The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis, but as security forces have been enlisted in the battle to contain it, COVID-19 has also affected all dimensions of the security sector. To discuss how COVID-19 has affected the armed forces and their own oversight role, over 110 representatives of 45 ombuds institutions gathered last week for the 12th annual – but first ever virtual - International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces (ICOAF).
Ombuds institutions for the armed forces receive and investigate complaints from within, or relating to, the armed forces. Impartial and independent from the institutions they oversee, they are responsible for the protection of human rights and the prevention of maladministration. Before the five day conference in October, DCAF surveyed participants about the impact of COVID-19 on their work, how they have responded to challenges and immediate threats, and how they plan for long-term recovery. Almost 50 respondents from about 40 countries provided feedback.
Participants of 11ICOAF in Sarajevo
ARMED FORCES DEPLOYED TO FIGHT COVID-19
According to the survey, in almost all countries the armed forces have been deployed to assist in the fight against COVID-19, supplying logistical and administrative support, enforcing lockdown regulations, and transporting the critically-ill. This crucial contribution has not only exposed them to the virus, but also to the increased stress of being deployed in their own countries, close to their families and friends who are also in danger.
GREATER CIVIL-MILITARY RELATIONS
Contact between citizens and soldiers has naturally increased with the deployment of the armed forces to assist in the response to COVID-19. Interestingly, that lead to mixed trends in the number of complaints received. General ombuds institutions largely reported a decrease in complaints, a stark contrast with specialized ombuds institutions which saw an increase in complaints from both armed forces personnel and civilians. In addition to complaints regarding the health and safety of armed forces personnel and the conduct of soldiers enforcing COVID measures, the majority of complaints touched upon normal issues that were made worse by the pandemic, such as delayed promotions or salaries.
FIELDWORK AND DIGITALIZATION
In order to remain within reach of potential complainants during the pandemic, ombuds institutions have adapted to a greater online presence and modernized their workstreams, instituting and refining complaint mechanisms that are accessible via a smartphone app or social media.
COVID-19 has hampered the investigation of complaints by making field visits difficult, forcing ombuds to find new ways of communicating with troops. During the first wave of COVID, many offices stopped field visits entirely and were instead focused on getting the technology in place to work remotely. They expanded their communication tools to include questionnaires, phone calls, and even virtual visits. While new technologies offer a wide range of possibilities, conference participants said they will not be able to completely match the benefits of personal interactions.
THE STRICTER THE ANTI-COVID-19 MEASURES, THE STRICTER THE OVERSIGHT SHOULD BE
Around the world governments have introduced extraordinary measures to try to manage the pandemic. Discussing these measures at 12ICOAF, ombuds institutions reiterated that they must remain vigilant, as many of those measures may infringe on the rights of citizens, including those in military uniforms.
Any restrictions or limitations on human rights have to be prescribed by law, proportionate, timely, and regularly assessed. Ombuds institutions underlined that the national authorities must communicate the reasons for restrictions in a clear and unambiguous way.
The stricter anti-Covid-19 measures are, the stricter the oversight of their implementation should be. Contributing to the accountability of those in charge remains the cornerstone of ombuds institutions’ work, both in normal and extraordinary circumstances. At the moment COVID-19 is still raging across the globe, but eventually it will be contained. In the process of returning to normalcy, ombuds institutions will play a crucial role in holding governments to account to ensure that the expanded role of security forces is reduced and they return to their regular, legally-mandated activities.
12ICOAF Preparatory Meeting
Lessons learned and good practices identified by the participants at 12ICOAF are presented in the Conference Statement available at 12icoaf.org. Two briefing notes presenting the key results from the COVID-19 survey are available on our website: "Impact of COVID-19 on Armed Forces", "Impact of COVID-19 on Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces"
The 12th ICOAF conference was possible thanks to the generous support of the German Federal Foreign Office.