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Whether in truth-seeking, justice, reparations or “victim-centric” principles - transitional justice circulates around the notion of victims. But who is considered a victim? Legal and societal perceptions diverge on this matter and so do victims’ introspections. For effectively adopting a “victim-centric” approach, one might first need to move beyond naïve definitions of the concept and untangle which disciplinary, historical, religious or colonial depts are reflected in it.
Sometimes, the most transparent of concepts is full of unexpected revelations and dilemmas. In transitional justice the concept of “victim” tends to be taken for granted. “Victim” is used as an operational element grounding different transitional justice approaches: truth-seeking, with victims as informants; justice, with victims as witnesses or co-accusers; reparations, with victims as beneficiaries. “Victim-centric” principles focus on restoring substantive rights after a violation, and procedural rights, to inform a process that is meaningful for victims.
But the legal concept of who is a victim tends to clash with social perception of who should be considered as a victim and, therefore, deserve the restoration of rights and social solidarity. Mediatic and cultural representations of transitional justice have built the image of an appropriate victim: suffering, feminine, a person of color based in the Global South, deserving of salvation from more fortunate nations.
Also importantly, a victim is supposed to be an innocent person: those who did not cause in any way the harm befalling them. The litmus test against victims is extensive, whether they were harmed by sexual violence or political persecution: did they do anything to provoke or justify the attack? The notion of the “innocent” victim seems to have some religious echoes in it: only a pure sacrificial victim is acceptable to expiate societal sins. It is only the unblemished victim who deserves our pity or respect.
As an example: a few years back, I was in Tunisia, supporting a group of experts working on that country’s transitional justice law. I noticed that some preferred to use the term “martyrs” rather than “victims”. When I asked about the distinction, someone explained that not anyone could be a “martyr”: the police had shot dead many looters during the demonstrations leading to the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Those did not deserve the benefits of transitional justice. Only martyrs did, my colleague believed.
I suspect our legalistic understanding of who is a victim is naïve and extremely optimistic. Indeed: a victim seems to be merely a citizen diminished in their rights. Somehow transitional justice will restore those rights, just like the missing pieces of a puzzle, and the victim will become a citizen again. Society does not believe that. Victims don’t believe that. Victimhood is an identity at the center of political disputes about social hegemony and order.
Victims themselves may reject the term: there is a linkage between the notion of an innocent sacrificial victim, and that of a passive individual, deprived of all agency, subject to all abuse and dependent of external help. Which is why, for example, organizations focused on sexual and gender-based violence problematize the term “victim” in favor of “survivor”.
In fact, more or less at the same time of my Tunisian anecdote, I remember a meeting in Canada, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started its work: “Yesterday, we were victims”, said an old man who had experienced the sexual abuse and general brutality of the assimilationist Indian Residential Schools. And he continued: “Today, we are survivors. Tomorrow, as we heal, we will become warriors”. Victims as a positional marker, but a despised, rejected one, to be discarded along an evolving, therapeutic process.
And, of course, the entire definitional dispute is traversed by the colonized mindset and practice dominant in our field. Victim status calls for external agency, from experts and aid workers who manage resources and specialized knowledge created in the academic and legal institutions of the dominant countries. The “appropriate victim” is built in the form that is most manageable: individuals who are legally and morally defensible, based in the South, eager to be protected.
Out of the regular definition, and most interventions, remain several groups of invisible or inappropriate victims. In countries of the North, Indigenous peoples who have struggled to become visible, Afro-descendants, harmed intergenerationally by the crime of slavery, immigrants from formerly colonized regions. Collective victims also tend to be kept out, as the construction of “victim” is individualistic: judicial and administrative reparations tend to skirt the difficulties of communal reparation. Nature, of course, stays out of the definition, in spite of Indigenous conceptions that understand the territory as a rights-holder, as an actual person keeping together the identity and harmony of a community. And certainly, those perceived as doing something to bring harm on themselves, the non-innocent fighters in a myriad of civil conflicts, are hardly seen as victims.
Being effectively victim-centric may need to question our assumptions of who is, in the last analysis, a victim. How have we built the concept and what disciplinary, historical, religious or colonial debts are reflected in it? How do we meet these definitional disputes in our day-to-day work in transitional justice? Understanding the rifts in the world of the victims, as they are pulled in different directions by legalistic theories and societal conceptions, would help us face the multiple controversies that seem to plague transitional justice institutions.