On 9th – 10th October I had the great honour to co-host the 9th International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces (ICOAF) in London. This was the culmination of a significant part of the work my office has done over the last two years, outside of our essential operational role. I am exceptionally proud of what we achieved and would like to thank everyone that was involved in putting it together and the delegates who attended.
ICOAF was established in 2009 by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF). The conference, which assembles annually, is held in a different member state each year and is jointly hosted by DCAF and the delegate institution in the host nation.
ICOAF is the only platform of its kind for independent ombuds institutions for the armed forces to share good practice. Following previous conferences in Berlin (2009), Vienna (2010), Belgrade (2011), Ottawa (2012), Oslo (2013), Geneva (2014), Prague (2015), and Amsterdam (2016), 9ICOAF was not only the first time the conference was held in the United Kingdom, but was the highest attended conference to date. Over 90 delegates from 40 countries were represented this year, highlighting that ICOAF has become an “important international forum for promoting and ensuring democratic oversight of the armed forces”.
Member delegates come from a range of institutions including military specific ombudsmen, general ombudsmen and Inspectors-General. International organisations with an interest in the welfare of armed forces personnel were also represented, with delegated from both EUROMIL and OSCE/ODIHR, among others, represented.
The breadth and scope of the delegates in attendance ensured dynamic discussion over the two days. Under the broad umbrella of “The Moral Compass of the Armed Forces: How Ombuds Institutions Can Break Down Barriers to Achieve Change,” delegates explored a range of issues including:
- Maximising the role of ombuds institutions within legal and ethical boundaries
- Mental health
- Building an inclusive armed forces: addressing the needs of diverse groups
- Duty of care in international missions
- Are Armed Forces personnel reluctant to complain?
With delegates drawn from a broad range of countries and representing a range of ombuds institutions and relevant international organisations, the conversation over the two days was dynamic. The outcome of what was discussed and agreed can be found in the official conference statement, but my key personal observations are:
- ICOAF is an invaluable forum for ombuds institutions for the armed forces. While we individually benefit from our participation in broader national and international ombuds organisations, working together as a specialist sector provides unparalleled benefit.
- As a relatively new ombuds institution, we need to ensure that we always do what is right, without stepping outside our jurisdiction. In the second year of operation, we are still dealing with cases that test the limits of our jurisdiction as laid down in legislation. In my oversight and reporting role I will monitor those cases to determine whether my powers are sufficient; not to seek further powers for the sake of it, but where the system requires it.
- All ombuds institutions need to be vigilant in ensuring that our services are inclusive by understanding and addressing the needs of complainants with mental health issues and those from diverse groups.
There is no doubt that further work will come out of the conference as has been the case in previous years. This is as it should be. An effective conference is one that doesn’t end at the closing remarks. I look forward to undertaking this work in my own organisation and with my international colleagues; there is much we can achieve before 10ICOAF in South Africa in 2018.
 9th ICOAF Conference Statement https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/b86d90_ba2b523b4e7b4baf82fc230991849bb1.pdf