Victims of conflict have a right to justice: UNDP

03 Oct 2013

image The Community Museum for Historical Memory in Rabinal, Guatemala, dignifies the memory of victims of killings and enforced disappearances in the area. Photo credit: UNDP Guatemala

New York--The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has called on UN Member States to grant victims of conflict and human rights abuses a stronger voice and better representation when it comes to accessing justice and reparations.

"Victims by definition not only have a need, but a right to justice," says Jordan Ryan, Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery at UNDP at a conference on Tuesday. Victim and government representatives, NGOs, and international victim advocacy groups attended the event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

As part of its global programme to bolster the rule of law in post conflict countries, Ryan said UNDP is striving to provide greater support to victims and is working with partner countries, bilateral donors and international organizations to ensure affected persons have acccess to redress. Despite national and international efforts, however, for many victims the road to justice and reparations is a long one.

"The long-term effects of crisis often leave victims struggling to confront their traumatic experiences--all too often alone," Ryan says. "From health and psychological issues, the  loss of loved ones, or difficulty re-entering the public and economic spheres, the effects of conflicts often leave little time or energy to seek justice and reparations."

Suman Adhikari, a Nepali activist, said his father, a school principal in Nepal, was shot by Maoist armed forces and his body tied to a tree not far from his home. Like millions of other victims of conflict, Adhikari is still seeking justice and reparations.

"Many people have been displaced and can't find livelihoods, but no one is listening," says Adhikari, now a human rights activist at the Transitional Justice Resource Centre in Nepal, which receives advice and technical assistance from UNDP.

Other victims of abuse from Colombia, Guatemala and Bosnia and Herzegovina also spoke at the conference. While they shared a similar past of violence and suffering, their definitions of justice varied.

For Amir Kulaglic, an independent activist who barely escaped the 1995 massacre in the town of Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, justice means ensuring that those who are responsible for inflicting suffering pay for their crimes. After losing several members of his family in the mass killing of approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in his home town, Kulaglic says many of the perpetrators still enjoy impunity.

"What brings us the greatest pain is seeing those who participated in the crimes working actively in the police or employed in government positions," he says.

For others, remembering those who suffered and died in conflicts is equally important. In Guatemala, a UNDP project supports the recovery and preservation of police archives, allowing the public to access proof of human rights violations, and helps families identify the remains of their loved ones.

Juan de Dios , an indigenous Mayan who suffered persecution in Guatemala, is a founding member of the Community Museum for Historical Memory for the victims of the 1980s massacres in Rabinal, Guatemala.

"The museum recovers the historical memory of our culture that has been lost in the conflict--the religion, the medicine, the dances and the music," de Dios says. "It is extremely important that younger generations know what happened so that we can recover what was lost. Remembering not only dignifies what happened, but also ensures that it never happens again."

For others yet, justice means recovering what they lost and returning to their former lives. In Colombia, UNDP has supported victims' rights to land restitution, social services, education, health and psychological support. Debora Barros, an indigenous Wayuu in Colombia who survived the massacre of women in her village by paramilitary forces, says she will never give up her quest to return to her home and claim back her life.

"We don't want to show our sadness because we don't want pity, we want justice," she says. "The international community has helped us claim back our rights. We now know we have the ability to defend ourselves as a community, as women, as fighters."

"From a legal standpoint, I am a victim," Kulaglic says.  "But I don't feel like a victim, I feel like a victor because I have overcome my trauma to help others. You can call me however you want," he says. "I feel like a winner."