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Protecting witnesses and victims: special measures for women and children

Protection of witnesses and victims is crucial in any efficient investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations. A successful protection programme, designed to provide a full range of physical protection and psychosocial support to witnesses and victims, creates an enabling environment to report cases and is key to ensuring access to justice, fair trials and combating impunity.

A UN Police officer talks to a victim of rape and witness of a murder © UN Photo/ Martine Perret“The act of being a witness can add enormous strength to a person’s life,” said Wendy Lobwein, from the Witness and Expert Unit of the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. “It gives people a sense of clarity, a sense of understanding of the past, a resolution. I know there are ways witnesses and victims are able to use the experience of testifying to bring strength and resolution to parts of their lives,” she observed.

However, victims and witnesses of trafficking for sexual exploitation and sexual and gender-based violence may feel particularly vulnerable and reluctant to seek justice unless specific protection measures are in place. The types of measures depend on the gravity of the psychological and physical trauma suffered and the stigma attached to sexual violence; the multiple forms of discrimination of which they are victims, on grounds not only of their gender but also of their national, or ethnic origin or their status of undocumented migrants; and their fear of retaliation when perpetrators are State actors or individuals associated with State or State-like powers.

A meeting on gender and witness and victim protection, organized by the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva last May, assessed the integration of gender perspectives into existing witness and victim protection programmes and the negative impact that a lack of special measures could have on women’s access to justice.

“Special protection measures are provided during testimony,” said An Michels, psychologist in the Victims and Witnesses Unit of the International Criminal Court. “They include providing in-court psychological assistance, shielding the witness from the accused, avoiding embarrassing and repetitive questions, offering space for free narrative, and inviting the witness to take breaks,” she added.

Michels explained that these measures “help to create a safe environment in which witnesses feel encouraged to tell their story.” Victims of sexual violence, for instance, often benefit from the presence of a support person or psychologist in the courtroom. “By giving them the space to tell their story in their own words,” she said, “they feel that their testimony can bring closure, even if the process of testifying is often very emotional and difficult for them.”

In Bangladesh every year hundreds of women and girls are kept in prison under "safe custody". Sara Hossain, Honorary Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, said that laws that provided for "safe custody" “are used as a mechanism of protection for children and women who are treated by courts as victims of certain crimes of circumstances.” They include women and girls who contract marriages of choice, often across community lines, and against their parents will; rape and trafficking survivors; sex workers and girl children rescued from brothels. Women and girls in "safe custody" are at great risk of custodial violence and numerous cases have been recorded in which they have been abused and, in some cases, killed.

In some countries, OHCHR plays a key role in supporting the development of national witness and victim protection programmes.

In Uganda, for instance, “OHCHR has been strategically involved in supporting national stakeholders, including the Uganda Law Reform Commission, in its efforts to develop a national witness protection legal framework,” said Florence Nakazibwe from the OHCHR office in Kampala, Uganda. The Office is also providing technical expertise on witness protection to different justice actors. “We will be hosting a judicial workshop on victim and witness protection,” said Nakazibwe, “which will primarily target judges presiding over trials at the High Court of Uganda.”

In Argentina, the Office, in cooperation with national authorities, has organized a seminar on the legal framework of witness and victim protection programmes.

The Office is also active in Nepal, where it provides technical advice to the Government in the development of a national law on witness protection.

29 July 2011