Foregrounding the interests, needs, and rights of victims in transitional justice

9 posts / 0 new
Last post
Foregrounding the interests, needs, and rights of victims in transitional justice

Although it claims to be victim-centered, transitional justice has been charged with subjecting victims' interests to those of political elites, perpetrators, international experts, and other powerful actors. How do practitioners, including victims' groups, pursue accountability and redress in transitional contexts, particularly where there are multiple groups of victims with different needs or where the line between victim and perpetrator may be blurred?

Share your thoughts, experiences, questions, challenges and ideas by replying to the comments below.

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please visit these online instructions.


victims, survivors and TJ

I think a few issues have come up in dealing with this topic that would be helpful to hear from people about their experiences:

- people who have been the victims of human rights violations or international crimes are not necessarily a homogeneous group.  They have different degrees of political activism and organization, as well as different socio-economic characteristics, that make them not necessarily want the same things. Even more, some people don't consider themselves victims at all, but rather survivors or even activists, and they reject the label of victims that outside actors sometimes pin on them.  How do we avoid "essentializing" or lumping everyone together, while still allowing any interactions to lead to action?

- I wonder to what degree practitioners who deal with victims and victims' groups around TJ take on board some of the lessons learned from rights-based development work around agency, seeing people as rights-holders rather than beneficiaries, the importance of process, and the like.  I sometime get the sense that there is not much communication between the two communities, but maybe I'm wrong?  This seems to me especially relevant when dealing with issues like reparations, memorialization but also perhaps in the design of truth-telling mechanisms?  Perhaps less of an issue for trials where organized victims groups have acted largely as bringers of public pressure for trials (apart from being witnesses, private prosecutors etc.)?  Or not?

-there is a big debate right now in international criminal law about whether victim participation in trials, especially but not only in the International Criminal Court, is really feasible or should be reduced/channeled.  Everyone seems to agree that the current situation involves long delays and uncertain benefits, but no one seems to agree on what should be done.  Are there experiences of victim participation in national trials that would be helpful?  I know that in the Guatemalan genocide trial, for instance, victims played a key role as private prosecutors (as well as witnesses and support) but not sure how/if that translates to other places.

Just a few questions to get us started...


Victim and TJ

It cannot be overstated that victims within a transitional context must be given the dignity of being "individualized". While it would be impossible for transitional justice efforts to be tailored for every victim's individual demands, the broad paintbrush model has not worked. Even what counts as justice differs from victim to victim. Some are satisfied with the holding of truth commissions that reveal or confirm information about the abuses that they or their families suffered, others require this and some "acts of contrition and atonement" by perpetrators and others still require reparations of some sort as a way of remediating their present suffering. It is important therefore that transitional is a sensitive and reflexive mechanism that can moderate the demands of victims with a transitional context.

TJ will always be a balancing of demands of victims and perpetrators, of the local and the global. It is important to note that the lines of demarcation between victim and perpetrators are often not clear. In some countries there are levels of victmization and also of perpetrators. I think of Rwanda where the assumption is often made of clear victims and perpetrators as Tutsi and Hutu repsectively. However when those groups are disaggregated we realize that even those who may have killed participated for a plethora of reasons. While it does not change the fact that they killed,  and should be held accountable it is important to note that some killlers were victimized either historically or contemporarily ( see  Mahmood Mamdani's "When victims become killers").

Transitional justice is not neat and uniformed. It is complex and often controversial. Victims are best served when they champion their own interests because alot of the success of transitional justice is not just that mechanisms exist , it is that groups are organized to advocate for their own interests.


TJ in practice

Thanks for this - I agree with you both that there is an issue with the essentializing of victims. Your comments raised again a thought I've often had, which is that transitional justice (as valuable as I find it and as much as it is still evolving) is a blunt, essentialising field in practice as much as it is a nuanced one in theory.

An example might be the continuing tendency in transitional contexts to look at South Africa as a model, although a substantial body of literature demonstrates that victims largely found the TRC process unsatisfying (in that they did not really learn much about the crimes that they did not already know, in that they were not allowed to tell their stories in the format they wanted (as the commission required linear storytelling), in that women's experiences were not fully captured, in that many felt re-traumatized by the process, and so on), not to mention the aftermath of the TRC, which has seen only a handful of prosecutions, a reparations program that is a fraction of that recommended by the TRC and limited to victims who registered with the commission, and the government generally being unresponsive to victims' needs and demands. All this even though victims were central to the TRC and the transition, in a way allowing the rest of the country to "move on" by being positioned as if they were "modelling" forgiving behavior.

I may be overly influenced by the South African experience but it largely seems to me that transitional justice is only in a very small way about the interests of victims and far more about the interests of other powerful actors, including, among others, governmental elites working to establish their legitimacy, experts with a stake in the international justice industry, or even those perpetrators who use transitional justice to focus international attention on the crimes of their opponents while deflecting it from their own. Another issue is that the local NGOs that promote and drive transitional justice are often not great at learning and foregrounding victims' interests/demands (and at times work against them), even when they are committed to social justice and consist of critically minded individuals, etc. I would argue that this has to do, among other things, with the generally reformist, as opposed to transformational, role of civil society since the end of the Cold War and the positionality of the middle-class, urban professionals who work in NGOs. I realize this is a generalization but it may be something to think about and face up to.

If you have the chance, Naomi, please do share more of your thoughts on rights-based development and how you think this might inform the work of victims/victims' groups and the relationship between these and other TJ actors.


Members tagged in this comment: 
Jasmina, Naomi, Jermaine,

Jasmina, Naomi, Jermaine, Daniela and others,

Thank you for starting this important discussion topic! In response to Naomi's question above:

Are there experiences of victim participation in national trials that would be helpful?  I know that in the Guatemalan genocide trial, for instance, victims played a key role as private prosecutors (as well as witnesses and support) but not sure how/if that translates to other places.

