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Vol 3, No 21
11 June 2001
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An Ombudsman to Protect Us
Interview with
Katalin Gönczöl [Part 1]

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

One of the institutions of which we Hungarians can be justifiably proud is that of the ombudsmen vigilantly safeguarding our constitutional rights. Officially known as Parliamentary Commissioners, they watch over human and minority rights and data protection. I had the pleasure of meeting one of Hungary's deservedly most popular public figures, Human Rights Ombudsman Professor Katalin Gönczöl, in her office in Tüköry utca. Her natural warmth shone through as she enthusiastically answered my questions betraying the rare blend of compassion and objectivity, which make her so ideally suited to her post.

Central Europe Review: Could you say a few words about the origin of the office of Hungarian Civil Rights Ombudsman?

Katalin Gönczöl: Following the collapse of Communism, the office of Ombudsman was created in 1993, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant law which set out the tasks to be carried out by the Ombudsman in uncovering breaches of the human rights enshrined in and guaranteed by the Constitution after pursuing investigations. The position was not filled immediately. The post is defined as a Parliamentary institution. If such violations come to light, non-binding recommendations are put forward by the Ombudsman in an endeavour to seek remedy for them.

The idea of establishing the office of Ombudsman cropped up prior to the changeover to democracy and the 1993 law therefore represents the culmination of a protracted process of legislating. The first stab at electing Ombudsmen was made in 1994, but fell through by a margin of a single vote. The reason why this occurred was due to the rule that two thirds of the Members of Parliament at a given juncture must vote in favour of the candidate concerned. In Hungary, there are four individuals who fulfil similar functions within the realm of guaranteeing civil rights: the general Ombudsman, his or her Deputy, Ombudsman for Data Protection and Freedom of Information and the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities.

The first successful round of elections took place on 1 July 1995, when all four Ombudsmen gained the requisite number of votes and were appointed for a six-year term of office. This period draws to a close on 1 July of this year.

According to the 1993 law, the new Ombudsmen ought to have been elected in April already, but this has not happened to today's date and we do not even know the names of the candidates. The nomination procedure unfolds as follows: the President of the Republic consults the political parties as to whom they would like to see in the posts and then the President puts forward the names. The Parliament then takes the final decision on the basis of a secret ballot. If a candidate is short of even a single vote, he is not eligible to stand again.

An ordinary day

Could you please describe a typical working day?

My day begins at 5.30 with a workout and a swim before arriving at the office by 8.00. First of all, I sift through the cases in my in-tray sent to me by the office staff, and select those where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a breach of the Constitution would be confirmed if an investigation were to be held.

I need to deal with these as a matter of urgency at the start of each working day, as they might include issues so pressing that a response cannot brook delay, which call for immediate intervention. What type of case might fall into this category? For example, cases where there are grounds to suspect serious abuses of human rights, perhaps entailing even a threat to life and limb or to health. Such cases might also include a person being placed in a socially precarious position, such as being deprived of the roof over his head.

A further reason for me to look carefully through the cases is to determine whether they require urgent action, because if I were to fail to intervene in time, the petitioner would slip through the net as deadlines would expire in the meantime, meaning that the petitioner would forfeit his rights and thereby be deprived of legal remedy. This also represents a very serious responsibility.

Once I have finished going through the cases, I sign the requests for information which I send to the various authorities to enable us to conduct our investigations. Here, too, I distinguish between urgent requests for information and those which can be dealt with in chronological order, by which I am referring to the order in which I received them.

I would also like to point out in this context that the Ombudsman enjoys extremely wide powers of investigation on the basis of the law. In 1993, the legislators emulated the Scandinavian model. The Ombudsman may turn to anyone to ask for information and data, may pursue on-the-spot inspections, without having to give prior warning and examine documents.

Our ultimate aim is to compile an objective, dispassionate, apolitical statement of the facts listing—provided of course that we determine that a breach of Constitution has indeed occurred—exactly which article of the Constitution is being contravened alongside our proposals and recommendations as to how the situation can be remedied.

