A “Blessing of Ombuds” or a Plague of Provocateurs?

A state-captured ‘regulator’ is worse than no regulator at all.
—Della Reynolds, What’s the Point of the Ombudsman?

The UK Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), Rob Behrens, joined with the Western Australian Ombudsman, Chris Field, on an official visit to Ukraine in December 2022. The two men had been invited by Dmytro Lubinets, the relatively new Ukrainian Ombudsman and Parliamentary Human Rights Commissioner.  
Image 1. Behrens and Lubinets (Ombudsmen)

Left to right: Western Australian Ombudsman Field, Ukrainian Ombudsman Lubinets and British Ombudsman Behrens

For those unfamiliar with the role of the UK Ombudsman, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) explains:
We make final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments [. . .] We do this fairly and without taking sides.
Behrens has also been an elected member of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) since 2020 and IOI Vice President Europe since November 2021. Chris Field is the current President of IOI. Many of the ombudsmen in the IOI are also their countries' Human Rights Commissioners.    The International Ombudsman Institute (established in 1978) is the only global organisation for the cooperation of more than 200 independent Ombudsman institutions, representing 100 countries worldwide.   The International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) outlines:
In its effort to focus on good governance and capacity building, the IOI supports its members in a threefold way: training, research and regional subsidies for projects [. . .]
The role of ombudsman institutions play an increasingly important role in improving public administration while making the government's actions more open and its administration more accountable to the public.
Behrens notes that many of his peers in the Ombudsman community consider human rights abuses to be a key part of their mandate. Not all Ombudsman schemes are established with a specific human rights mandate, but many consider this work inextricably linked to their purpose.    Within an institute of so many ombudsmen, ostensibly all picked for their “high moral character and integrity” (the Venice Principles), one might expect cooperation, impartiality, rigour, transparency and honesty in abundance. In fact, Mr Behrens coined a term for such a collective: “a blessing of Ombuds”. As this article continues, we may better be able to decide whether this benediction is apt.  
Rob Behrens coins the collective term "a blessing of Ombuds"

Behrens coins the collective term "a blessing of Ombuds"


The International Ombudsman Institute encouraged ‘de-escalation’ in Ukraine in March 2022

On 3 March 2022—well before Behrens’ visit to Ukraine—the International Ombudsman Institute had issued a statement clarifying the position that it then collectively held on the Ukraine-Russia hostilities:
We support all efforts to achieve a de-escalation of hostilities in Ukraine.
The statement called for all parties involved to “fully respect their international obligations .   Nine months later, Behrens and Field set off for Ukraine, where they hoped to satisfy three objectives:
  • To speak at a conference marking International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2022
  • To visit the Commissioner’s office
  • To tour Kyiv and Irpin, badly affected by Russian attacks
Lubinets had only recently stepped into the role of Human Rights Commissioner of Ukraine. He was taking the place of Ukrainian ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, who had been dramatically removed from office. The reason for her downfall will be explored later.    
Former Ukrainian Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova. Source: babel.ua

Former Ukrainian Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova. Source: babel.ua


Security issues—but shared minder with Foreign Secretary

On his return to Britain, Rob Behrens wrote up his reflections in a blog entitled An Ombudsman in peril: Rob Visits Ukraine, in which he described the destruction they had witnessed. Together with Chris Field, he drew up a joint statement for the International Ombudsman Institute, which included their thanks for “the amazing security services team who protected us throughout”.    According to a comment made by the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Behrens had been ignoring advice from the UK Government. UKRINFORM published a short article stating that Dmytro Lubinets had emphasised the following:
Despite the recommendations of the governments of their countries not to visit the territory of Ukraine due to the risk of war escalation and other difficulties that could arise, Field and Behrens still decided to come.
Some may deem their mission to epitomise an act of bravery, where others may judge it reckless. Curiosity may arise regarding the preparation for the undertaking. Did Behrens understand the context—the history of Ukraine, the Maidan events, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbass? Was he briefed in advance by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD)? Had he secured clearance from them?    Following the visit, Behrens wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, James Cleverly, and included this sentence:
As a UK National Ombudsman I was looked after extremely well by the Ukrainian security services and my personal bodyguard, Igor, showed me a picture of him with you [Cleverly] in a similar situation a few weeks ago.
Since he was protected by the same minder as Cleverly, was Mr Behrens following a path well-trodden by other visiting politicians? Surely, he would not have risked politicising his role by travelling at the behest of the UK Government?    
Behrens and Lubinets at the Boris Johnson plaque. Source: Rob Behrens, Twitter

Behrens and Lubinets at the Boris Johnson plaque in Kyiv. Source: Rob Behrens, Twitter


Forget de-escalation. Slava Ukraïni!

