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Civil Society activists to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Victims should be at the heart of any justice process

Connecting civil society activists and victims at the grassroots level with international policy leaders is an essential component in the fight against impunity and in ensuring more efficient justice processes. This direct engagement paves the way for a solid advocacy for victims’ rights and helps policymakers better understand local needs and aspirations. In line with this approach, Impunity Watch hosted a civil society meeting with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms. Michelle Bachelet on 16 May 2019 in The Hague.

Civil society representatives from Guatemala and Syria, among others, discussed the worsening human rights situation in their countries and raised their recommendations to Ms. Bachelet urging her to continue to advocate for keeping human rights issues atop the global political agenda. Participants emphasised the shrinking space for human rights and civil society, voicing their concerns over the alarming absence of any concrete measures to end impunity.

Acknowledging that the global context is not very positive for human rights and gender rights, Ms. Bachelet stressed that the struggle for justice continues. “We are not living in the best moment, but we will continue to push back [against human rights violations],” she said.

Participants from Guatemala noted that the road to justice is long, but giving up is never an option for them. They cited the cases of Sepur Zarco, Molina Theissen, Rios Montt and Dos Erres as examples of how a country can resiliently work toward overcoming a legacy of conflict and impunity and strengthening the rule-of-law. However, all the progress of the last decade is now

again at risk because of a serious backlash

orchestrated by the corrupt governing elite

threatened in their position. The Guatemalan

participants expressed concerns about the present

attack on the independence of the judiciary and

on the free functioning of the national ombudsman

for human rights, as well as the attempts to amend

the National Reconciliation Law in order to

reintroduce a total impunity for crimes against

humanity committed during the internal conflict.

These measures would seriously affect victims’

rights to justice, truth, reparations and

guarantees of non-repetition. Voicing their concern

that the international community remains too silent

at a critical moment, the Guatemalan participants

warned that passing an “Amnesty Law” weakens the justice system and seriously jeopardises human rights in the country. It also sends the wrong message that impunity can overrule justice and that victims’ efforts have gone in vain. The participants urged the High Commissioner to continue to advocate within the international and diplomatic community to take a firm stance in defence of the rule-of-law and human rights in Guatemala and prevent a further backsliding toward the darkest days of the country’s history.

Syrian participants underlined the ongoing human rights violations in Syria noting that, as they speak, detainees are still dying under indescribable torture. While the Syrian regime and Russia are bombarding the Idlib province and attacking civilian targets, the international community is discussing normalising relations with the Assad regime with only limited attention to addressing impunity. Although Syrian victims are unable to voice their demands inside their countries, this has not dissuaded them from mobilising in the countries hosting Syrian refugees and organising to advocate for their rights. The participants stressed that they will pursue their struggle for justice despite all odds and they will continue to fight impunity. They noted that there are different forms of justice already possible until perpetrators are held accountable for the violations they committed. For instance, there are immediate measures that can help restore the dignity of victims’ families like preserving the right to truth and memorialisation. Families have the right to know the whereabouts and the fate of the missing and the forcibly disappeared. Families have the right to properly mourn their lost beloved ones and this can help them survive their grief. In light of the current access constraints in Syria, the Syrian activists highlighted their ongoing documentation of human rights violations which would ultimately help serve the right to truth.

One participant touched on the importance of incorporating a gender perspective to the transitional justice processes that deals with the impact of gender inequalities and gender-based violence on women’s lives. Noting that while women are always, in one way or another, at the centre of conflict, they should not be perceived as mere victims, but should rather be empowered because their voices can be powerful drivers of change in their societies, she added.

Another participant criticised how the international community defines the importance of countries on its agenda based on a comparison of the number of victims in vulnerable contexts. This is not only an affront to victims, but also leads to weak international interventions in war-torn countries which further perpetuates impunity and human rights abuses. The participant emphasized that every single life matters.  and we should all remember that figures have faces and represent actual human beings.

Ms. Bachelet noted that there are different models of justice, but the most important thing is that these ensure accountability. “Perpetrators should be known and held accountable. Families also have the right to reparations.”

The High Commissioner also touched on the importance of more creative coordination between different actors noting that it is key to have a clear distinction of roles and who can say what in different situations.


In their recommendations, participants urged the High Commissioner to support their plea for an institutionalised victim-centred approach within the UN. Impunity Watch’s Executive Director Ms. Marlies Stappers cited the current policy processes around the SDG16+ and the Intersessional seminars on the contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations as possible platforms to initiate this victim-centred approach. Participants focused on the need to keep victims at the heart of the justice efforts rather than apply a top-down approach that does not necessarily meet their needs and aspirations


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