The office of the ombudsman is positioning itself to take on the mantle of a national human rights institution after a bill to establish one faltered nearly five years ago and was never restarted.

Earlier this month, the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) – which welcomed the ombudsman into its ranks in February – presented its report to the European Commission on the state of the rule of law in the European Union.

In its report, the network said that over the past years, “national, regional and international stakeholders” including the UN have called on Malta to establish a national human rights body.

It noted that while the Human Rights and Equality Commission bill was presented to parliament in 2019, it stalled after a second reading and lapsed the following year at the end of the parliamentary term. It was never resubmitted.

“To date, no bills relating to the establishment of a national human rights institution have been proposed,” it said. 

However, the ENNHRI indicated that since the ombudsman joined the organisation earlier this year, progress appears to have been made, with it even proposing to the government it take on the responsibilities itself.

Describing the parliamentary watchdog as having “significantly intensified its efforts” to establish a fully-fledged human rights body in Malta, the network said the ombudsman was well placed to assume such a role. 

“The office operates with a high degree of independence. It is supported by adequate resources and enjoys financial autonomy, ensuring it can effectively uphold and advocate for expanded human rights responsibilities,” it said.

Commenting on the issue, human rights NGO Aditus director Neil Falzon said a “very broad” coalition of human rights groups had been demanding the government put the Human Rights and Equality Commission bill and another focusing on discrimination back on the table.

“We have been repeatedly promised that the new bills will be shared with us and tabled in parliament, but all of us remain in the dark,” he said, adding such bills could “dramatically improve” human rights in Malta. 

Stressing that victims of human rights violations were currently only able to turn to the courts or the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE), Falzon said this wasn’t enough. 

The courts, he said, were “extremely expensive and never-ending,” while the NCPE, while quicker, “fails to offer any real remedy.” 

Falzon stressed that current anti-discrimination laws were not comprehensive enough, “leaving many people exposed to discrimination and violation” ‒ something he said his organisation had repeatedly reminded the government of. 

Asked whether he agreed with the ombudsman taking on the mantle of a human rights institution, the Aditus director said that while the office had “massive potential to instil a sense of justice and accountability in the public service,” he and others were not sure it should take on the role. 

“Keeping the two issues separate... will ensure both are given the specialised attention they need,” he said. 

Questions were sent to the Office of the Prime Minister but remained unanswered by the time of writing.

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