In an ombudsman’s toolbox lies the spanner of ‘dispute resolution’. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman leaflet, Early Dispute Resolution Process, explains to British citizens seeking redress for their healthcare or parliamentary complaints that “During dispute resolution we do not give our view on the issues”, and the process itself is described as being “a highly successful way of resolving issues between two parties based on mediation techniques.”    Nevertheless, it appears that with regards to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, dispute resolution was no longer encouraged. Rather than withholding a view, Mr Behrens nailed his allegiance—in blue and yellow strips—atop his travel blog (23 January 2023). Coincidentally, the same colours are sported by the European Ombudsman (about whose performance on other matters UK Column recently conducted an interview with Professor Martin Zizi).    
Behrens' travel blog bannerline

Behrens' travel blog bannerline

European Ombudsman website bannerline

European Ombudsman website bannerline

Behrens’ pro-Ukraine stance synched perfectly with that of his Australian fellow traveller, Chris Field (President of the International Ombudsman Institute). In what appears to be a faux-off-the-cuff comment made to Lubinets (the Ukrainian Ombudsman), Chris Field is stated as saying:

No one will forget what Ukraine does for Ukrainians and the world. You will win this war.

Whether Field is well informed regarding the Ukraine-Russia disparity in weapons or possesses any military expertise is unknown.


Field holding a candle at the Human Rights in Dark Hours conference, tweeted by Behrens

Field holding a candle at the Human Rights in Dark Hours conference, tweeted by Behrens

Thereafter, Behrens continued to beat the metaphorical war drum, as recorded in concluding remarks displayed on the International Ombudsman Institute’s website (emphasis added):
We return home humbled, and determined to promote the Ukrainian cause faced with a brutal, illegal, invasion in as concrete way as the world Ombudsman community can.

Johnson’s flip-flop

Before continuing the chronology, it is worth taking an excursion to the time nine months prior to the Behrens/Field delegation to Ukraine.   In early February 2022, President Zelensky appeared to be seeking resolution with Russia. Indeed, according to the following three quotations from the online news publication, Ukrainskra Pravda, the then British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, seemed to have also been seeking resolution, but then he changed his mind:
Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelensky should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined.
  What else had prompted the volte-face? Ukrainska Pravda goes on to give these reasons:
The first thing was the revelation of the atrocities, rapes, murders, massacres, looting, indiscriminate bombings and hundreds and thousands of other war crimes committed by Russian troops in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories [. . .]   Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv almost without warning [. . .] Johnson brought two simple messages to Kyiv. The first is that Putin is a war criminal; he should be pressured, not negotiated with [. . .] even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not [. . .] Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined.

Denisova and the inventory of atrocities

In March 2022—and some weeks prior to the unexpected visit that Johnson made to Ukraine—the then Ukrainian Ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, was communicating a catalogue of atrocities perpetrated on Ukrainian children at the hands of the Russians. The Ombudsman is one of the key institutions for UNICEF to identify where and in what form international aid to Ukrainian children should be directed.   Denisova had considerable authority to protect civil rights, establish humanitarian corridors, counteract the deportation of adults and children from the occupied territories, and oversee prisoner swaps. It would be the normal expectation that, as Ombudsman, Denisova was being measured in her evaluations of the state of play—cautious not to over-egg, for fear of escalating conflict. Considering her status, one might assume that all the evidence that the Ukrainian Ombudsman was able to collect had been documented, with her sources checked as reliable.   In late March 2022, the American newspaper, The Hill, reported that the Ukrainian Ombusdman alleged that 402,000 Ukrainians had been taken into Russia against their will. Denisova was quoted as saying:
Ukraine fears that some of the civilians, which include 84,000 children, will be used as hostages.
Moscow retorted that the civilians had gone to Russia voluntarily.    On the last day of March, the UK Parliament Hansard records a discussion on the issue of Ukraine Refugee Visas and how their rate of issuance had surged to meet demand, with two new visa schemes swiftly put in place.  

