The Critical and Complex Task of Protecting Survivors and Witnesses of Human Rights Violations

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in an online conversation from CVT’s New Tactics in Human Rights program, with the title “Protecting Survivors and Witnesses.” This conversation was led by individuals from a number of universities and medical and human rights law organizations, and raised particular questions on the role of states and civil society, effectiveness of protection mechanisms and risk management.

My frame of reference for the role of civil society in witness and survivor protection is often in the context of post-conflict or post-mass atrocity, where a breakdown or failure of the state to protect leaves a void that civil society must fill. A dialogue between human rights actors from around the world presented the multi-faceted and complex protection concerns that arise in day-to-day law enforcement and administrative contexts that include the effectiveness of the state’s protection capacity, its ability to carry out rehabilitation and the protection of civil society that carry out victim and survivor protection.

In the post-atrocity context, the breakdown of the state or its direct perpetration of harm, leaves survivors and witnesses with very few options for both accountability and protection. The role of civil society—both local and international—is amplified in these contexts. Whether in the International Criminal Court, the ad hoc tribunals or other international accountability mechanisms, in the wake of mass atrocities, international actors and civil society often take on the role of providing protection, sometimes even leaving a void in their wake when the work of international accountability ceases.

Because civil society organizations often have enormous protection mandates in the post-mass atrocity context, I assumed that much of the conversation would focus on international protection mechanisms. However, the discussion drew my attention to situations where the state is still functioning and bears the role of providing protection. The protection complexities in this context are equally challenging, and the role of civil society is just as important as in post-mass atrocities—if not more so. From the Maldives, to Bangladesh, to Kenya and the United Kingdom, participants detailed the manifold ways that civil society organizations play a role in protecting survivors and witnesses—and how they have to protect themselves.

As participants almost universally agreed, the international obligation of protection of witnesses and victims fell primarily on the state—whether it was to provide justice, prevent reoccurrence or provide for rehabilitation. However, the state’s ability and fitness to carry it out proves challenging, and the burdens fall onto local civil society, often without the added protection of international partners.  

Physical protection of witnesses proves complicated when, for example, a survivor is alleging law enforcement abuse. As many pointed out, the state bears the duty to provide rehabilitation; however, as the perpetrator, it likely cannot provide effective redress. The task of both physical protection and rehabilitation therefore falls on civil society.

Adding complexity to an already difficult situation, many local civil society organizations grapple with the protection of their own volunteers and employees. Just as the protection of survivors and witnesses is important, in some instances, civil society organizations that provide documentation or advocacy suffer reprisals from perpetrators. Some participants pointed to direct threats they have received for carrying out human rights work. As Carla Ferstman, the director of REDRESS noted, very few countries actually investigate reprisals, and she pointed to this as an area of further advocacy for civil society.

These challenges only begin to highlight the complexity of protecting survivors and witnesses, but the value of having organizational representatives from around the world share lessons learned and best practices opens the door to further conversation. It also provides an opportunity to learn about what strategies may be broadly applicable—like the effectiveness of UN mechanisms—or those that are culturally or context-dependent—like using video cameras to capture law enforcement abuse.

Article originally published by the Center for Victims of Torture: