The Power of the Pen: Human Rights Ombudsmen and Personal Integrity Violations in Latin America, 1982-2006.


Recent scholarship has focused on the effects of institutional design and constitutional provisions on human rights protections. Democratic institutions, like other manifestations of credible commitment to human rights, seem to play a role in human rights provisions across the world. Yet, there is still a great deal that we do not know about domestic institutions like the human rights ombudsman, an institution created specifically to protect human rights, on human rights provisions. We conduct an examination of the effects of the human rights ombudsman (which may go by the name Defensor del Pueblo, Procurador de Derechos Humanos, or Comisionado Nacional de Derechos Humanos), on personal integrity violations across Latin America, 1982–2006. We find evidence that this understudied institution had significant and positive impacts on reducing such violations.

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  1. 1.

    The term ombuds and ombudsman will be used interchangeably rather than any of the official titles used across the Americas (Defensor del pueblo, Procurador de Derechos Humanos, etc) in an effort to limit the number of titles discussed here.

  2. 2.

    Only Costa Rica’s ombudsman exists as a function of organic law (Ley de la Defensoria de los Habitantes N 7319/ 1992) and through reforms passed in 1994, 1997, and 1999.

  3. 3.

    There are some examples of executive ombudsmen but they defy the classic and hybrid definitions of the office (see Reif 2004, 14).

  4. 4.

    “Hybrid” offices that incorporate NHRI functions in the ombudsman office exist in Eastern and Central Europe. Latin America holds the distinction of being the only region to adopt this hybrid form almost universally.

  5. 5.

    Included among the many covenants that have guided the creation of the human rights mandate are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the Paris Principals (UN General Assembly 48/124 of 1993), the 1992 Rio Declaration, and the Draft Declaration of Indigenous People’s Rights (1994).

  6. 6.

    Uruguay has also recently adopted a national ombudsman but the office was not filled until 2012, which is outside the time frame studied here.

  7. 7.

    The FIO is a nongovernmental organization that conducts training and a forum for the region’s ombudsmen.

  8. 8.

    The time of adoption varies considerably during the period examined so there are a roughly equal proportion of observations without ombudsmen compared to observations with ombudsmen, with the exception of the last year of the sample. What is more, even in cases where the ombudsman was created (either in the constitution or via legal statute), we do not necessarily see the appointment of the ombudsman or the creation of an agency until later.

  9. 9.

    Here, presence of an ombudsman means that the office was legally created and the ombudsman was appointed. It is not sufficient to say that the country in question formally created the ombudsman office, as there is often a lag between the creation of the office and staffing it. So, an ombudsman must be physically present in the country during that year for it to earn a score of 1. Where ombudsmen were legally created but left unstaffed, the country-year received a score of 0.

  10. 10.

    Informes Anuales for each country are publicly available thanks, in part, to the legal requirement that the ombudsmen provide a public reporting of their activities annually.

  11. 11.

    Since the concern here is whether a single domestic actor (specifically, the executive) can control or limit the actions of an erstwhile independent office, the data are coded to reflect the concern of the extant literature.

  12. 12.

    Results from pooled time-series using GLS, PCSE, and OLS with country clusters are available from the authors.

  13. 13.

    Results from another version of the additive index that includes some but not all information regarding budgeting is available upon request. There, as with the complete index (that includes funding), the reduction in n-size results in a null finding.

  14. 14.

    The Colombian ombudsman earns a score of 1 for most years of this analysis. The Colombian ombudsman earns a score of 1 for most years of this analysis.

  15. 15.

    The Urrá hydroelectric company ignored the court ruling and proceeded with the project.

  16. 16.

    Interview with Freddy Guarin, PNUD representative in La Paz, Bolivia. January 21, 2015.


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Correspondence to Erika Moreno.

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Moreno, E., Witmer, R. The Power of the Pen: Human Rights Ombudsmen and Personal Integrity Violations in Latin America, 1982-2006.. Hum Rights Rev 17, 143–164 (2016).

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  • Human rights
  • Ombudsman
  • Latin America