Belize has been without an Ombudsman, one of the country’s essential oversight bodies, for close to a year.
Though the Office of the Ombudsman has remained opened to the public, it has been at least ten months since it was made public in February this year that the former Ombudsman Lionel Arzu’s contract had expired and will not be renewed.
Since Arzu’s departure, only a portion of the office’s duties can be carried out. Reports and complaints are still being documented at the office; however, no investigations are being conducted at this time.
The Reporter notes that for a brief period of time a legal officer substituted took up most of the work, but investigations were still unable to be executed. Unfortunately, the legal officer, while being a post that entails most of the duties of an Ombudsman, lacks the authority to sign any document.
The Reporter has since confirmed that the legal officer no longer works at the office and that there has been no confirmation on the appointment of a new Ombudsman as yet. It is noteworthy that Section 7 of the Ombudsman Act states that “when a vacancy arises in the office of the Ombudsman, the Governor General acting on the recommendations of the National Assembly, may designate a person to act in that office during such vacancy, until a substantive appointment is made.”
Attorney at Law Orson Elrington, who is representing Arzu in an unrelated matter, opined to The Reporter that the lack of an Ombudsman for almost year is simply negligence. “Obviously, an Ombudsman is a critical part of our democracy and our justice system; and so, it is an absolute derelict of their duties to not have one. But, this not unique because there are other instances of absolute abandonment in the justice system,” Elrington declared.
Elrington made sure to point out that the government has no valid reason as to why they cannot employ a replacement, as Arzu’s case against GOB does not prevent them from doing so. “This claim has absolutely nothing to do with the government of Belize not appointing a new Ombudsman,” Elrington affirmed.
Former Ombudsman, Paul Rodriguez, who was appointed under the previous PUP administration, took a different view regarding the matter. “I think one of the problems right now is that the government has so many priorities. I think that the work of the Ombudsman, if it is to be done properly, will add several thousands of dollars to the monthly expense. It is something that should be done sooner or later but I think that government is focused on more physically urgent things like the economy of the country. I don’t blame them.”
From the expense standpoint, it is worth highlighting that the Approved Budget Estimates (“The Budget”) for the present fiscal year had set aside $300,338 for the Office, a sum that represents about 0.03 percent of total recurrent expenditure. That figure is largely in line with those provided in previous year’s budget, including Fiscal Year 2018/19, when the actual expenditure for the Office was about $315,800.
Since Fiscal Year 2018/19, the Budget estimates a staff of seven for the oversight body: One managerial (The Ombudsman), one technical or frontline personnel, four persons for administrative support, with one non-established worker.
In accordance with the Ombudsman Act, the holder of this office is to receive and investigate complaints by any person who claims to have sustained injustice or abuse by an authority. Upon the completion of that investigation, the findings and recommendations are forwarded by the ombudsman to the Principal Officer at the ministry, local authorities or public corporation as applicable.
The most common complaints filed at the Ombudsman Office are for matters related to police brutality, prison mistreatment, misappropriation of pensions, medical negligence, employment and administrative concerns and immigration affairs.
Regarding Arzu’s unrelated case, readers may recall that Elrington is currently representing Arzu in a case against the Government of Belize to settle the remaining balance of what his contract honored to pay him. According to Elrington, Arzu’s contract was violated since he was shorted of a total of $10,441 from what he was due. The contract included a sum of $2,000 monthly, plus his allowance which was to be paid for his tenure from May 11th, 2020 to March 31st of this year. He further explained that the government unilaterally changed the conditions of Arzu’s contract without his consent or explanation.