Dutch apology to Indonesia too late for relativesRecognition of victims crucial in large-scale international crimes
Greater focus should be placed on the restoration of rights for victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. This is the key message in a book published by Tilburg researchers based on research into the restoration of rights in Africa. The authors of the study discovered that what should be one of the most effective ways of bringing about justice — official recognition of the victims and survivors — is not actually as simple as it appears. This opinion is borne out by the Netherlands recent apology to Indonesia for the 1947 massacre at Rawagede, which relatives felt came too late.
Delivering justice to the victims of mass crimes against humanity is an extremely difficult task. What punishment befits the murder of hundreds of thousands of people? Is it possible to distinguish between offenders, bystanders and victims amid the chaos of a collapsed state? What is the best form of rehabilitation and compensation for victims who have lost everything and who have witnessed the most brutal forms of sadism?
In order to provide greater justice for victims of international crimes, we need to acknowledge that the legal system has its limits. This is one of the main conclusions drawn in Victimological Approaches to International Crimes: Africa. The criminal prosecution of offenders often has a very marginal effect on the victims, both in national and international legal processes such as the ICC or UN tribunals. We must also refrain from overestimating the positive effect of truth commissions and rehabilitation programs on victims.
Applying local and international criminal law often leads to problems; there is often an abundance of evidence for collective crime, but a specific lack of evidence for individual responsibility. There is also, at times, a very fine line between guilt and innocence, where the offenders can also be perceived as victims. The reality is that the recognition of individuals as victims can also be detrimental to the interests of the whole group. Moreover, as was the case with the Rwandan genocide, the sheer numbers of offenders makes it difficult to bring them all to trial, not to mention the fact that the victims often have to testify under adverse conditions.
Alternatives: development and recognition
For the purposes of national and international legal processes, the authors propose combining forces with quasi-legal structures in the affected countries and other elements of reparative justice. Legal processes must be considered in the light of other initiatives aimed at democracy and peace and at programs for economic and social development. Compensation could take the form of monetary or non-monetary benefits, a change in perception of the victims, or an official apology.
However, as this book demonstrates, there is no one blueprint for the ideal approach. What is important is that the actions that are taken must deliver tangible results. Justice demands more than empty words and meaningless gestures. For example, where there is only a very small budget available for the victims (this can also apply to relatively rich countries), a more effective gesture would be to recognize the victims as survivors. It may seem a small step but the denial of victimization is an integral part of the process of dehumanization that leads to genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Recognition of the wrong committed is therefore crucial in restorative justice.
The book 'Victimological Approaches to International Crimes: Africa (2011, published by Intersentia) has been compiled by Prof. Rianne Letschert, Dr. Anne-Marie de Brouwer and Dr. Antony Pemberton from the Tilburg Institute for Victimology INTERVICT, assisted by Dr. Roelof Haveman.