Denisova appeals to the International Ombudsman Institute

On 1 April, Denisova left Ukraine to visit a fellow Ombudsman, the Secretary-General of the International Ombudsman Institute, Werner Amon, at the Ombudsman Board in Vienna. The main topic of the conversation was the dramatic situation in Ukraine, human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian military.   She asked the International Ombudsman Institute and its network to “help make information from Ukraine available to the public in order to counter the spread of false reports and fake news”. (The irony of her request will soon become all too apparent.) Denisova’s Austrian counterpart assured her of the fullest solidarity.     
International Ombudsman Institute statement on Denisova's visit to Vienna

International Ombudsman Institute statement on Denisova’s visit to Vienna

On 6 April, the Sun reported, in its customary lurid prose, that Boris Johnson had vowed to retaliate after Putin's forces mercilessly raped and murdered civilians and left their mutilated corpses to rot in the streets. The Sun also stated:
The Kremlin denied accusations its troops committed war crimes in Ukraine—and tried to suggest chilling pictures of dead bodies strewn across Kyiv streets were staged by Ukraine and the West.

Denisova’s double act

To return to the above chronology: on 9 April 2022, Johnson visited Zelensky in Ukraine. On 12 April, President Zelensky communicated that hundreds of rapes committed by Russian soldiers had been reported. For this article, two seemingly irreproachable officials provided information. One was hotline psychologist Oleksandra Kvitko (name also seen transliterated in the less standard variant Kvitco), who maintained that she had received 70 such reports.   The second official referenced was the Ukrainian Ombudsman, Lyudmyla Denisova, who, it was reported, regularly receives information on new cases of rape, which are made public only with the consent of the victims. The reporters for Euromaidan Press who published these assertions made no mention of the fact—whether or not they had established it—that Oleksandra Kvitco was in fact Denisova’s daughter and was Denisova’s main source regarding atrocities.   

Ombudsmen react to alleged ‘atrocities’

At the end of April 2022, the European Network of Ombudsmen held a conference entitled The Role of Ombudsmen in Times of Crisis.    Convinced by Denisova’s description of the situation in Ukraine, and without apparently seeing any supporting evidence, UK Ombudsman Behrens joined his international counterparts to sign a written declaration.   The declaration states:
We, Ombudsmen and Chairs of Petition Committees,   Reaffirm our full solidarity with Ukrainians who are the victims of a war of aggression, which is leading to acts that may be qualified as war crimes or even crimes against humanity; and [welcome] the Council of the European Union’s decision to activate the temporary protection mechanism, which grants immediate protection to Ukrainian refugees.
This was significant. It was the first time that a particular EU measure had been activated since it was adopted in 2001. The Temporary Protection Directive offers quick assistance to people fleeing Ukraine with access to accommodation, employment, health care and education in Member States. Like a policeman on point duty, the Institute of Ombudsmen helped to direct migration forward into recipient countries, whose respective economies and societies would have to adjust.   European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, attending the same Network of Ombudsmen Conference, praised the courageous work being done by the Ukrainian Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights, Lyudmyla Denisova. Denisova stressed the importance of documenting war crimes so that the perpetrators could be brought to justice. O’Reilly stated that it was the role of ombudsmen to enable refugees to take advantage of the rights offered by the EU Temporary Protection Directive.   On 23 May, Denisova could be found at ‘House of Russian War Crimes’ in Davos, sharing alarming statistics:
Every day, 700–800 of our citizens call the Commissioner's hotline to report on russian war crimes. 1,500 citizens found the courage to call the psychological helpline and tell about the most terrible crimes—sexual, torture, torture. Mass sexual crimes are tactics of the russian war to destroy the people of Ukraine.
The above paragraph, with its poor and possibly auto-translated English (see the repetition of the noun ‘torture’), is reproduced as given in English on the Ukrainian Ombudsman website. Note the repeated non-capitalisation of the adjective ‘Russian’, in an apparently conscious reflection of Ukrainian nationalist practice since March 2022.  
Denisova at Davos. Source: ombudsman.gov.ua

Overall, Denisova says she held 68 meetings with high-ranking officials from various countries. These included meetings with:

  • the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights;
  • the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;
  • the Secretary-General of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE);
  • and the Secretary-General of the Vatican, to “resolve issues of assistance to Ukraine, including the provision of weapons and continued sanctions pressure on Russia”. 


