Chakra Announcements

Iskcon formalises dispute resolution mechanism

by Jai Nitai das

Posted August 6, 2003

In July, Sesa das, Braja Bihari das and I met in Boston to attend an ombudsman training program given by The Ombudsman Association (TOA) and to plan ISKCON's emerging dispute resolution program now known as "ISKCON Resolve."

Sesa prabhu is a practicing immigration attorney in Florida. Braja Bihari prabhu coordinates ISKCON's Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) programs. I am a student at the University of Texas Law School; my studies include ADR. Along with others, we will serve as ombudsmen for ISKCON.

Also attending the training course were ombudsmen from Harvard, Stanford and UCLA, U.S. government agencies and corporations like Coca-Cola and Shell Oil. Instructors included Mary Rowe, of MIT, a pioneer in U.S. ombudsman work and a great help to ISKCON's efforts to establish an ombuds system.

In addition to two and a half days of training, the three devotees met with Arnold Zack, an adjunct Harvard professor and longtime mediator and arbitrator in labor relations, who implemented the ombudsman program for the International Monetary Fund, and who currently serves as consultant for ISKCON Resolve.

Dr. Zack offered suggestions as to how ISKCON Resolve might further take shape. The meetings included discussions about ISKCON's newly formed ombudsman program. Mary Rowe of MIT also met with us specifically to discuss the TOA training program and its application to ISKCON. She offered invaluable suggestions and advice.

What is an Ombudsman?

"Ombudsman" is a Swedish term with its origins in the 19th century. The term is gender-neutral, though today sometimes "ombuds" or "ombudsperson" is used to sound more inclusive. An ombudsman can hear concerns of devotees and help them evaluate their situation, organize their thoughts, clarify their concerns, explore available options and, if requested, approach others (especially those in authority) to improve the situation.

Four hallmarks distinguish an ombudsman: 1) confidentiality, 2) neutrality, 3) independence, and 4) informality. The ombudsman network in ISKCON will utilize these principles to help devotees receive a fair resolution to concerns or conflicts that may arise.

Confidentiality: ISKCON Ombudsmen will handle all matters brought to them with utmost confidentiality. Only in the rare case where a threat to safety exists or a subpoena is issued will the confidentiality of a discussion with an ombudsman be compromised. Of course, if the person discussing a matter with an ombudsman gives permission, the ombudsman may take steps to help resolve the situation and reveal what he or she has been told, but only to the extent permitted by that devotee.

Neutrality and Independence: Ombudsmen seek a fair resolution of conflicts or concerns; they don't advocate for one side or the other. Ombuds do not represent ISKCON or any individual complainant.

Informality: The use of an ombudsman is voluntary for each side of a conflict. Ombuds may use mediation or shuttle diplomacy to help resolve the concern in a manner acceptable to the parties involved.

In the meetings, we also discussed:

See related article by Ananda das, "Loyal opposition and the Vaishnava right to dissent",