Stern message issued by 14 European ombudsmen during Nicosia conference
Cyprus runs the risk of being exposed to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe because of the auditor-general’s behaviour towards the ombudswoman, according to two senior officials of the international and regional ombudsman network who participated in a conference in Nicosia this week.
The aim of the conference, organised by the Cypriot ombudswoman, Maria Stylianou-Lottidou, and the Mediterranean Association of Ombudsmen, was to strengthen the Ombudsman Institutions. The delegates analysed the so-called Venice Principles for the first time since their 25 points were adopted by the Venice Commission at its 118th plenum in March 2019.
Both the chairman of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), Peter Tyndall, and Andreas Pottakis, the Greek ombudsman and chairman of the Mediterranean association, censured the stance of auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides towards the ombudswoman, describing it as an infringement of the Venice principles that Cyprus has signed.
The two officials, who have been loggerhead for the past two years, this week accused each other of breaking the law and have each asked the attorney-general to prosecute the other: Michaelides for not cooperating in providing data, Lottidou for interference in her work.
Michaelides wants data on the number of complaints filed to Lottidou’s office over the period 2015-2018.
The ombudswoman has refused, arguing the auditor-general is seeking to carry out an administrative audit of her office when he only has the authority to perform financial audits.
She accused Michaelides of seeking to interfere with the work of an independent official.
Speaking at the conference, the Greek ombudsman said the Mediterranean and the international ombudsman organisations were aware of the auditor’s demand to audit the ombudswoman’s office and have commented repeatedly on the matter.
“The audit into the financial administration of an ombudsman is limited and cannot extend beyond what is lawful. It cannot go into matters of the office’s operation,” Pottakis said.
The Greek ombudsman stressed that Cyprus is obliged to adhere to the Venice principles, adding that they have repeatedly highlighted the manner and boundaries of an audit into the office of an ombdusman.
“I think there is an infringement that must be corrected immediately and I imagine the authorities here in Cyprus, considering what they have signed – since the Venice principles have been approved by the council of ministers of member-states – should comply and protect the institution of the ombudswoman so that she can independently carry out her important work,” he said.
“An audit of the financial administration of an ombudsman can be carried out only as to the legality of the expenditure and not the expediency and the manner in which an office will decide to handle its cases; not the way it will decide to administer its budget.”
In his speech, the chairman of the International Ombudsman Institute stressed the need to safeguard the independence of ombudsmen from external interventions.
Tyndall said Lottidou was known and respected by her colleagues.
The conference heard that the Venice principles will be the guidelines that define the way ombudsmen operate and are protected in all European countries.
“It is very important for us ombudsmen, as well as for national jurisdictions, to highlight the way in which ombudsmen can contribute in securing the democratic principles, transparency, and protection of human rights, matters that are crucial for all of us,” Pottakis said.
Welcoming the delegates, Lottidou said it was a unique opportunity to deal with the challenges faced by the institution of the ombudsman.
In her speech, she said it was especially important to hold the conference in Nicosia, the last divided European capital.
Lottidou discussed the challenges faced by ombudsmen and the interventions in the institution, whose basic responsibility is to safeguard and protect human rights. The Venice principles, she said, clearly state that ombudsmen do not take instructions from any other independent authority.
Protection of the ombudsman’s independence is an international obligation.
The IOI chairman expressed his deep concern over the situation in Cyprus, saying the auditor-general must only audit financial procedures.
“The Venice principles that guide the operation of ombudsmen, and the Council of Europe, both state that meddling in their work undermines the independence of the institution.”
Tyndall said IOI had contacted the Cypriot parliament and informed them of their view on the way the matter had been handled.
“We have seen an improvement, but it remains to see an end put to interventions of this kind,” he said.
Tyndall said Cyprus is a member of the Council of Europe and it is bound by its decisions.
“Protecting the independence of the office of the ombudswoman is an international obligation and fundamental for democracy. Cyprus must follow the Venice principles, which are very clear. The audit of the ombudswoman’s office must only concern financial issues and not its operation.”