Ukrainian media raise concerns about Denisova’s claims

On 25 May 2022, a written appeal was made by the Ukrainian media, calling on Lyudmyla Denisova to tighten up her language about sexual crimes perpetrated during the war. The appeal stated:
We are concerned that the Ukrainian media does not become merely a platform for the dissemination of ‘horrific details’ about wartime sex crimes instead of serving as voices in support of the gathering of evidence in relevant criminal cases and fair punishment, and spreading information about where and how to reach out to survivors of violence.
The 140 signatories were named media personalities, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and public organisations.    Ukrainskaya Pravda reported:
Ukrainian law enforcement officials tried to investigate Denisova’s claims on their own. They raised all appeals to doctors, statements made to police, death reports, trying to find the cases that Denisova described. However, all this work turned out to be useless [futile].
Denisova doubted. Source: Detektor Media


Ombudsman Denisova removed from office

A week later, on 31 May 2022, Newsweek reporter Adam Staten wrote that Denisova had been removed from her post over her handling of reports detailing sexual assault allegations made against Russians in Ukraine.    Ukrainian MP Pavel Frolov provided a number of reasons why Denisova had had her mandate revoked by the Rada, including her “inexplicable focus on supposed sex crimes and the “rape of minors in the occupied territories, which she could not substantiate with evidence”. Other reasons for her removal included:
[. . .] repeated failure to perform her duties related to the establishment of humanitarian corridors [and to] counteracting the deportation of adults and children from the occupied territories.
Ukrainian media outlets and journalists requested that reports concerning rape and sexual assault be published with caution; facts should be checked before publication and only information for which there is sufficient evidence should be disclosed.    The information put out by Denisova’s office had been taken on trust as factual by the media and used in speeches by public figures. When her unreliability came to light, Denisova was:
[. . .] removed from her role as Ukraine’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights after she received a vote of no confidence in the Ukrainian parliament which passed by a margin of 234 to 9.

Overthrow of an Ombudsman

If it had not been curtailed, Denisova’s term of office would have continued into 2023. Neither the Ukrainian Constitution nor any other legislation allowed for her premature dismissal from office. However, to recall her, parliamentarians in the Rada invoked the provisions of martial law, which permits the removal of all appointees. Ukrainian human rights activists warned against “further politicizing the office” and called for “human rights experts, rather than lawmakers, to apply for the Ombudsman’s replacement and an open, transparent procedure”.   Ukraine has been particularly unfortunate with the performance of its recent ombudsmen:
Before Denisova took over as human rights chief in March 2018, the post had remained vacant for a year. Her predecessor, Valeriya Lutkovska, had also been dismissed.

International ombudsmen protest at Denisova’s dismissal

On 2 June 2022, a ‘blessing’ of international ombudsmen, alarmed by the sacking of Denisova, wrote a knee-jerk statement praising her unstinting efforts in documenting human rights violations. Chris Field, President of the International Ombudsman Institute, was one of the signatories.   

Human rights networks join in deploring the dismissal

On 6 June 2022, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) and its European partners also protested. A letter written to the Speaker of the Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, and to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, warned that the dismissal of Denisova could “severely disrupt the important work that needs to be done in these times of conflict”. Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine asserted that her removal “violates international standards”.  

Denisova’s mea culpa

On 10 June 2022, Denisova came clean:
I talked about terrible things in order to somehow push them to make the decisions that Ukraine and the Ukrainian people need. [. . .] I tried to achieve the goal of convincing the world to provide weapons and pressure.

At her interrogation at the Prosecutor’s Office (according to Ukrainska Pravda), Denisova explained that she “told these horrific stories because she wants Ukraine to be victorious. Denisova agreed to repeat her confession to LB.ua journalists, in which interview she explained how she had been briefed by her sources (note the plural, emphasis added):

I told the media what the psychologists had said verbatim when working for a UNICEF psychological support line.

Who were the allegedly plural psychologists, and how had they been appointed? 

