What does recognition mean?

[updated 11 February, 2014]

The element of recognition that is part and parcel of reparations, and that makes them different from mere compensatory schemes, will typically require targeting victims for special treatment. This is part of what it means to give them recognition.

– Pablo de Greiff

It’s well-accepted today in international justice circles that victims want recognition. It’s also well-accepted that recognition is good for victims. Mariana Goetz of REDRESS said recently, for example, that “the quality of the recognition that the process provides [victims] may be more important than the final result.” But what does recognition mean? And how is it good for victims of grave crimes?


Source: Report of the Panel on Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Congo (OHCHR)

On the one hand, there’s the assumption that victims want to be recognized as such. “Victims have indicated they want to be recognized by the international community at large,” according to the Registry, “as victims of the crimes committed against themselves, their families, neighbors, and ethnic groups.”

This is an important assumption for the ICC. The Court was founded partly on the notion that victims of the gravest crimes need a global advocate to recognize them when their states fail to do-so. On the other hand, there’s the argument that recognition is good for victims because it promotes psychological healing and/or social cohesion. Writing on reparations as a form of recognition, for instance, Brandon Hamber has suggested that recognition helps victims externalize their suffering and rejoin the social world:

Reparations…tell the victim much about their place in society and signal whether there is social space for their grief, anger and feelings of injustice. This is important because generally in political violence it is ‘the society’ (the social world) that is the cause of their suffering, and without social recognition of this their suffering runs the risk of continuing to exist only in their ‘internal world’ where it can be acute and isolating. [link]

Finally, it’s not only advocates who stress the benefits of recognition. In the Lubanga reparations proceedings, some of the V01 victims suggested that a “war victim” certificate could be useful for controlling access to benefits like medical services (para 23). And in my own research in Ituri District in the Congo, some Iturians who had been officially recognized by the Court as victims (in Bogoro, the town at the center of the trial against Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui) stressed to me the importance of respecting the Court’s official designations of victimization. This would help eliminate the many ‘fake victims‘ from the process, they suggested.

For me, this latter paragraph highlights the complexities of recognition. As De Greiff noted in the opening quote, recognition requires targeting, or designating certain people as victims and others as not victims. But this in-turn requires creating social categories: categories to which some people may not feel they belong or categories which themselves may bring additional harm. More on this below….

De Greiff argues that without targeting, reparations would bear little difference from compensation, or even development. On this particular topic, however, development practitioners have also learned a lot. They too must target beneficiaries because donors have specific criteria of distribution and/or because resources are limited. You want to ensure that only those who really need and deserve it receive assistance. But if you look back through the development literature, you’ll find decades of debates about how exactly to do this, ranging from top-down administrative criteria based on key indicators (age, income, health, etc.) to bottom-up ‘participatory’ targeting. You’ll also find lessons-learned like the following from a 2004 World Bank evaluation of a development project from Indonesia:

Attempts to design programmes according to administrative targeting criteria determined in Jakarta were soon revealed to be incapable of being implemented in the field. [link]

Two fields where such lessons are particularly relevant to international criminal justice are reintegration projects for former child soldiers and assistance projects for victims of sexual violence. For practitioners of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants (DDR) the inclusive approach has become the benchmark for working with children. This means targeting all war-affected children – including orphans, homeless children, impoverished children, etc. – not only those who were associated with armed groups.

An inclusive approach that provides support to all war-affected children shall be adopted to encourage reintegration, avoid stigmatization or a sense that children formerly associated with armed forces and groups are privileged, and prevent further recruitment. [link]

For victims of sexual violence, while the literature is not as clear-cut, there are strong indications that an overly-narrow targeting strategy can do harm as well as good. Girls have been found to avoid assistance projects that are publicly labelled as ‘DDR’ because benefitting from them means also self-identifying as ‘child soldiers’. And in a series of high-level consultations on reparations for victims of sexual violence in the eastern Congo, organized by OHCHR in 2010, one director of a Congolese NGO for survivors asked the international community to adopt more inclusive standards since ‘much attention given to sexual violence victims is fueling jealousy and further stigmatization’. The panel itself concluded that ‘the reparation needs of victims of sexual violence may be caused more by the stigmatization than the sexual violence itself.’

This is in no way meant to argue that international criminal justice should stop recognizing victims. Far from it. But I do believe (as many of the advocates cited here have also recognized) that it is very complicated. The Court also knows this. The Trial Chamber’s clarification that it had drawn a distinction between ‘victims’ and ‘beneficiaries‘ in its Decision on Reparations in Lubanga, was, I believe, an attempt to deal with such complexity (para. 29). I’ll leave this for a future post….

I also believe that while recognition is important for those who have suffered grave crimes, the process of recognizing victims is also important for the ICC itself. If reparations did not involve recognition, what would distinguish them from assistance schemes or from development? And what then would distinguish the ICC from the World Bank, the UNHCR or any of the international agencies that deal with aspects of the same social problems? I exaggerate the point here, but as a young international organization whose existence is controversial, the ICC needs legitimacy wherever it can get it. And victims have been and will continue to be a core source of authority for the Court.* For victims to exist, though, they need to be recognized.

*For those interested in this particular issue, see a recent paper by Sara Kendall and Sarah Nouwen, or one by myself and Chris Tenove.

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