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15th Anniversary of the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law ‘The catalytic power of reparations’

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

16 December 2020

Greetings from Geneva.

I am very pleased to welcome all of you to this special event to mark, together, the 15th Anniversary of the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation – the so-called ‘van Boven Principles’. It is apt indeed that this occasion, focussed on what happens after human rights violations have occurred, directly follows our commemoration of International Human Rights Day last week, with the theme of ‘Recover Better’.

At the very outset, I would like to express my gratitude in particular to the four remarkable individuals who will be sharing with us their experiences in diverse regions of the world, pursuing remedy and reparations, and how this has shaped their lives going forward – as far afield as Guatemala, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, and elsewhere. I acknowledge your courage, and we are particularly grateful for your participation.

We are also honoured to have Theo Van Boven with us today. He is a true human rights champion, and one of the founders and drafters of the Basic Principles. He will bring a unique perspective to the debate and, I have no doubt, motivate us for the future.

Today’s debate - and the series of events over the next 12 months which my Office is launching today – will highlight the catalytic power that genuine remedy and reparations can have on the daily life of victims, families, communities and entire societies. While today’s event is a celebration of a milestone achievement 15 years ago, it must also – more importantly - be a call for  renewed commitment from States and others to realize the right to reparation in practice. It should encourage the millions of victims around the globe who are frequently left with nothing but their capacity, together with others, to raise their voices for redress.  

Reparations can take many forms, specific to culture, community and context. As we will explore with today’s panel, they must be driven by a recognition of responsibility and an honest and true acknowledgement that rights have been violated. Any measure falling short of these baseline standards will not truly be experienced as justice, and it will never be able to fully repair the harm which has been suffered.   

Still today, there is an immense discrepancy between the ethical and legal imperative of reparations and the practical reality. Particularly in conflict and post-conflict settings, where institutions are non-existent or weak, victims are often left with next to nothing.

Today’s reflections and contributions – from the “father” of the Basic Principles, from transitional justice practitioners, but principally from victims and survivors themselves – will help us understand the transformative power of reparations. This power is rooted in the acknowledgement of the victim’s suffering, and the recognition that their rights and dignity have been violated, often preceded by long-standing, systemic discrimination and marginalization.

Such recognition and assistance can be truly transformative for the person, facilitating their own recovery but also acting as a gateway for meaningful participation of individuals and communities in other transitional justice and reform processes. Reparations also function as an enabler to participate in society on an equal footing, making them a crucial driver to realize the SDGs.

I have personally witnessed this in my home country, Chile – working with an organization that comprehensively assisted children of parents who had been victims of the dictatorship, with education, social assistance, and help with physical and mental health problems. It was not only a demonstration of the intergenerational impact of human rights abuse, but also of the power of reparations, which have helped survivors, families and communities heal and become part of wider society, with dignity.

I am inspired by these and other examples. And I look forward to our coming year-long exploration – and celebration - of this catalytic power of reparations, in close collaboration with victims, survivors and civil society around our world. Thank you.