Three possibilities

I have three possibilities at my disposal to obtain remedy: I can accept the initiatives subsequently taken by the body in question, I can propose to the supervisory authority that it takes steps to make amends for the error or I can arrive at the conclusion that the authority in question—and this brings me on to a typical afternoon when I am studying the contents of the reports carefully—responsible for violating the provisions of the Constitution was actually doing nothing other than to follow the letter of the law, which means that the law itself, whether it be a bill adopted by Parliament, a departmental order, a local government decree or some other instrument of state governance, is at fault.

In such an instance, I am entitled to propose that the competent legislators, whether they comprise local authorities, ministers, the Government or the Parliament itself, modify the piece of legislation revealed in the course of the investigation to be flawed and out of line with the Constitution or to repeal it.

There have been examples of entire laws being declared null and void by Parliament in the wake of my initiative or of brand new laws being drafted, such as the law on state support for the victims of the most serious crimes or the law on consulates. It is true that during the first year my efforts in this respect did not bear fruit, but, after reiterating my position several times, I managed to persuade the legislators that various laws conducive to protecting the safety of Hungarian citizens were absent from the statute books.

The law on consulates I alluded to a moment ago, which is currently before Parliament, is the outcome of three years of struggle after which I finally persuaded the experts to enshrine in law the duties incumbent upon consuls acting as Hungary's representatives in assisting Hungarian citizens encountering difficulties. I felt that in this day and age of migration, where so many Hungarians travel abroad as tourists, students or workers, such a move would be warranted, regardless of the nature of the trouble concerned, which might range from criminal proceedings, conviction for a minor offence not leading to the imposition of a custodial sentence, accidents, health problems, lost luggage and lost passports, the most typical problems, in other words.

The main thrust was to ensure that the consul could always be held accountable for his actions on the basis of a law so that if he was guilty of dereliction of duty, the citizen could lodge an official complaint against him and—perhaps most importantly of all—could obtain legal remedies for the injury suffered if justice had not been done. These principles have been accepted at last.

Once I have worked my way through all these reports—I do not wish to burden you down with my woes, to give the impression that the Ombudsman is brimming over with complaints herself, but my cupboards are stuffed full of reports such as these and I was compelled to arrange them in order of urgency as I have just returned from twelve days' leave and so many reports arrived in the meantime that the cupboards have virtually toppled over on me.

I also as a general rule read through the official responses to my requests for information. The responses may assume the form of copies of official documents I asked for, the results of examinations—I am empowered to call upon the authorities to conduct investigations and if they decide to do this themselves, they provide me with a summary of the results—or of replies to the recommendations or proposals I put forward.

If I make a simple recommendation, then the authority in question has 30 days at its disposal to react; if I recommend disciplinary procedures or amendment of legislation, the corresponding deadline is 60 days. This is why I devote such care to familiarising myself with their contents before issuing instructions to my staff. Then I turn to articles in the press to see what journalists are writing about us, but this only takes second place in terms of importance. The press is an extremely important resource in enhancing the impact of the legal powers wielded by us, by which term I am referring to the recommendations as a means of affording citizens redress.

We often produce press releases, usually where the cases might, in principle, affect large numbers of people, where we believe that this might be true or about which we have been inundated with complaints. I also peruse the press from another point of view on the off chance that I might stumble upon news of incidents that require me to launch an ex-officio investigation. Very frequently, the honest reporting contained in the quality press has put me on the track of cases involving the most deprived groups in society, who are not even able to lodge a complaint.

Priceless allies

Many an ex-officio investigation has been inspired by this route. In societies in transition, ex-officio investigations are one of the most important powers vested in the Ombudsman, so it is not as alarming as it sounds. As I pointed out, they allow the Ombudsman to step in on behalf of those so underprivileged that they cannot formulate an official complaint.

As I say, both the press and civil society organisations have proven invaluable allies in this respect, but the proportion of ex-officio investigations has never exceeded five per cent of the total. I would like to mention in parentheses that I maintain regular contacts with 53 civil organisations.