The provision of psychological support was a service that had been prompted by Denisova herself. When questioned about her dismissal, Denisova informed Babel.ua that in March 2022, she met with UNICEF in regard to psychological support by means of a hotline for victims. According to Denisova, UNICEF then organised a psychological counselling project on its own, without her involvement. UNICEF hired these psychologists through one of its partner NGOs.   Although it was understood that five professional psychologists were taking calls on the line, it was not known who they were or how their counselling was recorded. Denisova described the hotline as a project run by UNICEF, a fact which the latter flatly denied to the reporters of Correctiv.org. According to UNICEF itself, the UN body only provided technical support and equipment.   It transpired that some of the staff at the Ukrainian Ombudsman’s Office were not even sure whether the five UNICEF psychologists, supposedly working on UNICEF’s hotlines, were real. It appears that only one psychologist, Oleksandra Kvitco (Denisova’s daughter), has since been named, and she may have been publicly participating in the Ukraine Ombudsman’s work in some capacity as early as 2019.     
Oleksandra Kvitco's role on the hotline. Source: Meduza.io

Oleksandra Kvitco’s role on the hotline. Source: Meduza.io

Kvitco line

The ‘Kvitco line’ turned out to differ from all other hotlines, with the main difference being its lack of transparency. Generally, operators of such sensitive hotlines—in Ukraine as in other countries—are required to record all incoming calls and to report them to their superiors so that leads could be passed on to law enforcement, but “it seems nobody knew anything about Kvitko’s work, as there were no records of what she was doing.”   Meduza Online reported:
Oleksandra Kvitko wasn’t able to provide any details, including who called her or what doctors she directed the victims to. There was nothing that would indicate these victims actually existed. She said that she told her mother the stories over tea.
The same press publication stated that, during the initial interrogation, Denisova “was unable to name the source of her information”—but that, just prior to being fired, she admitted she had “learned about everything from her daughter”, Oleksandra Kvitco.   

UNICEF’s cold feet on hotline

According to the Telesur article UNICEF: No Evidence on Russia’s Abduction of Ukranian Children, the Russian Ombudsman and Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, stated that there has:
[. . .] never been any forcible transfer of refugees to Russia, noting that those accusations ‘are all lies’. Moskalkova said that since the beginning of the military conflict, more than 500 000 civilians from the Donbass region and Ukraine have voluntarily moved to Russia.
Moskalkova herself had talked with refugees who said they wanted to seek asylum on Russian territory. All refugees were given the necessary food, clothing and medicine. She called on officials of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) to visit interim accommodation facilities in Russia to check for themselves on the welfare of the refugees.    Denisova had insisted that it had been UNICEF which set up the ‘Kvitco’ hotline that had churned out unsubstantiated claims. Though Kyiv had made claims that Russia had been forcibly taking children away, UNICEF ultimately conceded that it had no evidence to back this up but was open to investigating them.    The Kvitco helpline was closed down about two months after its installation. Unfortunately, by this time, propaganda had been spread and amplified. Denisova stated in her interview with VoxUkraine, referring to the closure of the hotline:
The program’s [sic] already over. May 15 was their [sic] last day.

Disseminating propaganda

Looking back to the early months of 2022, one may wonder whether the power of her position had gone to Denisova’s head. Or was something more sinister going on?    Were Kvitco and her mother the deliverers of a scripted political message, and not actually the compilers of victim accounts? Were the lurid but unsubstantiated reports spread by Denisova the equivalent of Sir Richard Dearlove’s 2003 Dodgy Dossier, i.e., an account designed to make a case and to secure widespread support for the predetermined argument that armaments and action against an adversary of the West were needed?    Denisova’s propaganda appears to have been swallowed whole by the International Ombudsman Institute without any exploratory fork-prodding. It was communally regurgitated, no doubt gaining credence because of the perceived eminence of the ‘blessing’ of international ombudsmen.   The recipients of the verbal reports of atrocities accepted them unquestioningly. There appeared to be a sense of kinship between ombudsmen notionally accountable to their own national parliaments and governments. Surely, they could not all be frontmen for an agenda? If they knew they were rubber-stamping propaganda, would they be concerned—or would they feel protected by their perceived immunity?   The Venice Principles, by which ombudsmen abide internationally, list high moral character and integrity as essential criteria for the role of an ombudsman. It is also interesting to note Principle 23 (emphasis added): 
The Ombudsman, the deputies and the decision-making staff shall be immune from legal process in respect of activities and words, spoken or written, carried out in their official capacity for the Institution [. . .] Such functional immunity shall apply also after the Ombudsman, the deputies or the decision-making staff-member leave the Institution.
The world has yet to hear an admission from the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) that its members were taken in by a fellow ombudsman. No sheepishness is yet apparent. A condemnation by the IOI of the conduct of Denisova, who admitted to fabricating evidence, is, at the time of publication, precisely a year overdue. (As far as I am aware, there has been no condemnation of Denisova’s deceit by UNICEF or the ECHR either.)   At the time when the propaganda was being disseminated, mainstream media articles included statements by both Denisova and Kvitco, but without mention of the mother-daughter relationship. For example, on 27 April 2022, in the London press, both the Mirror and the Express omitted the fact. The press were either ignorant or wilfully blind.  


