Monday, October 12, 2009

Society in Motion: How Victim Rights Are Becoming Human Rights

The United States Assumes its Seat on the Huma...Image by US Mission Geneva via Flickr

By Randy McCall

Ok, so what's this all about?
Over the last few decades, we've seen a vast sea change in how governments and legal systems viewed victims of crime. In many countries around the globe, the days when victims of crime were viewed as little more than witnesses for the state, to be ignored until called into court, interrogated by lawyers, and then dismissed into limbo, are long gone.

Instead, government statements supporting the rights of crime victims are being broadcast on almost a daily basis. More and more countries -- though not all, by any means -- are providing rights and protections for victims enshrined in legislation on a regional, national level.

National law enforcement services, the courts, and even the correctional services, are moving to provide these legal rights to those who become victims of crime.

Not only are victims of crime being granted these legal rights, but also victims of abuse of government power. International organizations, including the International Criminal Court, are putting legislative safeguards into place in order to ensure victims of the abuse of power have access to the same rights and services as victims of crime do, when brought before an international tribunal.

So you say, but why is this happening?

The answer is be easy; the rights of crime victims are starting to be viewed as human rights. Rights which are considered so elemental and basic that not to provide them would be considered a gross violation of the basic human condition.

Ok, so how did we get to this point?
Prior to the 1960's, the criminal justice systems in most nations were concerned with ensuring the accused with a fair an impartial trial. In order to achieve this, the accused was granted a host of rights within the justice system. On the other hand, the victim of a crime had no rights; they were considered witnesses for the prosecution, and were supposed to be grateful to the State for whatever form of prosecution or punishment the State decided upon.

During the 1960's there started an awaking of social consciousness to the plight of crime victims. Crime victim rights groups, objecting to the treatment forced upon them, formed in countries around the world. Academics in the fields of criminology, psychology, social work and victimology started studying the effects of crime on the victims, proving that providing them with certain information and legal protections were vital in aiding them in recovering from the effects of both the crime and the journey through the justice process. Lawyers, politicians and legislators began to realize that entire sections of their population were being exposed to mistreatment by the very justice system which was sworn to protect them.

The movement towards identifying the rights of victims as human rights began around the same time, spurred by these simultaneous and interlinked developments. There are three documents which are considered to form the basis for identifying human rights. These are the United Nation's:
Full of legalese which can be very dense and, at times, open to interpretation, there is one human right which is spelled out clearly in all three documents: that all citizens have a right equality before the law and the courts, as well as in social and cultural rights. No one group can be granted more rights within the law than another without violating this principle. The fact that those accused of crimes had many legal rights, while the victims had few-to-none, became a central point of contention from which the international community started considering the rights of crime victims as potential human rights.

This drive continued, culminating in 1985 with the passage by the United Nations of the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power, which clearly laid out the definition of victims of crime and the abuse of power, and what rights they should be granted by their governments

In short, the Declaration said that victims had right to:
  • Access to justice and fair treatment (within the law and
  • Restitution for their losses (from the accused)
  • Compensation for their injuries (from their government)
  • Assistance from their society (social, psychological, medical)
The Declaration became the basic template upon which many countries have modeled their national victim rights policies. Several associated documents were issued by the UN to help governments and legislators understand the intent of and processes by which, these rights could be established in their countries. These were the:

So, given these UN documents, and the fact that so many countries have come to accept and use these policies, surely this means that we can say victim rights are now truly human rights?

Sadly, not yet. Some governments refuse to see the rights of crime victims under the law as a human right. The passage of a simple piece of legislation could remove these rights. Some jurists and legislators argue that the granting of rights to victims in the courts will remove some of the rights from the accused, or will give the victim undue influence in the court, eliminating the accused's right to a fair and impartial trial.

But, doesn't the UN Declaration mean countries have to grant these rights?

The Declaration, as it was written and passed, is only a statement of position or principles and is not legally binding on the members of the UN. In other words, it does not fully and legally provide that the rights of victims of crime are indeed human rights, on an international scale. While individual countries have granted these rights to their citizens, there is nothing in this document which provides that all signatories will.

To achieve this goal, the UN would have to pass a full Convention (e.g. the Convention of the Rights of the Child), which binds all UN members to establishing these rights for their citizens.

Is anything like this being worked on?

Fortunately, yes! Such a Convention for Victims of Crime is being actively developed, spear-headed as a joint project by the International Victimology Institute (INTERVICT) at Tilburg University (the Netherlands), and the World Society of Victimology (WSV), an international non-governmental organization devoted to promoting academic research and victim rights and advocacy on a global scale.

INTERVICT maintains a background and history of the draft convention, as well a copies of the latest version of the Draft Convention on Justice and Support for victims of Crime and the Abuse of Power in English, French and Spanish, which you can read. When passed, it will finally and fully confirm the rights of victims of crime as human rights, which cannot be dismissed, diminished or taken away.

If you're interested in this project, you should contact either Intervict or the WSV for information.

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  1. I am definitely interested in the Convention for Victims of Crime. As a true crime author and survivor of a horrific crime, I am also an inspirational speaker who advocates for victims. I travel across the United States, sharing my message of hope and am passionate about supporting other victims. My book "Shattered: Reclaiming A Life Torn Apart By Violence" has become required reading for several universities in the criminal justice program. Thank you for this posting! God Bless, Debra Puglisi Sharp

  2. Victims' Rights are human rights and should be given the same efforts as those toward the accused. The criminal justice system afford the accused with numerous rights and priveledges yet treats the crime victim as nothing more than a witness. Once this gets closer into balance, even if the balance is always going to tilt to the accused, communities will begin to trust the system.


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