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By Neelam Shujahuddin
(Author is an Assistant Advisor of OIC Ombudsman Association)

In an assembly of Ombudsmen that highlighted a shared commitment to justice and solidarity, Pakistan had the honor of hosting the significant 10th Board Meeting of the OIC Ombudsman Association (OICOA) on January 30, 2024. This pivotal meeting unfolded at Serena Hotel in Islamabad, under the leadership of Secretary General OICOA, H.E Dr. Asif Mahmood Jah (Federal Tax Ombudsman of Pakistan). The 10th OICOA Board Meeting served as a vibrant confluence of perspectives and ambitions, drawing esteemed ombudsman representatives from across the OIC nations and observers from the European Union, to engage in meaningful dialogue and possible collaborative avenues in pursuit of advancement and protection of human rights through the fora of Ombudsman.

Gracing the meeting with their insights and leadership were OICOA President H.E Seref Malkoc (Chief Ombudsman of Turkiye), OICOA Secretary General, Dr. Asif Mahmood Jah (Federal Tax Ombudsman of Pakistan) alongside the distinguished assembly of OICOA Board Members hailing from Kingdom of Morocco, Republic of Azerbaijan, Kingdom of Bahrain, and Republic of Indonesia. Despite the absence of Vice President of OICOA, Justice Dr. Zabiullah Khodaeian, due to prior commitments, his vision and voice were represented with zeal by Dr. Ahmed Rehmania, the Vice President of GIO, Iran, through video conferencing.

In his opening address at the 10th OICOA Board Meeting, Secretary General Dr. Asif Mahmood Jah emphasized the significance of OICOA’s dedication to championing citizen rights. He underscored the role of ombudsmen institutions in strengthening democracy by promoting transparency and accountability. Dr. Jah then addressed the plight of Palestinians, condemning ongoing injustices on the hands of Zionist regime of Benjamin Netanyahu. He called for united action of the leaders of Muslim Ummah to support their ongoing struggle against the barbaric Israeli regime. He urged OICOA Board Members and member institutions to move beyond symbolic gestures, advocating for tangible initiatives in defense of innocent Palestinians and freeing them from the clutches of Israeli barbarities.

The Secretary General highlighted OICOA’s digital outreach efforts, including its newsletter, website redesign, and social media presence. He envisioned the OICOA becoming a leading advocate for the oppressed, emphasizing the power of collective action in promoting fairness and human dignity across Islamic nations.

OICOA President and Chief Ombudsman of Turkiye, His Excellency Seref Malkoc praised Pakistan’s vital role in the Islamic world and commended the Secretary General and Executive Secretary OICOA (Almas Ali Jovindah) for meticulous organization of the 10th Board Meeting.

He reflected on OICOA’s growth, expressing gratitude to members for their steadfast dedication to upholding the rule of law and safeguarding human rights. The President stressed the need for global collaboration and education amongst ombudsmen, underscoring their responsibility to amplify advocacy efforts.

Addressing global conflicts, the President condemned Islamophobia in Europe and expressed profound concern over the situation in Gaza. He emphasized OICOA’s role as a powerful force for change, highlighting ongoing humanitarian relief efforts for Gaza. He commended South Africa’s initiative to bring the Palestinian issue before the International Court of Justice, and affirmed OICOA’s unwavering support to the government of South Africa to amplify their voice and mission of securing justice for Palestinians.

He also emphasized the OICOA’s mandate to amplify its voice and leverage collective potential to advance global humanitarian causes and strengthen the institution of ombudsmanship. He expressed gratitude to the board members for taking time out of their busy schedule to attend this meeting in Pakistan and urged them to remain steadfast in their pursuit of justice, peace, and prosperity.

The Executive Secretary of OICOA, Almas Ali Jovindah expressed gratitude for the President’s invaluable leadership and vision. He emphasized the President’s guidance in driving the OICOA towards its goals and expressed confidence in the organization’s future trajectory. The Executive Secretary then formally presented the 10th Board Meeting agenda, providing a brief overview of each item, which was unanimously adopted by the Board. To ensure inclusivity, translated copies of the OICOA Statute Book were provided in English, French, and Arabic for all Board Members.