This means that civil organisations draw my attention to any grievances affecting them and I subsequently weigh up whether I am in a position to help them. From the very outset, I have been in touch with associations representing cancer patients, the physically disabled and large families as well as organisations defending fundamental civil liberties. I also keep up contacts with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which pays special vigilance to the living conditions of prisoners, whether they are detained in police custody or are in prison proper as well as those of refugees.

I also foster very cordial relations with civil organisations which, by dint of the aims they pursue, keep close tabs on developments in homes for the disabled, the elderly and the destitute. Many of the ex-officio investigations are also set in motion as the result of tip-offs from civil organisations, my own observations or by way of follow-up to previous investigations. The latter is the most powerful instrument at the Ombudsman's disposal, as it affords the sole means at his disposal to check up on how effective his measures have been in practice.

Having completed my review of the press, I move on to examining the material brought upstairs from the archives—usually in a large bundle—where the office has fallen behind schedule, indicated in the computer by a red warning arrow, and which are presented directly to me. On such occasions, I am obliged to inspect every single document and ascertain whether the delay is such as to merit my writing to either the body approached for information or, should the need arise, the head of the supervisory authority or even write a report to the effect that the failure to furnish replies within the deadline to my routine or even urgent request for information amounts to a breach of the Constitution in itself.

The third option, that of writing a separate sub-report, covers how there are more than just reasonable suspicions that citizen's rights have been infringed, since my request for information was ignored, in some instances repeatedly. This is quite rare, however.

Those were the bare bones of my normal working day. Above and beyond that, I take pains to attend all the professional forums where discussions are held about the fate of the recommendations or civic values.

Unfortunately, I also teach at the university in addition. Unfortunately is the wrong word to use here, but sometimes I feel it is a pity. I always come back from the university in excellent, cheerful spirits, but when I set off for it I am all too conscious of the huge piles of dossiers I am leaving behind. I am a Professor of Criminology by vocation and can maintain with pride that I have never dropped a single class at the university as a result of being the Ombudsman. My students would show no hesitation in hauling me over the coals if I did!

A very successful report

I also take part in meetings set up by civil organisations—if I have any energy left over—where a group of professionals, friends, the residents of a given area or a school community wish to get to know the Ombudsman and the new legal institution she represents. These are highly informative and have alerted me to the need to re-open old investigations or set new ones in motion. I am also glad that we were able to carry out a comprehensive investigation into pupils' rights in 1997 to 1998, more specifically looking into the rights enjoyed by school pupils in the 14 to 18-age bracket.

When we finally published the report after lengthy efforts, a young friend of mine, who just so happened to be in the process of sitting his finals at secondary school, invited me to his own school. I sent a copy of the report to them in advance, giving them an opportunity to familiarise themselves with its contents and we were able to debate the main points in the presence of the teachers. This too proved a very fruitful exercise because I received feedback straight from the horse's mouth, from the individuals directly affected. After the four and a half hour discussion, the wall I felt separated the teaching community from their charges began to crumble.

In my experience in societies in transition—although the same might hold true of elsewhere as
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well—in Hungary pupils are at the mercy of their teachers and parents, teachers are at the mercy of parents and the headmaster and the headmaster in turn is at the mercy of the powers that be responsible for maintaining the school. Even if we were to endeavour to unravel the complex tangle in this one area alone by focusing on citizens' rights and duties, then we would take a giant leap forward in terms of bringing up our youngsters as responsible citizens.

The reason why I deem this report to have been one of the most successful is that a rich seam of educational material aimed at acquainting individuals with their rights as citizens appeared in its wake. These materials really are of the highest quality. The Minister of Education has decided to appoint his own Educational Rights Commissioner, or Mediator, with the rank of Head of Department, who—although he does not necessarily have to take human rights as his starting point—is required to attempt to solve problems in circumstances where conflicts have arisen between either pupils and teachers or schools and those responsible for maintaining them.

I believed that once the Commissioner had assumed his duties then the number of complaints submitted to me would drop, but in reality the number of complaints I have received since launching my ex-officio investigation has increased and continues to do so in spite of the creation of the new institution.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 11 June 2001

Read Part 2 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

Read Part 3 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

Read Part 4 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

Read Part 5 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Katalin Gönczöl

Moving on:



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Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

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