The office of the human rights ombudsman is now established in a number of countries. The primary function of this institution (which may be an individual or a group of persons) is to protect the rights of individuals who believe themselves to be the victims of unjust acts on the part of the public administration. Accordingly, the ombudsman will often act as an impartial mediator between an aggrieved individual and the government. Depending on the legal framework under which the ombudsman is established, the ombudsman receives complaints from members of the public and will investigate these complaints provided they fall within the ombudsman's competence and may be able to commence an investigation on her own initiative.
In many respects, the powers of the ombudsman are quite similar to those of the human rights commissions. Both may receive and investigate individual complaints. In principle, neither has the power to make binding decisions. There are nevertheless some differences in the functions of the two bodies which explain why some countries establish and simultaneously maintain both types of institution.
In most cases, the primary function of the ombudsman is to ensure fairness and legality in public administration. Human rights commissions are more specifically concerned with discrimination and in this respect will often address themselves to the actions of private bodies and individuals as well as the government. In general, the principal focus of activity for an ombudsman is individual complaints. However, ombudsmen are increasingly engaged in a wider range of activities for the protection and promotion of human rights.