Almas Ali Jovindah presented the redesigned OICOA website, featuring multilingual support (Arabic, Turkish, Azerbaijani, English, and French) to accommodate the organization’s diverse membership. New additions include a dedicated “OICOA Events” section for upcoming and past event information, a live Twitter feed highlighting recent activities of OICOA Members, and a “Publications” section showcasing e-Newsletters, articles, and research. An Instagram feed was also introduced to the members which has also been embedded for the latest updates hence maximizing the visibility of OICOA and its member institutions in this digitally advanced era. The Executive Secretary underscored the importance of member institutes actively contributing content: tweets, event highlights, and research projects — to ensure the website is a dynamic reflection of OICOA’s work. Special recognition was given to the member institutes of Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Turkey for their frequent content submissions.

The Executive Secretary announced a strategic partnership with the Forum of Pakistan Ombudsman (FPO) to expand training opportunities for OICOA members. This collaboration, has also been facilitated by Ambassador (R) Abdul Moiz Bokhari (Executive Secretary of Asian Ombudsman Association) to extend these training sessions to the member institutes of the Asian Ombudsman Association (AOA), creating a wider network for knowledge exchange.

Almas Jovindah also underscored the positive response to these initiatives, citing a recent FPO training on “Conducting Effective Research through Ombudsman Office” given in collaboration with the Office of Ombudsman of Punjab. This session attracted 46 participants across OICOA, FPO, and AOA institutions, displaying keen interest by the member institutions of these platforms. He further emphasized the OICOA Secretariat’s commitment to timely updates on its website and social media platforms, ensuring widespread dissemination of information about upcoming training opportunities. This proactive approach aims to enhance accessibility and visibility for members by increasing participation rates and empowering ombudsman offices across OICOA’s diverse membership.

The Executive Secretary reported on the successful implementation of the international exchange-based internship program, initiated during the 9th Board Meeting in Turkey. He praised the participation of Pakistan and Morocco as the first two volunteer countries, with the first batch of interns expected to commence their exchange by mid-2024. Appreciation was extended to His Excellency Mohamed Benalilou (Mediator of the Kingdom of Morocco) for being one of the first volunteer member institute of this initiative.

The Executive Secretary called on Board Members to engage deeply in the exchange program by providing internship opportunities to students from institutions beyond the Executive Body. Highlighting the importance of inclusivity, he stressed that such an initiative would enhance youth involvement and enhance cooperative avenues aimed at realizing the global outreach objectives of OICOA. Board Member Sabina Aliyeva (Human Rights Commissioner of Azerbaijan), voiced her backing for the internship scheme. She lauded its capability to nurture a unified and powerful collective stance for ombudsmen across OIC nations.

As the 10th OICOA Board Meeting drew to a close, Secretary General Dr. Asif Mahmood Jah expressed sincere gratitude and optimism. He acknowledged the rich exchange of ideas that characterized the meeting, citing it as a testament to the expertise and commitment within the organization. The Secretary General praised the spirit of collaboration that propelled discussions, enabling members to navigate complex challenges and envision innovative solutions for improving the lives of those they serve.

Drawing specific attention to the Palestinian issue, he emphasized OICOA’s moral imperative to act. This collective voice, he asserted, remains a powerful instrument in fighting injustice and amplifying the call for Palestinian freedom. The Secretary General urged members to maintain the day’s spirit, extending its impact through steadfast efforts to champion human rights within their respective regions.

“Our work here,” he concluded, “is a reminder that by pooling our expertise and passion, we can confront complex issues and shape a more equitable future. Let us carry the legacy of this meeting forward, guided by a dedication to empathy, transparency, and a relentless pursuit of justice.

Hosted under the banner of the OIC Ombudsman Association, this meeting has not just been a gateway to action-oriented dialogue which sets course for a future where the principles of justice and equity are not mere ideals but also transforming them to lived realities. The road forward stretches far, with numerous hurdles awaiting, yet the essence of the 10th OICOA Board Meeting—imbued with the collective insight and determination of its delegates—crafts a hopeful vision for a future where the principles of justice and human dignity are not just upheld but flourish. It goes without a word of doubt that this gathering has laid down a formidable foundation for ‘Ombudsman’ as an institution, by charting a future that is guided by the ideals of fairness and equity. What shape this future will take remains an unfolding mystery, yet the optimism that permeates from the outcomes of this meeting suggests a horizon filled with promise. The spirited discussions, the collaborative commitments, and the shared vision for a just world have all set the stage for transformative change. As we move forward, the legacy of this meeting and the actions it inspires will be the true measure of its success.