18 Aug 2020

Fight against poverty: How Latvia’s NHRI challenged the constitutionality of the government’s social support system

As independent state-mandated bodies with a broad human rights mandate and range of functions, National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are ideally placed to address the full range of human rights, including economic and social rights, poverty reduction and inequality in social support systems. The Latvian NHRI (Office of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Latvia) shares how it has used its mandate to achieve significant changes and improve economic and social rights protection in the country.

Laura Bagātā, Consultant of Communication and International Cooperation, Office of the Ombudman of the Republic of Latvia

Since 2012, the Office of the Ombudsman of the Republic of Latvia, Juris Jansons, has conducted research on the risk of poverty in the country, carefully analysing and following up on governments’ commitments to reduce social inequality and protect social rights. With special attention given to vulnerable groups, we have repeatedly informed the government and legislature about the need to urgently review the existing social support system in order to ensure a dignified standard of living for everyone and protect economic and social rights as established in international law and the Latvian Constitution.

Since our recommendations were not heard by the Government, we used our mandate as an NHRI to submit applications to the Constitutional Court, initiating a number of cases regarding compliance of social benefits determined by the state and their allocation to vulnerable groups with the Latvian Constitution.

And guess what? We have already won two of them, and the Court will decide on another three this year!

This is just one example of how we use our mandate to achieve impact. Over the years, we have encouraged the Government listen to us more, and even though our decisions and proposals are recommendatory, we are increasingly being asked to be advisors in many cases.

It was a long road to reach this point, and we have used all of our functions as an NHRI to achieve this status. For example, we have:

  • Worked with media to help the public understand and learn about the human rights situation in the country
  • Carried out monitoring visits to all closed institutions, made recommendations on what should be changed or improved, and recognised good practices
  • Established advisory boards for complex or interdisciplinary issues, involving experts and stakeholders
  • Conducted research and public information campaigns to raise awareness and gain knowledge and support from society

What lessons can we share with other NHRIs in Europe?

Although the process of our applications to the Constitutional Court is still ongoing, we have learned several lessons from this experience that we can share with other NHRIs.

As Constitutional Court applications  cannot be abstract, it is worth dividing a large theme into smaller elements and making several small but compelling applications. In our fight against poverty, this included state or municipal benefits or specific impacts on poverty and social exclusion. The process can be long and difficult, and the NHRI may not be viewed favourably by the Government during this time, but it is important to remain determined.

Cooperation with media can be invaluable, as they can be silent fighters for justice and support processes that are in the public interest. This can be both an encouragement for the NHRI to continue its work and a reminder to policy-makers to listen to the public. Relying on colleagues for support is crucial, as they can provide crucial knowledge and experience.

Finally, just as the government has its political motivations, the head of an NHRI can have their own strategic position and determination. We are pleased that our Ombudsman acts bravely as a passionate fighter for justice. Use every point in your national law that allows you to act – while the first steps can be intimidating, the satisfaction of achieving justice is immeasurable.

Economic and social rights have always been a priority for our institution, and we are ready to continue fighting for the Latvian population, especially the most vulnerable groups, to live a life in dignity, as it should be in a socially-responsible and democratic state that upholds all human rights.

» Learn more about European NHRIs’ work on economic and social rights

» Download NHRI guide on applying a human rights-based approach to poverty reduction and measurement

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to ENNHRI.