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Ukraine's survivor registry: between unquestionable evidence and accessibility

Blog / Ukraine 12 April 2024

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Serious violations, like rape, slavery, or sexualised torture impose terror and humiliation on survivors. These are not only crimes that leave little record, but it is difficult for survivors to speak about them, ask for help or report them. When committed in large-scale during conflict, addressing them is even more difficult.

In these situations, reparation must include all survivors of these heinous acts, including –and especially so- those people who are not ready to speak about, provide details on, or have documented evidence of their suffering. This means that systems for identifying people who are entitled to reparations need to take these obstacles into account, and make sure that despite those difficulties, survivors access reparations in a manner that increases their healing. 

The Ukraine project 

This is a concern that the Global Survivors Fund’s (GSF) team in Ukraine is working on. In our urgent interim reparations project, which is being implemented in consortium with the government, survivors' networks, and civil society organisations, we are creating an identification system for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence from the Russian aggression. There is a balance of rigour and accessibility that must be struck in such a system. 

One basic premise for reparation for serious human rights violations committed at a large-scale is the limited effectiveness of judicial mechanisms. Those approaches to reparation, while trying to guarantee full restitution and fairness based on an economic evaluation of harms for each individual victim, tend to reduce the harms to economic value, and reparations to a cash payment. This omits the ability to redress other aspects of irreparable harms like suffering and humiliation, and any long lasting physical, psychological, familial, and social consequences.  

Those approaches to reparation... tend to reduce the harms to economic value, and reparations to a cash payment.

— Cristián Correa, GSF senior advisor

Moreover, judicial systems tend to exclude victims. Only some people would feel ready to openly make a claim. Few will have access to a lawyer, and few will have enough evidence to be uphold by a court. The result is exclusion. 

This is even more challenging when considering conflict-related sexual violence. In addition to the above conditions, survivors grapple with fear of stigma, their experiences of humiliation, and more obstacles. They may not even be able to talk about what happened with their family members. Isolation and socially imposed silence can be too much to overcome. 

Finding a balance 

The difficulty is that still, a reparation policy that distributes a comprehensive set of measures to several thousands of victims needs to be based on some assurance that people receiving reparations have suffered violations. After all, it is money being directed to repair, provide recognition, and support. 

How to find a balance between obtaining unquestionable evidence and accessibility in reparation programmes? 

Answers to this conundrum can be seen in the experiences of countries like Chile, Peru, Sierra Leone, or Colombia. Even GSF’s interim reparative measures projects in some eight countries provide insights. In each case, registration has been based on flexible systems for identifying and registering victims with the purpose of understanding and meeting people where they are. 

These systems rely on the premise that even if a certain threshold is required, exclusion of certain survivors could be more harmful than wrongful inclusion. Conflict is chaotic; documentation and the ability to speak up should not be an expectation placed on people who have already suffered enough. 

Registering victims and survivors under these conditions requires an intake system that invites people to trust, is accessible and simple, and is based on a flexible assessment of veracity. This is precisely what we are building in Ukraine. 

Inviting to trust 

When registering victims, it is advisable to work with existing support networks, civil society organisations, or trained service providers. 

A survivor’s case for intake must be based on an interview with a trusted person, which will, nine times out of ten, yield more details than a form. Forms cannot communicate a person’s body language and tone of voice while they describe the nature of violations that are difficult to be retold. Where deciding not to answer a question on a form would be considered an obfuscation, refusing a question during an interview can be itself an answer.  

Where deciding not to answer a question on a form would be considered an obfuscation, refusing a question during an interview can be itself an answer.  

— Cristián Correa, GSF senior advisor

An experienced person conducting an interview will know what not to ask, when to stop, and can put a survivor at ease for the process. In Ukraine, interviews are done by case managers from civil society organisations who have been working with victims of different violations, including sexual violence. 

Accessible and simple 

Interviews of this nature need to take place in proximity of where survivors live. Best practice can be seen in Peru and Sierra Leone, where statement takers travelled to villages to seek registration and consulted with local civil society members on how to reach communities affected by violence. In our project, we are following this model and providing the option for video interviews. 

Registration in the pilot project does not need to ask invasive questions. What is needed is to gather information about what happened and where, as well as the people or services that may have provided support right after. If a person is not prepared to provide details during intake, but has given statements to other institutions, we can request and use those statements. 

Flexible assessment 

The interview and the personal impressions of the interviewer are passed to a body of people who know about the violations committed, understand the conditions of survivors, and are known for being trustworthy. That body, supported by a group of researchers, examine each application and assess its veracity. 

In doing so, they can consider established patterns of violations. Or they can consult with people of proven trustworthiness that are familiar with how violence was perpetrated in a respective area and period. For instance, sexual violence could be presumed for those who were detained in a place known for its systematic use. Conversely, a registration body may find that additional research is required for confirming an application consisting of an unusual event. 

Balance is possible 

A system like this one can guarantee a dose of rigour that would not sacrifice accessibility for survivors. 

It is based on what survivors can provide, and adapts to the obstacles they face, conceding the nature of the violations experienced. They are not perfect and totally foolproof, but they assume more harm will be done by a system that aims for perfection and being foolproof. In developing a Ukrainian experience on how to register victims of serious violations, we hope to make reparations effective and accessible. 

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