And to follow-up on Jasmina's comment about the South Africa TRC process, I wanted to share a very specific tactic that was used in this process to support and empower the survivors who participated in the TRC process.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) developed the concept of “briefers” to install a victim-friendly process. Victims were provided with the opportunity to testify and be supported before, during and after the process. The TRC selected briefers—chosen from the caring professions, such as ministers, social workers and nurses—from the community to provide this support. The briefers acted as volunteers and were trained to perform various tasks with regard to the entire structural process of the TRC.

As a consequence of the sustained, supportive work of the briefers during the entire process, victims better understood their legal, emotional and practical position. Thus, they felt they owned the process and were able to contribute in an important way by making recommendations about reparations. Briefers could be utilized in many settings—e.g. those involving domestic violence or rape, and tribunals court systems—where vulnerable victims need mediation and support to overcome traumatic experiences and especially in processes that involve perpetrators as well.

Glenda Wildschut and Paul Haupt (tagged on this comment) documented their exeriences and lessons-learned in implementing this tactic, in this in-depth tactic case study titled I'll Walk Beside You: Providing emotional support for testifiers at the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I hope this case study might be helpful to other practitioners.

Are there other specific examples of how systems/processes are being put into place to make these transitional justice processes/mechanisms more victim-centered?

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Members tagged in this comment: 
victim-center approach

Hi everyone! This topic is quite interesting and complex! I think there are many resources -academic, legal and practitioner´s handbooks and others- that bet on a vicitim-centered approach. UN Special Raporteur on Transitional Justice Pablo de Greiff has made the argument of the need of such an approach, and activists and intellectuals working in the psico-social dimension of conflict and violence also have many contributions in that direction. I am more familiarized with the context of transitions and violence in Latin America, and particularly in Mexico, and I can say that many activists and people in the advocay networks do believe and work with a rights perspective. However, it is true that in practice there are many power relations that come into play in the interaction and relation between the ones defended- or represented and those defending, advocating or accompanying them.

I have found really troublesome and challenging to work in contexts of massive human rights violations where there are numerous victims. The difficult part of it is how to create consensus among people with different socio-economic and cultual backgrounds and with different political ideologies. Divisions between victims/survivors set the ground for the government to use those divisions  to justify impasses or setbacks in the transitional justice processes. Governments who do not invest seriously in TJ processes and do not have the political will to generate a fair process of redress, truth, or justice might trigger disagreements and tension between victims groups. So an enourmous challenge is how to create unity, alliances and confidence between movements, victims´organizations, human rights´organizations and others. 



Roles of victims in the planning of transitional justice

Thanks for making the interest of victims a single topic! When wondering about how to make transitional justice mechanisms more victim-centered, I started to think more about the role of victims in the planning process of transitional justice. Understanding transitional justice as an concept that aknowledges victims and their rights, I have the feeling, it is often assumed that victims immediately want such a process and that they sooner or later will benefit of a transitional justice program. But what role do victims play in the decision for a transitional justice process? How much are their needs, expectations and ideas considered in designing concrete mechanims? How much influence do victims have on timing and sequencing of such a process?

In some way these questions all related to a discussion on transitional justice in the context of the Bangsamoro peace process we had last week in Davao, Mindanao, Philippines last week. Just to provide some information on the background, the conflict parties just recently agreed to work out a transitional justice program. The peace agreement does not provide more details except that a comitee will look into it and come up with recommendations for adequate TJ measures in one next year. So civil society is busy now with discussing how the whole process could like. So among others, there were two points/questions raised during the discussion last week which I found interesting....
(1) It was stressed that in order to make transitional justice processes victim-centered, victims/the affected communities would actually need to be a real part of the planning. Instead of conflict parties deciding for a set of mechanisms at the negotiating table, voices of victims should be more carefully considered. So far I have encountered few linformation, on how victims where actually included in these processes. Do you know of mechanims (e.g. consulations by the state or initiatives by NGOs) in place in other contexts for feeding perspectives of victims into the formal decisionmaking -process on transitional justice?

(2)  One of the suggestion was to have some kind of a two-phase/stages transitional justice process, the first phase being more like a preparation phase. During a first phase communities could tell their stories to people from the same group first and discuss and identify their needs and expectations regarding the second phase. Such a preparation phase would allow some time for processing the stories, for some intra-community healing (hopefully) and for preparing for the stories of the other group before facing them. Following this, affected communities could take a more active role in deciding when they are ready for a TJ process and in determining the timing and sequencing of the process.

So, any thoughts, experiences or ideas on this? Would be happy to read some comments!

"Transformative reparations"

Lotte, you might be interested in a chapter on "transformative reparations" written by Maria Paula Saffon and Rodrigo Uprimny. The authors argue that the concept "enables us to conceive of reparations not simply as a legal mechanism, but also as part of a broader political project for the transformation of society and particularly for the inclusion of victims. By contributing to the task of transforming the conditions of exclusion and the relations of subordination that are at the origin of conflict, such reparations would contribute to the guarantee of non-recurrence and to the political and economic transformation of the social order, with the aim of making it more inclusive, just, and democratic." The concept is couched in a discussion of land issues in Colombia. (Daniela posted the link to the book, Distributive Justice in Transitions. The chapter is at pp. 379-420.)

I am also sharing this useful article on the relationship between victims and TJ experts by Tshepo Madlingozi of Khulumani Support Group in South Africa.

Members tagged in this comment: 
Thanks a lot, Jasmina!

Thanks a lot, Jasmina! Especially the article on the relationship between victims and TJ expert is something, I was looking for...

Topic locked