In June 2014, the Secretary-General issued a Guidance Note on Reparations for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. It sets out the relevant international legal framework that applies to this crime and develops the principles and operational guidelines that should direct United Nations support to Member States in this area. The drafting of this document was led by UN Women and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with input from the entities of the Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group.
On 1 August, 2014, as part of the Dialogue Series with Member states on the Rule of Law at the International Level, the Rule of Law Coordination and Resource Group and the Rule of Law Unit in the Executive Office of the Secretary-General organised an open panel discussion held at the UN Secretariat in New York to present the Guidance Note.
The panel was composed of the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. Mr. Jan Eliasson, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura, the Executive Director for UN Women, Mrs. Phumzile Mlambo- Ngcuka, t he Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York, Mr. Ivan Simonovic, Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia, the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations, and Ms. Paula Gavira Betacur, the Head of the Unit for the Attention and Reparation of Victims in Colombia. It was moderated by the President of the International Centre for Transitional Justice.
Mr. David Tolbert, moderated the dialogue and opened the discussion underlying that reparations are a tangible acknowledgment of violations and play a critical role in re-establishing civic trust in societies which have suffered, as well as in assisting victims to re-establish their lives. Mr. Tolbert recalled that reparations are one of several transitional justice measures which States can employ to deal with violations stemming from conflict. They are an essential part of any post-conflict response to a legacy of violence, as they focus most directly and explicitly on the victims’ situation, seeking to provide some repair for denied rights and suffered harms. He noted the difficulties to make reparations effective in reality, and welcomed the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note as a useful tool to overcome the challenges of ensuring that victims of sexual violence have access to reparations that respond to the harm they have suffered.
The Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations underlined how UN efforts should be guided by the UN Charter’s reaffirmation of fundamental human rights and the dignity of the human person. Acknowledging the devastating effects of crimes and violence during conflicts, he highlighted the duty to help restore the dignity of survivors. He emphasised that efforts to combat impunity must be supported by efforts to redress victims, and explained how the Guidance Note is part of the broader rule of law work of the UN, which is fundamental to the vision and aims of the Organization.
Ms. Zainab Hawa Bangura, stressed the importance of sexual violence being reflected on the historical record and in the accountability mechanisms that follow armed conflict. She noted how reparations recognize the importance of delivering justice to the victims. Outlining the benefits of reparative justice, she stated that first, for the victims, it re-affirmed that what happened was not their fault. Second, at the community level, sexual violence subverts the rules, spoken and unspoken, that bind people together and as such is a collective harm that warrants collective redress. Third, at the State level, failure to deliver justice and reparations risks perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence, vengeance and vigilantism and eroding faith in the rule of law. Ms. Bangura acknowledged that although it may never be possible to make amends for such crimes, the symbolic power of reparations is to recognize that the victims are holders of rights. She gave examples of successful innovative reparations from Sierra Leone where victims have been involved in skills-training, micro-credit, and progressive law reform.
Mrs. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated that o f all the measures seeking redress for past human rights violations, reparations are the most victim-focused and most consistently prioritized by women in post-conflict situations. To date however, reparations programmes have often failed to address women’s needs and priorities or adequately respond to gender-specific harm suffered during conflict. She stated that transformative reparations mean not just looking back, but looking back in order to go forward. Ultimately, it means investing in gender equality because societies where women are treated as equal citizens are societies where there is greater and lasting peace. Mrs. Mlambo-Ngcuka concluded stating that reparations are not just about justice. They are also about empowerment because “we know that empowered women and empowered communities are the best defence against cycles of despair, radicalization, and violence.”
Mr. Ivan Simonovic similarly emphasised the importance of placing victims at the centre when addressing conflict-related sexual violence, and ensuring that their right to an effective remedy and reparations is fulfilled. Referring to the principles developed in the Guidance Note, he highlighted first, that reparation programmes must be accessible and inclusive, as well as sensitive to the difficulties that victims may face in effectively participating. Giving the examples of Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste where the Truth Commissions decided to keep the potential lists of victims open, he stated that reparation programmes must bear in mind that stigma, fear of exposure or trauma may hinder victims in coming forward. Second, reparation programmes must be designed with the participation of victims, including the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim. Third , he stated that reparations should have the potential to transform the structural conditions within society that allowed the violence to happen in the first place. Finally, Mr Simonovic emphasised that while international cooperation and assistance can help, it should not be seen as a substitute for the primary role of the State which has a legal responsibility under international law to provide a remedy and reparations for victims, including victims of conflict-related sexual violence.
Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia , provided an overview of the five decades of conflict in Colombia and of the current peace process initiated two years ago. She highlighted that Colombia has undertaken reparations efforts, without waiting for the conflict to end, and made reference to the laws that have been adopted to ensure victims’ rights. Colombia is now ready to share its experiences and challenges of overcoming its conflict, and is pursuing the most important goal of its modern history: achieving a lasting peace where victims and survivors of this long conflict could get effective access to justice, reparation and non-repetition.
Ms. Paula Gaviria Betancur, spoke on Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law. She highlighted the main aspects covered, including the establishment of a comprehensive programme to provide for administrative reparations and the creation of an institutional system to implement it. The law provides a legal framework which specifically acknowledges what happened to the victims of the conflict and places victims as a priority for the Colombian State, through comprehensive reparation measures. Reparation efforts explicitly include victims of sexual violence. She concluded that the passing of this law is both a great opportunity and a very demanding task.