Press Release

IACHR Expresses Concern Over Dismissal of Ombud in Panama

October 16, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed its concern over the dismissal of the Ombud of Panama, Alfredo Castillero Hoyos, which was approved by the National Assembly of Deputies on October 9, 2019. The repercussions this may have on the autonomy of ombuds’ offices may also have negative consequences on the promotion and defense of human rights and on the rule of law remaining fully in force.

According to publicly available information, on August 8, 2019, the National Assembly of Panama’s Commission on Women, Children, Youth, and the Family established a committee to investigate Mr. Alfredo Castillero Hoyos, the Ombud of Panama, for alleged sexual and workplace harassment at the Office of the Ombud of Panama. The IACHR learned that on October 3, this committee unanimously approved a recommendation to the plenary meeting of the National Assembly to remove the ombud from his position and declare this vacant due to alleged negligence and a lack of moral solvency on his part.

The IACHR noted that in a press release issued on October 3, the Ombud’s Office stated that the ombud had not responded to the summons from the National Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children, Youth, and the Family on the grounds that this had not provided the necessary guarantees for him to present his report in his defense. On this point, Mr. Castillero Hoyos argued that he did not have access to the documentation that formed the grounds for establishing the subcommittee to investigate complaints against him for alleged sexual and workplace harassment.

According to the information that was published, several civil society organizations have pointed out that the recent appointment of the deputy ombud, Maribel Coco Fernández, allegedly entailed political pressure and that the autonomy of the institution had been compromised.

The IACHR warned that the removal of the ombud was approved on October 9 at the plenary session of the National Assembly of Deputies. The dismissal order states that the ombud was guilty of gross negligence in carrying out his duties, which constitutes grounds for dismissal. In response, the ombud claimed that his right to defense before the plenary meeting had been compromised as he had not been given access to his file before the debate.

The IACHR also recalled that the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) has reaffirmed the importance of establishing effective national institutions to promote and protect human rights and of ensuring diversity and independence among those who represent these institutions, in accordance with national legislation.

The IACHR noted that, in line with the Paris Principles (Principles Relating to the Status of National Human Rights Institutions), states must guarantee the independence and autonomy of the office of ombuds who are responsible for defending and promoting human rights. In this regard, circumstances that may lead to the dismissal of an individual from a position at a human rights institution must be carefully specified and limited to cases of serious error or manifest incapacity, and the body responsible for selecting their replacement should act independently of the office of the president. “The effects this may have on the autonomy of ombuds’ offices may have negative repercussions on the promotion and defense of human rights and on the rule and on strengthening democracy,” said Commissioner Flávia Piovesan, the IACHR rapporteur for Panama. “The state of Panama must ensure that the Office of the Ombud remains independent and that all the appropriate guarantees are included in the dismissal process,” she added.

The IACHR once more acknowledged the role that independent national institutions play in promoting and defending human rights, working in partnership with states to ensure that these are fully respected throughout them.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 260/19