Reparations and Assistance for Victims: Lessons from the ICC and Colombia

This post is based on my new paper in the International Journal of Transitional Justice’s forthcoming special issue, “Reconsidering Appropriate Responses to Victims of Conflict,” guest edited by Juan Mendez. Comments are welcomed!

In March 2015, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court issued its first-ever judgment on reparations, in the Thomas Lubanga Dyilo case, confirming the Court’s historic commitment to moving beyond retributive justice for victims of the gravest crimes. At the same time, it urged the Court’s Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) to issue assistance measures to victims who fall outside the scope of victimization determined at trial [Reparations Judgment, para. 215]. The use of assistance to complement, fill in, or expand reparations programs is both novel and increasing in international law and transitional justice, yet there is little research focused specifically on their combination.

UnidadVictimasColombia

A Peace March supported by the Colombian Victims’ Unit, which implements reparations and assistance for victims of the armed conflict. Source: Victims’ Unit

In my paper in the forthcoming special issue on victims in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, edited by Juan Mendez, I present two contemporary examples where reparations and assistance are being combined for victims of grave crimes: the ICC’s forthcoming reparations awards in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [see here and here] and Colombia’s recent reparations program – Law 1448 – for victims of its armed conflict.

The relationship between ‘reparations’ and ‘assistance’ exposes fundamental tensions at the heart of transitional justice: between inclusive and exclusive approaches to reparative justice; between the legal strictures of redress and the complex realities of violence; and, ultimately, between the supposed symbolic power of reparative justice and victims’ experience of reparations in practice. While scholars and practitioners often assume that reparations and assistance are clearly distinct, their combination suggests otherwise. Both the ICC and Colombian cases highlight that the line between reparations and assistance can become blurry in practice. They can look similar in form, have similar impacts, be distributed through similar processes and, I argue, impart similar notions of responsibility and recognition to victims of grave crimes and gross violations of human rights.

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