging, suggest that now is as good a time as ever for Pakistanís Ombudsman to get to work.
* Mustafa Qadri (http://mustafaqadri.net) is a journalist based in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 October 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"For both scholars and policy-makers, the materials on the
Middle East produced by Search For Common Ground are outstanding.
If one is looking for balance and depth of analysis, this
is the place to go to get a better understanding of the
complexities of the contemporary Middle East."
- Dr. Robert O. Freedman, Peggy Meyerhoff
Pearlstone Professor of Political Science, Baltimore Hebrew
University and Visiting Professor of Political Science Johns
It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.