More than money: Reparations as people-centered justice

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The Justice for All report highlights the importance of putting people at the center of justice. This can be achieved by understanding their justice needs, preventing and resolving their justice problems, empowering them, and improving their justice journeys.

This guest blog in our Justice for All series, written by Impunity Watch and INOVAS, summarizes the lessons learned from a recent report on meaningful reparations processes, their impact on survivors of human rights abuses, and obstacles in designing and implementing them. The report emphasizes that victim mobilization and participation are essential to ensuring that reparations are truly people-centered and respond to victims’ needs.

Impunity Watch is an international non-profit organization working with victims of violence to uproot deeply ingrained structures of impunity, deliver redress for grave human rights violations, and promote justice and peace.

INOVAS is the International Network of Victims and Survivors of Serious Human Rights Abuses. Led by victims and survivors, they provide victims and survivors with a platform for their voices to be heard.

National Day of Dignity for the Victims, Guatemala, 2022. (Carlos Alonzo/Impunity Watch)

Later this year, the United Nations will present its updated guidance note on transitional justice (TJ). It is likely that reparations for survivors of violence will be part of this guidance note. This is important, because international policymakers have previously not paid much attention to reparations.

Reparations have the potential to address the situation of poverty and marginalization of survivors of war, conflict or long-term inequality and injustice. This is evident from the demand for reparations in diverse contexts, like the conflict in Ukraine, but also the legacies of slavery and colonialism in the so-called Global South or the United States.

Reparations thus broaden the concept of justice to addressing the socio-economic harms of violence and injustice. They can make good on the promise of the SDGs to leave no one behind. If implemented holistically, in a participatory and context-specific way, they can offer a crucial people-centered form of justice which responds to the needs and wants of the people harmed.

But how can we make sure that ambitious documents, like the upcoming guidance note, get translated into real impact on the ground? Our recent report gives crucial insights into how reparations can help to change survivors’ lives. It shows that it is essential for survivors and victims themselves to define which reparations could make a change to their lives.

Our report was developed together with the International Network of Victims and Survivors of Serious Human Rights Abuses (INOVAS), a global network of victims and survivors, and other members of grassroots victims organizations around the world.

Ensuring comprehensive reparations

According to UN Principles, comprehensive reparations consist of restitution of housing or land; economic compensation; rehabilitation through health or psychosocial support; satisfaction measures like memorialization or apologies; and guarantees of non-repetition such as institutional or legal reforms.

Reparations can be provided from one state to another, ordered by courts, or implemented through administrative reparation programs. These programs are the main focus of our research, because they can benefit a large group of victims, while court-ordered reparations only target the victims of the specific case.

Unfortunately, reparations provided through such programs are rarely comprehensive, but instead limited to economic compensation, which is easiest to implement and measure. A compensation check is rarely sufficient to transform the situation of survivors, who tend to come from marginalized groups and may face increased poverty because of war.

For survivors who participated in our research, the moral and symbolic recognition of the harm done is at least as important as money. Such recognition, for example through memorials or apologies, can help combat the stigma that many survivors experience, as they are seen to be somehow responsible for the crimes. The many monuments, museums, and murals created in Guatemala, often by survivors, play an important role in commemorating the victims. Psychosocial support is also crucial, since many survivors are dealing with traumatic experiences which can prevent them from moving on.

Making a difference to survivors

For reparations to be meaningful, they must make a difference to the lives of survivors and address their different needs. For example, women often have different needs than men, as they encounter additional obstacles in the labor market or are discriminated against in their communities or families. Age also matters. Younger survivors have education needs, whereas the elderly are frequently more concerned with housing.

Reparations should also respond to cultural contexts. In Latin America, for example, sanación (healing) processes provide psychosocial support for victims according to indigenous Mayan or Afro Colombian beliefs. Reparations can also help to recover cultural practices that were lost or damaged as a result of conflict.

To identify which reparations would be meaningful, the participation of survivors in the design, implementation and evaluation of reparation processes is essential. Survivors are frequently involved in consultations on reparation programs. But developed policies are not always implemented, leaving survivors feeling frustrated and angry with governments.

Overcoming the obstacles

Other frequent obstacles to meaningful reparations concern governments trying to diminish or avoid their responsibility for reparations, by reducing reparations to compensation only or limiting who can receive them. Some governments instead broaden them to encompass more general development measures for wider society, which survivors do not consider a true reparation. These ways in which reparations are mismanaged can even result in survivors feeling re-victimized.

To overcome these obstacles, survivors have used many strategies. They have organized protests, proceedings at international courts or ones in other countries, media campaigns, and even hunger strikes, such as in Tunisia. To be successful, such strategies need a clear and unified goal, as well as long-term commitment. The international community can support victims’ organizations by offering platforms for dialogue and capacity building. Eventually, however, international attention tends to turn to more recent conflicts, leaving victims’ organizations struggling to survive and competing for funding.

The creation of networks, like INOVAS, can help victims’ mobilization efforts. Networks can build bridges across different groups of survivors, bringing together men, women, survivors from different ethnicities, ages, and regions. This helps to strengthen their voices and increase their power for collective action. The Conflict-Affected Women’s Network in Nepal provides an example where women around the country — across different generations and castes — have strengthened their leadership.

Potential role for the international community

The international community has supported reparations processes, but more can be done. Promoting victim mobilization and participation is essential to make sure that reparations are really people-centered and respond to victims’ needs:

  • The international community should recognize victims’ needs, and remind states of the importance of reparations.
  • Victim organization and mobilization can facilitate their participation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of reparation programs. Therefore, the international community should build stronger, more direct, and equal relationships with victims’ organizations, placing them at the center of all reparation processes.
  • Reparations should respond to the diverse needs of different groups of victims. Giving victims a range of measures to choose from could help to better address different needs based on gender, ethnicity or age. Including women and minority groups in reparation design is key.
  • Since TJ processes take a long time, the international community must provide long-term funding strategies with responsible exit strategies and realistic expectation management.

Impunity Watch and INOVAS are keen to work together to promote these goals, as part of the UN guidance note, with UN country offices and other actors promoting reparations. Only a truly people-centered approach to reparations will help to heal the scars of war.

More about the authors:

Impunity Watch is an international non-profit organization working with victims of violence to uproot deeply ingrained structures of impunity, deliver redress for grave human rights violations and promote justice and peace. Working together with victims, survivors and affected communities is at the heart of everything we do. Impunity Watch currently works in Central America, North Africa and the Great Lakes region of Africa, the Middle East, and the Western Balkans.

INOVAS is the International Network of Victims and Survivors of Serious Human Rights Abuses. Led by victims and survivors, we provide victims and survivors with a platform for their voices to be heard. We represent victims and survivors in Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, South Africa, DRC, Tunisia, Syria. Lebanon, and Nepal.

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