After they backed the wrong horse by continuing to support Denisova even after her dismissal, one might think that the International Ombudsman Institute’s ombudsmen would hold back from rushing to express opinions on the performance of other ombudsmen. Not so, as the two following examples indicate.   In February 2023, Denisova’s successor, Lubinets, dramatically shredded his European Ombudsman Institute (EOI) membership card after finding fault with the Austrian Ombudsman. Dr Joseph Siegele had deported two Ukrainian children from Austria to Russia.  
Tantrum time. Source: Dmytro Lubinets, Twitter

Tantrum time. Source: Dmytro Lubinets, Twitter

In his blog, Behrens finds fault with the Russian Commissioner, and he explains how he helped to prise her out of the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI):
As Vice-President of IOI Europe, I played an active role in arguing that the Russian Human Rights Commission [Ombudsman] was neither independent nor impartial and that it had become a mouthpiece for Kremlin views. After agonising debates at the IOI World Board we voted by 16 votes to nil in favour of its expulsion, with 4 abstentions. This has not stopped bilateral discussions between the Ukrainian and Russian Ombuds on issues such as the exchange of prisoners. But it means Russia cannot falsely claim it has a national Ombuds scheme that meets international standards. 
In a podcast with the Ombudsman Association, Behrens said that Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) had:
[. . .] failed completely to take any action against the Russians whatsoever. They remain a member, holding their grade A status as an exemplary provider. This is not acceptable, given the way that the Russian Commissioner and her team have behaved.
There is no condemnation by Rob Behrens of the conduct of the disgraced Ukrainian Commissioner, Lyudmyla Denisova.  
Lubinets meets his Russian counterpart, January 2023. Source: Twitter

Lubinets meets his Russian counterpart, January 2023. Source: Twitter

In March 2022, around the time when Denisova was disseminating propaganda, Mr Behrens was understandably keen to publicly share a picture of his son on Twitter. It was to mark the occasion of his son qualifying as a barrister (an English trial lawyer). Almost all parents are rightly proud of their children, whether their offspring are academically or otherwise gifted. All hope for a wonderful future ahead for them along the path of their choosing.


Behrens’ son called to the Bar. Source: Twitter

Behrens’ son called to the Bar. Source: Twitter

Young Ukrainians are being forced to abandon their career paths. By law, all physically fit Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are potentially subject to conscription and banned from leaving the country, with few exceptions. Now, there are moves to reduce the “draft-dodger loopholes” and deliver reinforcements into ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ukrainian women could yet be conscripted, too.   Before its long-prophesied collapse, the Ukrainian Army front at Bakhmut was widely described as a “meat grinder”, and both Ukrainian and Russian losses were horrendous. CBC News described a “wrecked cityscape and only people with nowhere to run still living there. Why are so many Russians and Ukrainians dying for Bakhmut?”   James Cleverly, in a British parliamentary debate on 20 February 2023, drew on his experience gained on his brief November 2022 trip to Ukraine. Though closely monitored by security, he felt that he had been able to gauge the sentiment of the Ukrainian people:
I saw for myself [. . .] They will never give in [. . .] never surrender. Ukraine is going to win.
According to Russia Today, the head of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Aleksey Danilov, admitted in March 2023 that a growing number of Ukrainians would like to see Kyiv launch peace talks with Moscow. Russia has repeatedly indicated that it is open to communicating with Ukraine if its leaders accept Moscow’s conditions and recognise what the Kremlin calls the “reality on the ground”.   Have the interventions by international ombudsmen this past year led to better understanding of the reality on the ground? Peter Tyndall, former President of the International Ombudsman Institute, wrote a piece in 2019 on The Role of Ombudspersons and National Human Rights Institutions:
Ombudsman Offices are careful not to occupy a political space. [. . .] We draw our views and our strength from our casebooks. It is the evidence we examine objectively which provides the authority for our interventions.
Surely, it is time for all the international ombudsmen to tear down their stripy standards and instead flag up impartiality? A reliable establishment of the facts will contribute to ensuring better respect of human rights law. It will also allow Ukrainians and Russians, including their respective future generations, to know something nearer the truth.   

