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 nation’s 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 Ombudsman’s 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 Ombudsman’s capacity to deal with instances of maladministration, make government’s 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 Ombudsman’s 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 Pakistan’s 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 can’t 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 isn’t 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 lawyers’ ‘long march’ to restore an independent federal judiciary this year, and the army’s 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 Pakistan’s 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).