Lithuania’s new equal opportunities ombudswoman walks fine line between human rights and religion

Agneta Lobačevskytė (left) in a meeting with Seimas ombudsmen Augustinas Normantas and Raimondas Šukys. Photo Vytautas Valentinavičius, Seimo kontrolierių įstaiga

“I have always pursued my goals and set high standards for myself ,” she told the Lithuania Tribune.

“I am here to ensure the office performs its duties to the fullest in guaranteeing and protecting human rights,” the ombudswoman remarked when speaking about her new role.

Although she is seen as a protégée of Parliament Speaker Loreta Graužinienė, the appointment has not come easy to Agneta, with some parliamentarians expressing their dissatisfaction about the candidate’s young age, inexperience and lack of authority.

Graužinienė, who submitted the candidacy, pushed away questions on the Labour Party’s involvement in the appointment.

“We need someone who is competent enough to do the job from the start and wouldn’t spend time learning the ropes,” MP Dalia Kuodytė, оne of the critics, sounded off along with others who spoke against Lobačevskytė.

Some legislators could not help drawing comparisons between Lobačevskytė аnd Edita Žiobienė, who was appointed as the ombudswoman for children’s rights later that same day.

“One of the aspirants does not raise any doubts regarding her competence and authority, even if one might not always approve of here decisions. The other, however, cannot offer anything comparable,” Vytautas Matulevičius, another MP, grumbled.

Recalling the debate on her candidacy in the Seimas, Lobačevskytė reiterated what she said during the parliamentarian scrutiny: “I do believe I have enough experience to hold the office. In this field, personal traits matter no less than professionalism: the ability to communicate, cooperate and come up with the best solution, while also guaranteeing the protection of human rights.”

During a secret vote, Lobačevskytė was supported by 61 MPs, 32 MPs voted against her with 12 abstentions. Žiobienė was supported by 86 MPs, 16 MPs were against with four abstentions.

Lithuania hasn’t had an Equal Opportunities’ Ombudsperson since November 2013, when the long-serving office holder Aušrinė Burneikienė pass away of cancer.

Over nearly two years, the Seimas has said no to two candidates to the post before finally accepting Ms. Lobačevskytė’s candidacy, who will serve a five-year term in the office.

Unfazed by the scrutiny of the Seimas, she is now trying to focus on what she believes needs to be done to improve how the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson’s Office.

“To think back, I’ve started accumulating my work experience long ago,starting before my sophomore year at Mykolas Romeris University. I shuffled various jobs in different law offices and business entities before spending three years in the Seimas, where I worked as a legal advisor for the incumbent Parliament Speaker Loreta Graužinienė.”

Agneta obtained her undergraduate degree in 2009 and a master’s degree in law two years later.

But fate – and according to some, a timely membership in the Labour party along with craftily forged ties with its leaders – have offered the otherwise hard-working young woman a lot more than most university graduates can hope for. A job with Graužinienė, which helped her rise in the Seimas and become the deputy culture minister last autumn.

Lobačevskytė dismisses any accusations that her ascension to deputy minister might have a lot to do with her party affiliations.

“I believe my career path would not have been much different if I wasn’t affiliated with the Labour Party,” she says. Lobačevskytė confidently adds that“there is nothing impossible. That is my life motto.”

As deputy minister, she was in charge of ethnic minority issues, archives and information society.

Pressed to say what issues of the massive equal opportunity problematics draw her biggest concern, she says she would prefer not to single out “any one field”.

“Just because there are infringements in all of them, I reckon. If the vast majority of the complaints reach us from the largest cities, it doesn’t mean that issues do not exist elsewhere,” the equal opportunities ombudswoman says.

She also says that more investigation needs to be done on whether the office has used, until now, all the legal tools it holds to root out all manifestations of inequality based on age, sexual orientation, disability, race or ethnicity, religion and convictions.

“First, I have to get better acquainted with the work, the way the service is functioning, which obviously requires more time,” Lobačevskytė says.

She, also reveals that she is about to get on the road and to see how things are with equal opportunities in the country’s regions.

“I want people in the hinterlands to come and meet us to get useful information on what we do,who we are and what concerns them. Summer is a good time for that.. I want to draw up a plan of action along with my staff, so that we can spread the information in various regions for as many people as possible. Not only about equal opportunities, but the functions of the office, too,” Lobačevskytė underlined.

Even though she seems cautious and inexperienced, she has already shown her bravery when faced with Conservative parliamentarians and their criticism on her liberal take on the definitions of family and pertnership, including same-sex partnership.

“I believe that each person’s human rights have to be protected… My biggest value is family. But after the ruling by the Constitutional Court, the word family has been given a broader meaning, namely that family does not derive only from marriage. Therefore, I support the institution of partnership,” she remained calm in front of the sizeable hostile flank of defenders of the traditional family concept.

If these statements might have sent the more religiously-inclined MPs into frenzy, her following remark was meant to calm them down: “Faith does not constitute any opposition to what the majority of the population, Catholics, deem right or wrong. On the contrary, the Bible contains some basic provisions on equality. Like, for example, the behest to love another person like you love yourself, which affirms everybody’s equal opportunities.” She added: “The most important thing is to maintain dialogue with all people and educate them about equal opportunities.”

Lobačevskytė says she has never felt that her own equal opportunities have been violated, but insists she knows people who have experienced discrimination.

“I have a huge responsibility to serve all of my fellow citizens,” she says.

Possibly, after the new ombudswoman warms up in her new office, she will take on the equal opportunities legislation.

“I see where it should be amended and where it contains legislative shortcomings. I want to involve experts, relevant specialists and NGOs into the process,” Lobačevskytė emphasized matter-of-factly.

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