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Chancellor of Justice's speech at the conference “Ombudsman’s Role in a Democracy” in Tallinn

Chancellor of Justice's speech at the conference “Ombudsman’s Role in a Democracy” in Tallinn.

Dear participants,

First, let me extend a warm word of welcome to all of you. I am extremely pleased to see that so many of you were able to travel from far and wide to attend the general assembly and the conference. Only a month ago, we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Baltic Way: a continuous human chain organised in nineteen-eighty-nine which ran from Tallinn to Vilnius and was meant to express Baltic solidarity at a time of great political upheaval. Unfortunately, we are not as numerous as to be able to do something similar, but I believe that our meeting is also marked by a sense of solidarity and cooperation. It is a new, perhaps is little more abstract kind of solidarity. Nevertheless, it also grows out of shared values and a shared feeling that we do not want to live in a society where fundamental rights are not respected. This feeling itself is surely not abstract. In the case of Estonia, it is fed by memories which are already far and yet so close. Too close for comfort, you might say. It has been argued that our commitment to human dignity is not rooted in some kind of positive utopia, but in a rejection of actions which harm and humiliate. However it may be, this way of thinking is very helpful in my opinion, because it can serve to illustrate the point that there is no acceptable alternative to a strong and effective promotion of fundamental rights. That this is not one agenda among others and that we are not one interest group among many others. In other words, that we, Ombudsmen, are contributing to something which is absolutely essential to the existence of a liveable human society.           

Fundamental rights are often thought to be a constraint on democracy. The argument runs as follows: it is fine to let the people decide, but only to the point where their freedom of decision-making meets the boundaries of constitutional rights and freedoms. If one adopts this perspective, the Ombudsman will appear if not hostile to democracy, then at least as a counter-force. All the more if the Ombudsman also has the right to initiate constitutional review, as is the case in Estonia. Let me say that this is not how I view the role of the Ombudsman in a democracy. I believe that, in addition to a democratic mandate acquired in free elections, we should also insist on democratic government between elections. And respect for fundamental rights is a part of this form of government. This is not simply about how we define „democracy“. It is rather based on the idea that you cannot participate in governing a society if you are excluded from this society by lack of education, by discrimination or by other types of restriction. We are prone to take these things for granted. Just as we are prone to take democracy itself for granted. This is also true of Estonia which became again a democratic republic only a quarter of a century ago. To think of it, this is not at all a bad thing for it means that years of democracy have succeeded in creating a sense of security. Recent events both inside and outside the European Union have shown that, what still needs to be done is to strengthen this feeling of security, not with a sense of fear, but with a sense of vigilance and an understanding that our democracy can be fragile.     

Let me limit myself to these general remarks. We will have many occasions to go into much more detail in the following days. I should, however, like to emphasise that it is a very great honour to host the general assembly and the conference of the European region of the International Ombudsman Institute. It is also a very great pleasure to be able to talk to you over several days and discuss issues which we, Ombudsmen, must deal with daily. On this note, let me give the floor to Mr Peter Tyndall who, as you all now, is the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner of Ireland and President of the European region of the International Ombudsman Institute.  

Thank you for your attention!