Using a victim accompaniment process to provide emotional support for testimony

When addressing human rights violations in a public reconciliation process, it’s important to make the process comfortable for victims who testify. One tactic is “accompaniment” of victims by volunteers trained in psychosocial support and the practical realities of the process. The goal is to give victims an empowering experience that helps their healing and does not contribute to re-traumatization.

To address gross human rights violations committed during apartheid, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was initiated by legislation in 1995. Their mandate was to document violations committed by state bodies or armed opposition, to promote national unity and reconcili­ation, and to offer policy reforms to prevent future abuses. In addition to amnesty and human rights hearings, special hearings were held, focused on abuses suffered by women and children. These hearings were held around the country and were covered exten­sively by all media.

Over 20,000 victims gave testimony. The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee of the TRC provided psychosocial and emotional support to victims. To make the process comfortable for them, TRC used an “accompaniment” process that included accompaniment volunteers, people chosen from caring professions (e.g., ministers, nurses, social workers, psychologists, etc.) who offered support to victims before, during, and after their hearing. The accompaniment process addressed three objectives: support and empower the individual testifying; support the community healing process; and maximize the impact on national healing. 

Special accompaniment volunteers support a person during the process of retelling their traumatic experience and help that person understand what happened to them. The methodology comes from critical incident debriefing (CID), used in unusual, traumatic experiences, like natural disasters. CID addresses three aspects of situations, the cognitive, emotional and practical: what someone thought, felt, and actually did. Even though the person experienced abnormal circumstances, CID helps normalize their responses.

Two kinds of volunteers were trained: core accompaniment volunteers who worked during the whole process, and community accompaniment volunteers who were recruited and trained in communities of those testifying. Core accompaniment volunteers received extensive training; they helped victims prepare and experience hearings. They also helped train community accompaniment volunteers, those with a short-term, focused objective of supporting their community and victims from their community. The accompaniment process had six stages: 1) initial contact with community; 2) initial contact with victims; 3) a full-day briefing session; 4) the hearing itself; 5) closure process; and 6) a follow-up visit.

  • Initial contact in communities occurred at public meetings, so existing community leaders (e.g., teachers, legal professionals, etc.) could hear the Commission’s mandate. TRC desired partnerships with existing community leaders (faith and traditional leaders) to utilize existing resources. The convening authority’s participation was important; they would introduce TRC to the community. Finding local partners was also crucial to identifying potential community accompaniment volunteers.
  • Victims selected to be heard by the Human Rights Violation Committee received invitation letters to appear before the TRC, including details of the accompaniment and hearing process, the full-day briefing date, and the public hearing date.
  • The full day briefing session took place two days before a hearing, bringing together all selected victims scheduled for that day. This created group support that could be maintained during the hearing. To reduce stress, victims were informed about the accompaniment volunteer’s role and given the agenda. Accompaniment volunteers explained the hearing process in detail and gave a tour of the hearing room. After seeing the hearing room, victims shared their stories in small groups of 6-8 people, facilitated by the accompaniment volunteer. Often, this was a victim’s first time sharing their story in a group.
  • At the public hearing, victims and accompaniment volunteers convened an hour before to talk about their immediate feelings. Accompaniment volunteers repeated the logistics and schedule. During the hearing, each victim was accompanied by their assigned volunteer to the stand and throughout the day. After the testimony, the accompaniment volunteer and victim debriefed privately before returning to the public room.
  • Victims were encouraged to leave the trauma in the hands of TRC and to seek support from each other and their community.
  • Follow up visits to communities helped address old conflicts opened up in the hearing process that threatened the stability in communities. Resolving these conflicts was not the mandate of the TRC, but space was provided for the whole community to have a follow-up debriefing.

The accompaniment process had positive effects. Individually, it helped testifiers avoid secondary trauma in testifying and processing their pain. On a community level, it trained community members to assist the healing process of victims, and brought communities together to process and heal shared experiences. Nationally, the accompaniment process helped the TRC achieve its goal of creating a victim-friendly process to promote healing for a traumatized nation. Immediate achievements of the TRC included recom­mendations for preventing future violations and the documentation of human rights abuses during apartheid. The TRC has not fulfilled all of its expectations; none of the abusers who refused to testify have been prosecuted, and the country continues to struggle with reparations.

For victimized people to move forward with hope, the justice process must be responsive to their needs. Any truth and reconciliation process can only look at a fraction of the truth, but the manner in which it looks at this fraction is crucial: people watching the process must believe it is legitimate. If the invisible majority of victims see a process that traumatizes those who come forward to testify, or focuses entirely on the perpetrators, the nation will not be empowered to imagine a better future. It is essential that significant effort and resources be put into psychosocial support for people who testify. A post-conflict process of reconciliation can only succeed if it is legitimate in the eyes of the victims.

For more information read our in-depth case study of this tactic from South Africa and another in-depth case study example of using public audiences in the Truth & Reconciliation process in Peru.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

If your organization is requesting victims to provide testimony or share their story in any way, it is essential to recognize that the act of communicating a traumatic experience forces the victim to relive the event, leaving them susceptible to further traumatization (other tactics concerning the collection of personal testimonies has been carried in areas such as Cambodia and Guatemala). Consider ways in which your organization will provide emotional and psychological support to aid the victims in the sharing process to address re-traumatization and facilitate healing. This tactic was effective because it worked alongside the victim through every step of the process: helping the victim prepare for the hearing, being present with them during the hearing, and following up with them afterward. In addition, the community involvement encouraged members to rely on each other for support. The safety and well-being of the victim must be a paramount to any tactic considerations, risks of inducing further harm should be seriously assessed.