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: