In the Ombudswoman THEO PANAYIDES finds a romantic realist with the power to intervene to make things right, an idealist with a poetic streak

As a symbol, it’s almost too perfect. The office of Maria Stylianou-Lottides – the Commissioner for Administration and the Protection of Human Rights, a.k.a. the Ombudsman or in this case Ombudswoman – is in Era House in central Nicosia, an unusual case of a modern block of flats attached to an old sandstone house. The two buildings aren’t just next to each other; they’re a single building, with connecting parts. You can literally access her office both through the slick modern entrance of the new block and by knocking on the door (there’s no doorbell) of the old house – the new ‘European’ technocratic Cyprus and the old, implicitly more ‘human’ small-town Cyprus, respectively.

The metaphor isn’t exactly airtight. Not only is the new Cyprus not as ‘European’ as it claims to be, but the older one was a lot more venal than nostalgists like to think. Still, it’s striking that our conversation with Maria runs on what one might call parallel lines. On the one hand, it’s all about acronyms and supra-national organisations – the IOI (International Ombudsman Institute) which stepped in to affirm her independence after it was challenged by the Auditor-General, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) that recently, in collaboration with the UN, upgraded her office to ‘Status A’. On the other, it’s about ordinary people whose stories – and problems – she listens to surprisingly often. I’d assumed she worked with emails and correspondence, like most faceless government departments, but in fact the work is a lot more intimate – and a lot more human.

People with complaints do indeed send letters and emails – but they also, for instance, send messages on her personal Messenger (she’ll immediately take a screenshot and send it to her secretary, so it can be printed out and filed as an official complaint). They also turn up in person, with an appointment and even without, usually distraught and often at their wits’ end.

“Most people feel helpless, because no-one will listen,” she notes. “The day before yesterday – I’ll give you an example – a complainant came in without an appointment… It seemed like he wasn’t very well, psychologically speaking, he was in despair after [having tried] all the other services.” The man wasn’t young, he was 60 years old; his complaint is irrelevant, the point was that he’d done the round of ministries only to be fobbed off and ridiculed. He was loud, and verbally abusive; he lashed out at Maria’s staff, and insisted on seeing the Ombudswoman herself. The man was out of control, and Maria called the police for her own safety but eventually went down to see him – and then a strange thing happened: once she sat down with him, and explained “where I was able to intervene and where I wasn’t, the man burst into tears… Then he thanked us, apologised for his behaviour, and left calmly”.

The point, in other words, is being listened to. Even when complainants are told there’s not much the office can do for them, they feel a surge of relief because at least they know “where they stand, what measures they can take”. Government has become such a monster, with its array of SGOs, licensing bodies and deputy ministries in addition to the main branches – and of course it’s axiomatic that no-one ever takes responsibility, it’s always the applicant’s fault for having brought the wrong form, or gone to the wrong department. It’s not so much evil as numbing, inhuman, technocratic; it makes you feel helpless. The most important role of the Ombudswoman – a post Maria’s held since 2017 – may just be in charting a path through the jungle, throwing a lifeline to those caught in the tendrils of the beast.

There are reasons to feel wary in talking to her. For one thing, she’s part of the system. Anyone tasked with overseeing the state’s power to intervene in people’s lives – even as an independent officer – also accepts, by definition, that the state should have that power. Much of our interview – at least till it turns to more personal stuff – is conducted in fluent civil-servant-ese, a purposely verbose, waffly style that dots every ‘i’ and crosses every ‘t’, as if to pre-empt any possible challenge. (Having been a lawyer for almost 20 years – four in the private sector, 15 in the Attorney-General’s office – also has something to do with it.) Then there’s the fact that her post, especially its broader remit (the Ombudsman was created in 1991; the extension to human-rights protection came in 2011), offers a perfect alibi for any government that wants to be seen as doing the right thing while actually hiding behind a fig-leaf. Does her oversight have any real teeth?

Well, yes and no. It’s true that she usually relies on ministries to implement her recommendations, thus for instance a recent case on disabled access in nursing homes will only have a real-world impact if health authorities refuse to sign contracts with homes that don’t provide access. Then again, the recommendations are binding – at least when it comes to discrimination and human rights – and independent of government policy. One of her proudest moments came in 2021, at a time when hysterical pundits (and some health officials) were calling for the unvaccinated to be cast out of society, when her office found against Tepak university for refusing to let unjabbed students attend lectures “even though there was an alternative means of protection” (via rapid tests). “They were completely forbidding them,” she explains, “which amounted to the indirect coercion of students”. Tepak gave in, not wishing to risk a fine.


Photos: Christos Theodorides

It’s easy to be cynical about the work – yet it’s actually stunning to discover how much work there is. “The institution [of the Ombudsman] wears many hats at the moment,” as Maria puts it. They receive around 2,500 complaints a year – a sizeable number for an office with just 34 staff – operating as an “equality body” in addition to their other duties.

