Victims of international crimes are at the core of the fight against impunity for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC was the first international accountability mechanism to make room for the direct participation of victims in legal proceedings. Despite this progress, the visibility and voices of victims are continuously muzzled at national, regional and international level, owing to legal, technical and financial hurdles. We now increasingly see victims playing a diminutive role in the quest for accountability.
To strengthen the practical application and/or implementation of victim participation in accountability efforts, TrustAfrica’s International Criminal Justice Fund has over the years supported interventions aimed at trengthening victim mobilization, capacity building, victim-led advocacy and victim participation in national and international accountability processes.
Between 2017-2019, the Victim Support Initiative (VSI) received support from TrustAfrica to implement the “Effectively engaging victims participating international and domestic cases” Project. The project aimed at increasing victims’ access to justice before the ICC and domestic proceedings by enhancing victims’ participation rights was implemented in Uganda. The project builds on the ICJ Fund’s strategy of pursuing victim-centred approaches in order to enhance the legitimacy, sustainability, and effectiveness of transitional and international justice efforts.
In this newsletter, our colleague, Brenda Peace spoke to Joseph Manoba and Priscilla Aling who are currently working for VSI to profile this Initiative and to understand their work on victim participation in Uganda.
Excerpts from the interviews
Who is Victims Support Initiative, (VSI)?
VSI is a Ugandan non-profit organization established in 2017 primarily to promote access to justice for victims of conflict before national and international legal systems. Since its inception, VSI has supported the Legal Representatives for Victims, (LRV), in the ICC trial against former Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader, Dominic Ongwen to enhance their engagement with their clients who are participating in this important trial.
When did you first hear about TrustAfrica?
The founding members of VSI first heard about TrustAfrica in 2015 from partners like AYINET who were TrustAfrica grantees and were supporting the work of the LRVs.
Why TrustAfrica and not other big donors?
There is a shared interest between VSI and TrustAfrica specifically the desire to provide agency to victims of mass violations and TrustAfrica understands the unique status of VSI. Because majority of their work involves working with victims participating in the trial before the ICC, there are stringent rules on confidentiality. TrustAfrica understands VSI limitations and works well with VSI to determine an appropriate relationship that upholds these confidentiality requirements.
What does VSI offer/ what is the problem that VSI seeks to address/ solve?
VSI currently focuses on two tracks of work, that is , work related to Dominic Ongwen’s trial before the ICC; and technical support and assistance to the International Crimes Division (ICD). The following are the activities that we implement:
- Facilitating Legal Representatives for Victims, (LRV), in the Dominic Ongwen case to engage in consultations, on a rolling basis, with their clients.
- Supporting the LRV team members based abroad to meet with their clients in Uganda.
- Facilitating the members of the LRV to participate in victim centred advocacy efforts in national and international forums such as the ICC-NGO roundtable meetings, the ICC Assembly of States Parties et cetera.
- Building the capacity of lawyers and other stakeholders on issues relating to victim participation in accountability and transitional justice efforts through trainings, and experience and best practices sharing sessions
- Supporting institutions such as the ICD on issues related to victim participation through sharing practical and best practices.
- Coordinated advocacy with other civil society organizations on issues related to victim participation and improving Uganda’s capacity to try international crimes
Who are the beneficiaries of VSI? And what are some of the specific programs that they have benefited from?
The primary beneficiaries of VSI are victims admitted to participate in the trial of Dominic Ongwen before the ICC and represented by the LRVs. VSI has facilitated LRV meetings with participating victims to consult on their victimization; their views about the trial as well as organizing information sessions to give feedback about the trial.
The second set of beneficiaries are the legal and civil society fraternity who have benefited through trainings and experience sharing sessions on victim participation; actors and parties such as the panel of judges; the registry and victims’ counsel in the trial of former LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo who is currently on trial before the ICD. The International Crimes Division and the Uganda Law Society are the key national institutions which have benefited from VSI’s work are
What inspires you as an organization?
VSI desires to see victim participation experienced beyond the texts of the law. VSI wishes to contribute to bringing victim voices to the forefront of transitional justice processes and helping victims realize their visions of justice.
We also draw inspiration from the victims and that is why they are the focus of our attention and interventions. We engage with them so that they can share their experiences and hope that by doing this, we will provide a safe platform that can foster the healing of victims by giving them room to talk about their conflict experiences.
What is the achievement or contribution that VSI has made that you are most proud of? And why?
VSI has, since its intervention, taken a keen interest in the proceedings against Thomas Kwoyelo before the ICD. As an entry point, VSI organized ICC-ICD experience sharing meeting to give the different parties in each of the cases the forum to share challenges and best practices. This engagement allowed for some of the major challenges the ICD faces to be highlighted. Towards the commencement of the trial, VSI joined an unofficial coalition of NGOs supporting the mandate of the ICD to push for the realization of victim participation. As part of the coalition, VSI participated in joint advocacy meetings targeting the apex of the Ugandan judiciary and alongside other NGOs pushed for the inclusion of victims’ representatives at the opening of the trial.
One of the major gaps VSI noted in the proceedings was the undetermined status of victims who had applied to participate in the trial. Victims’ application forms had been submitted a year earlier but were not processed despite an earlier pre-trial decision allowing victims to participate in the trial. VSI prepared guidelines detailing criteria to be relied on by the court to process victim application forms; it facilitated discussions highlighting the importance of victims’ rights at an information session organized by one of the partners and which was attended by the trial panel of judges in the case; moderated the review of the criteria document together with the trial panel of judges and later organized a one day training on the criteria for selected ICD legal officers and assistants who later successfully reviewed the victim participation forms. During this one-day training, VSI secured the attendance of a former staff member of the Victims Participation and Reparations Section (VPRS) of the ICC who shared insights on the victim application review process and how some of the ICC experiences may inform the ICD’s work. It is because of this VSI led intervention that victims have currently been formally admitted to participate in the trial.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Majority of VSI’s intervention with victims has been through consultations and during this process, victims have shared the the day to day challenges they continue to face, many of which are as a result of conflict. The biggest challenge for VSI is to think creatively of the ways in which to respond to address victims’ immediate needs.
What have you done to resolve this challenge?
In light of the above challenge, VSI, with support from another donor is piloting a project titled, “Victim Empowerment Training”. This project targets youthful members of the victim community to attend a two weeks residential academy and provides skills in agriculture, financial literacy, literacy, basic land law, civic education while also providing psychosocial activities for the participants. VSI hopes that with these skills, the beneficiaries can return to their communities and use them to improve their different sources of livelihood.
What would you say to someone considering engaging in victim participation as a field of intervention in transitional and international justice?
It is important for one to know that victims value being engaged in different processes and should therefore be given the agency to actively participate. Victims know what they want and therefore one should listen to them and facilitate their wishes or provide pathways to achieving what they want out of the processes.
We should also highlight that victims’ participation is an important and useful justice tool that offers victims an opportunity to share their experiences and in so doing victims are able to lift the burdens of victimization off their chest and hence contribute to healing. Victims’ participation must therefore be meaningful for it to benefit the victims.
What else should other people know about VSI?
VSI is an organization committed to making victims’ participation meaningful. It has experience in supporting LRVs in implementing their mandate. It also has experience working around victims’ rights issues.