Unlocking empathy: providing human-centred support to war-affected persons

August 30, 2023
Photo: 0simon0 SzymonLaszewski / Shutterstock

"Every day the Ombudsperson’s Office receives telephone calls and visitors that seek help with a spectrum of challenges, ranging from searching for missing family members and displacement from homes, to critical need of social assistance in light of the adversities brought about by the ongoing war. They are asking for legal advice or clarifications, but above all, they want to be heard. I am there to help and to listen," says Vira Yakovenko, the Ombudsperson's Regional Coordinator in Poltava Oblast.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused immense suffering and horrendous human rights violations. The fundamental rights of the people are at risk, challenged by the cruelty of war atrocities and massive abuses of international humanitarian law. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has affected millions of civilians, resulting in massive destruction, the demolition of entire settlements and towns, damage to energy and social infrastructure, displacement, loss of life, and conflict-related sexual violence.

According to the Ministry of Social Policy, as of January 2023 approximately 4.9 million people were officially registered as internally displaced. Furthermore, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in August 2023 there were approximately 6.2 million recorded refugees from Ukraine across Europe. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, 101,543 cases of missing persons have been registered. While most individuals have been found, over 23,000 people – including civilians and service personnel – remain missing. 

Seeing individuals behind statistics: how to communicate with war-affected populations

Behind every statistic lies not only the person affected by the war atrocities but also that person’s family, relatives, friends, and loved ones. Having endured unimaginable suffering they require humanitarian assistance and state services, but above all they require human support. 

Therefore, duty bearers who provide immediate assistance to persons affected by the war require specific skills to effectively communicate with war-affected individuals. With this in mind, UNDP, supported by the Government of Japan, has designed a multifaceted initiative that focuses on various aspects of immediate assistance – providing rapid support to war-affected communities, such as debris removal, demining, and winterization of critical infrastructure – but also emphasizes building the capacities of national partners and stakeholders to provide immediate assistance to the war-affected population based on principles of human rights and international standards. Grounded in the bedrock of human security, this approach is underpinned by three essential principles: protection, empowerment, and solidarity.

One of the key areas of focus of this initiative is to fortify the capacities of national and local state and non-state actors with the overarching goal of strengthening the pillars of community security, observance of human rights, and assurance of access to justice for all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized social groups.

As part of this initiative, UNDP – supported by the Government of Japan – organized a pilot in-depth training programme for members of the Secretariat of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights and its regional network in March 2023. The training programme covered the basics of communication with people affected by the war, including families and loved ones of those affected — prisoners of war, deceased, missed persons, veterans, and those injured in hostilities. It provides insights on how to engage with individuals experiencing stress, communicate on difficult topics, and ensure personal safety in crisis situations.

"We frequently encounter individuals who are experiencing high levels of stress or emotional exhaustion. They seek even a glimmer of good news. For instance, every week I receive a call from a woman whose son went missing during the hostilities of war. She reaches out even knowing that I am not in a position to share news on this, because this is not our direct area of work, but I know that she finds solace in such conversations. Our practice is to answer each call and extend our attention to those who approach us. Our role sometimes is to extend moral support, and we do our best to help people who require it," says Vira Yakovenko during the training.

A human rights dimension: ensuring that the rights of the most vulnerable persons are protected  

Unfortunately, the war and its terrifying consequences spare no one. However, certain groups of people are in particularly vulnerable positions, more exposed to violations of their rights for various reasons including social status, economic wellbeing, education, age, gender, and ethnicity. 

Among these groups are the families of missing persons and prisoners of war. As they grapple with the uncertainties and emotional turmoil brought about by the conflict, their need for legal support and protection becomes all the more pressing. 

These individuals experience immense levels of stress and anxiety, often lacking the capacity to navigate the legal aspects of their situation, and thus they require support to ensure that their rights are protected and they receive the specific social support they are entitled to.

Starting in May, regular meetings have been initiated with the families and loved ones of missing persons and prisoners of war. Due to their limited awareness of their rights, legal status, and the social support available, these individuals are vulnerable to human rights violations. 

Since April 2023, with the support of UNDP and the Government of Japan, the Ombudsperson's Office conducted regular meetings, engaging more than 590 family members of missing persons and prisoners of war. These sessions aimed to provide them with crucial updates and legal support, and to identify systemic human rights issues requiring advocacy for change.

Zooming out and next steps

Effective skills for communication with individuals affected or traumatized by war based on principles of respect are essential for all duty-bearers, particularly those who provide legal assistance or are the first point of contact for survivors. Recognizing this crucial need, UNDP, in collaboration with the Government of Japan, will expand its support to other duty bearers conducting a series of training events for them throughout 2023. These events are intended to reach a wider group of stakeholders, including the Free Legal Aid system, national police, prosecutors, the Ombudsperson’s Office, and social service providers that provide assistance to war-affected individuals, equipping them with knowledge and skills for identification of war crimes, capacities of national and international justice, sensitive communication and effective coordination. 

This will enable these stakeholders to be equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to effectively communicate with and support individuals affected by the war. By doing so, they can better uphold their duties and provide comprehensive assistance to those in need, ensuring that human rights principles and international standards are upheld throughout the process.