If an asylum seeker gets rejected, and is due to be deported, Maria and her team step in to oversee their “forced return” and make sure they receive decent treatment. If a disabled kid needs a suitably-modified exam paper in order to sit an exam, they step in. (This happened in a recent case; the kid in question passed the exam, and is now at the University of Cyprus.) If the EAC plants electricity poles in a field without granting the owner compensation as required by law, they step in. (The owner could, of course, go to court; but that would take years.) If a person’s waited months for their Minimum Guaranteed Income application to be processed, and the government is dragging its feet, they step in – even though in that case the law is ambiguous, calling for the processing to be completed “within a reasonable time”, so legal analysis is called for. If the LGBT community is attacked, they step in. If a poor family’s fridge conks out, and they need a new one urgently, they step in. If ill-treatment of elders in a nursing home is reported, they step in. If residents complain about factories polluting, they step in. If Muslims don’t have somewhere to pray – this happened in Paphos some time ago, when the mosque was shut – they step in.

Doesn’t it get a bit depressing, this constant litany of problems? Sometimes it’s hard, admits Maria – the prime example being the so-called ‘Stylianos case’ (a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide in 2019) which has now led to criminal proceedings, the first time that’s happened as a result of the Ombudswoman’s investigations; she recalls one of her staff having to stop and physically vomit while reading the case file, unable to bear it. Maria herself seems to be something of a micro-manager (“I won’t let any case go… without seeing the final report”), making the job even harder – yet in fact “this identification [with complainants], and the sadness it causes, may be the biggest incentive to intervene… Every case file is a personal story. Every case file is a person standing in front of you”.

One should take such professions of idealism with a pinch of salt – yet Maria Stylianou-Lottides does come across as an idealist, a true believer, even with a certain poetic streak. She’s tough, to be sure. She’s feuded with other public figures, especially the Auditor-General whom she recently accused of sexism – “We still find it hard, as a society, to accept a woman in a position of authority,” she muses, noting that her sex was never mentioned in 20 years of being a lawyer until she became Ombudswoman – and has pushed back against social-media attacks “targeting the fact that I’m my husband’s wife”. (Her husband is among the publishers of Kathimerini newspaper; they have two boys, 20 and 13.) Even now, however – in her late 40s, after years of seeing the seamy side of life as a lawyer, then the daily onslaught of unhappy people in her current job – she’s not cynical.

“No, unfortunately I’m not cynical,” she affirms with a rare chuckle. “I’d say I’m a combination of a realist and a romantic – with the romantic often having the upper hand. Yes, even now.”

Does she still believe she can help others?

“I still believe that life is a domino effect. All it takes is one simple move by the first person to attain the ultimate goal – because each person passes on the baton to the next one.” She herself, presumably, is first in line, giving succour to desperate people like that angry 60-year-old who crashed into her office the other day – and he, presumably, felt the joy of being noticed and listened to, if only on some subconscious level, and later passed it on to some other person. “Let’s take it differently, with light and darkness,” says Maria, a reminder that she’s quite religious (another thing for which she’s been given grief on social media): “It only takes a tiny bit of light to chase away the darkness. Just a small chink of light in a room destroys all the darkness”.

Sounds quite poetic – and indeed she does write poetry, she admits a bit surprisingly, only in her free time (which is not exactly plentiful), and not exactly polished poems, and maybe not even a poem but a few lines or a single paragraph, to channel her thoughts: it’s her sanctuary, “my psychoanalysis”. She’s been writing since childhood, even before the time when 12-year-old Maria – a happy, biddable child of middle-class parents – decided to become a lawyer “so I could help the weak, and defend the weak”. Poetry and idealism, it turns out, are surprisingly close. She quotes (or actually paraphrases) a line from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: “In the end, those who are able to discern the most beautiful things are saints and poets” – so actually, she concludes, having poets in our midst is good for society.

Might be nice if we had some saints too, I note light-heartedly.

“There are saints, even today. You just have to look… My belief,” says Maria, a bit mysteriously, “is that you attract life according to the purity of what you believe.”

Purity (‘katharotita’ in Greek, i.e. cleanliness) is an unexpected thing to hear about from a civil servant – but in fact she’s not quite a civil servant, neither literally (the Ombudswoman is an extra-judicial arbiter, unattached to any organ of the state) nor temperamentally: she believes, she declares more than once, in “vocation”.

All that said, the vocation comes with an expiry date: her second and final six-year term ends in 2029. She might do more writing after that, she muses, maybe even publish something; she was always shy about “exposing myself to the world”, but six years as a public figure have cured her of that. Meanwhile the work goes on – maybe for nothing, maybe just a fig-leaf indeed, maybe just a drop in the ocean, then again the point is the purity (not necessarily the utility) of what you believe. She can talk the talk, human rights and UN charters and the like, all the accoutrements of the European liberal – but it’s probably the other building that means more to her, the old modest place where real people come seeking help, and go on their way slightly calmer and happier. The old sandstone house of the soul.