In the small Caribbean nation of Belize—as in many small, relatively poor countries with scarce human capital—corruption is an entrenched part of government and society. The country’s small population—less than 400,000—exacerbates issues such as nepotism and conflicts of interest, and make it difficult to hold corrupt actors accountable. Citizens harmed by corruption are understandably reluctant to report these incidents when the people to whom they would have to report are the corrupt actors’ close friends and colleagues—or in some cases the corrupt actors themselves. In an attempt to address this problem, Belize (following suit with the rest of the Caribbean) adopted an Ombudsman Act in 1994 and, pursuant to that Act, established the Office of the Ombudsman in 1999.
There is considerable variation in the role that similarly-named “Ombudsman’s Offices” play in different countries; Belize employs the classical model of an Ombudsman, though the Belizean Ombudsman has a broader human rights and anticorruption mandate than the typical Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can receive complaints from any person who alleges injustice, injury, or abuse by an authority; complaints are handled anonymously, outside of what is perceived as a corrupt system. Additionally, the Ombudsman is responsible for investigating those complaints, and it has investigative powers comparable to a judicial tribunal, which is necessary to secure crucial information from the government. The Ombudsman, which acts independently of the Government of Belize, would ideally play a significant and constructive role in combating corruption.
For these reasons, one might think that Belize’s Ombudsman is well-positioned to take a lead role in anticorruption. Yet it doesn’t seem to be doing so. Citizen complaints to the Ombudsman are relatively infrequent (only 122 new complaints were received in 2017, down from 207 new complaints filed in 2016), and of those complaints, very few concern government corruption. And when it comes to larger anticorruption reform strategy, it’s perhaps telling that the UN’s Project Document on strengthening Belize’s national systems to support the implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption doesn’t even mention the Office of the Ombudsman as a potential avenue for supporting UNCAC’s implementation.
What could be done to make the Belizean Ombudsman’s Office a more significant and effective player in this small country’s struggle against entrenched corruption? Three things:
- First, the Ombudsman’s orders should be given legally binding force. Currently, after the Office completes an investigation of a citizen complaint, the Office presents its findings and recommendations to the appropriate agency or authorities, but these findings and recommendations are not legally binding. Under Sections 21 and 22 of the Ombudsman Act, the Ombudsman may publish and create a Special Report “if no adequate action has been taken after giving the authority an opportunity to be heard” or if there is evidence of “breach of duty, misconduct and criminal offence and matter has been referred for disciplinary or other proceedings.” But ultimately, the only thing the Ombudsman can do is investigate and issue a report; complainants remain forced to rely on a system they distrust for relief. Giving the Ombudsman the power to make legally binding recommendations, though a departure from the classical ombudsman model, would be appropriate for a country like Belize, which faces serious issues of government mistrust. Indeed, countries such as the Philippines empower their Ombudsman to take direct action and compel the appropriate authorities to comply with their orders, and make disobedience of an Ombudsman’s order grounds for disciplinary action. If the Belizean Ombudsman were able to compel action from the government, and then hold the government accountable for noncompliance, then citizens might finally feel like there is an effective mechanism for addressing corruption.
- Second, the Ombudsman office must be insulated properly from government interference, specifically in regards to the appointment and renewal procedure. Currently, the Ombudsman is appointed by the Governor General, and the government has the power to renew the Ombudsman’s term. This undermines the Ombudsman’s independence and causes citizens to view the office as an extension of the political authorities. Belize should consider some basic protections for the Ombudsman to prevent inappropriate political influence, including term limits, limitations on removal to cases of impeachment, and a guaranteed salary. Belize should also consider an independent selection committee to recommend potential Ombudsmen, potentially including members of NGOs, to create more separation between the government and the Ombudsman’s office. In a country as small as Belize, it might still be the case that the Ombudsman is connected to current government officials, but at least putting these protective structures in place reduces the extent of political influence.
- Third, the Ombudsman’s Office must be provided with sufficient funding to accomplish its mandate. Funding for the Ombudsman is provided by the government, and the Office is often viewed as under-resourced, which limits its effectiveness. While it’s of course true that resources are sharply limited in a place like Belize, investing in the Ombudsman may ultimately help to improve Belize’s economic situation, by helping to limit the corruption and mismanagement that perpetuate and exacerbate Belize’s economic problems. Prioritizing anticorruption efforts may mean less funding for other areas at first, but might also ultimately allow for more resources available in the end.
After almost twenty years of having an Office of the Ombudsman, it’s time for Belize to reassess the current structure and powers of that office. If Belize is truly committed to using the Ombudsman to fight corruption and its effects, then the government must consider how to reform the Office in order to give it a more robust role in that fight.