Postscript: Ukrainian Ombudsmen officers on the move

It is possible that there were underlying objectives beyond those which Behrens laid out for his December 2022 visit to Ukraine (ostensibly to speak at a conference, visit the Commissioner’s office, and tour Kyiv and Irpin).    Behrens had the opportunity to ascertain which projects associated with the Ukraine Commissioner’s Office could be considered for funding by the UK Government. In the aforementioned letter sent by Behrens to the Foreign Secretary, he pointed out that Lubinets was looking for targeted financial support to replace second-hand cars bombed by the Russians in his regional offices.    More significantly, Behrens’ letter referred to his intention to sign an “institutional partnership with Ombudsman Lubinets” offering capacity building and work placements in London and Manchester. Lubinets separately expressed confidence that their cooperation was just beginning and, without elaboration, shared the intention that the two ombudsmen would be introducing new interaction formats to protect human rights.   In March 2023, Lubinets announced a new decentralisation approach within Ukraine to protect the rights of internally displaced Ukrainians. This involves opening representative offices of the Commissioner in each region of Ukraine to ensure interaction and cooperation with local self-government bodies. He stressed that the mechanism for the protection of citizens’ rights now has to be available at the local level.   Lubinets went on to say that in order to protect the rights of Ukrainian refugees who have already left the country, the presence of his "institution abroad has been expanded. Today, such representative officers operate in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland.” Lubinets hopes that similar officers will serve in other countries as well. His institution is to be at the forefront of ensuring “sustainability [resilience] and protection of the rights” of Ukrainian citizens.    The United Nations has called the resettlement of Ukrainians the fastest growing refugee crisis since the Second World War. The breadth of entitlement provided by the EU Temporary Protection Directive, as it applies to Ukrainian refugees, is outlined in information pertinent to the Republic of Ireland.   A BBC article highlighted that, by March 2022, five and a half thousand Ukrainian refugees had already arrived in the Republic of Ireland. Taoiseach Micheál Martin (then prime minister), a contributor to the same article, said that “a humanitarian response trumps everything”. (As of 9 April 2023, the total had risen to over 80,000, which represents over 1.5% of the national population of 5 million.)   Some may question whether, under the guise of compassion, another agenda is being shoehorned in—perhaps a deliberate loosening of Irish culture, or maybe an attack on private property rights. Under Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution), the right to private ownership is respected—with the limitation, however, that the exercise of that right “ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice”.   One marvels at the task of upholding the human rights and entitlements of increasing numbers of new arrivals. In taking up training at the British Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen (PHSO) offices in order to prepare for their new appointments, Lubinets’ officers should keep in mind that, as regards UK PHSO’s own complaint handling, the bar is not set very high. There has been a miserable history of low case uptake for investigation, as well as a low rate of complaints upheld. The select committee who annually scrutinise the work of the Ombudsman recently noted that, for the period 2021–2022, “a large number of cases are not being considered at all by the PHSO”. Those cases which received detailed investigations fell from 6.2% in 2018 to 1.7% in 2021–2022.   The travel snaps of Behrens in Ukraine, together with his breezy blog, seem to portray a man who has kicked over the traces: invigorated, perhaps, not only by the prospect that his tenure is due to end in March 2024, but also because, at a crucial moment in régime change, his legacy is to have been one who counted among a mighty ‘blessing’ of ombudsmen.     Following Lubinets’ resignation from the European Ombudsman Institute (EOI) in February 2023, over the abovementioned deportation of two Ukrainian children to Russia by the Austrian Ombudsman, Rob Behrens also announced his resignation from the EOI on 4 April 2023.