Victim support and witness protection are integral to the right of a victim of crime to a fair trial.
However, supporting victims of crime goes beyond a strictly legal interpretation of the notion of the right to a fair trial.
In 1985, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power.
The Declaration stipulates the minimum standards for the treatment of victims of crime and provides a benchmark for victim-friendly legislation and policies.
The contents of the 1985 Declaration can be summarized by the following basic principles of justice:
- Victims have a right be treated with compassion and respect.
- Victims have a right to information on the proceedings.
- Victims have a right to present their views to the judicial authorities.
- Victims have a right to legal representation at no cost should they be unable to afford it.
- Victims have a right to see their privacy and identity protected.
- Victims have a right to protection against retaliation and intimidation.
- Victims have a right to be offered the opportunity to participate in mediation.
- Victims have a right to receive compensation from the state in cases of violent crime.
- Victims have the right to receive social assistance.
The Declaration reinforces and elevates the Council of Europe Recommendation on the Position of the Victim in the Framework of Criminal Law and Procedure, also adopted in 1985.
UNDP and national partners in southeastern Europe, including ministries of justice and the victim support offices, have partnered to make sure that national systems are in place to support the principles of justice for victims.
Therefore, it was heartening to see that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, fYR Macedonia, Turkey, and Ukraine adopted a joint statement (opens in pdf) on victim empowerment at a regional conference in late 2012 on judicial reforms and empowerment of victims in Croatia.
One of the key outcomes of the statement is that participating countries agreed to establish national systems to support witness-victims.
Establishing minimum standards on the rights, support, and protection of victims of crime – within a three year period – has also become a requirement for all European Union (EU) member states as a result of the latest EU Directive (pdf) from 2012.
The Directive will also influence candidate countries in the EU negotiation process and prove relevant to other regions and countries as they work to expand the frontiers of justice.
The process of investigating and prosecuting offences depends largely on the information and testimony of witnesses. Witnesses, therefore, are the cornerstones of successful national criminal justice systems. Prosecutors depend upon witnesses whose testimony can be accepted as truthful, accurate, and complete.
The recall of victims called as witnesses at trial and their ability to relate relevant information may be affected by many factors, including age, cognitive or physical disabilities, language barriers, their relation to the offender, and, importantly, the trauma they have suffered as a victim of crime.
Given the encouraging developments achieved through the new EU directive and joint statement on victim empowerment, it is time to look beyond the legal approach and adopt a robust agenda of access to justice and legal empowerment in the region and beyond, ensuring that the message is spread to all citizens. This would benefit countries with similar challenges in other parts of the world.
Countries such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia have already demonstrated that a justice system can be caring to the victims of crimes, especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalized because of their gender, disability, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Of course, there is still room for improvement.
Watch: Croatia’s work to support victims and witnesses in court cases, broadcast on Croatian Television (HTV) show Proces:
We should not, however, lose sight of the accused. To ensure justice for all, we must ensure that both victims and those accused of crimes have access to legal assistance, regardless of their position in society.
This equality has been highlighted in the new United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems released last year.
Easier said than done?
Do you have examples from your country or region?
How can we do more to empower victims of crime and ensure both victims and those accused get a fair deal?