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The need for greater participation of victims in humanitarian conventions and treaties

Participation: rights and responsibilities
In recent years there has been an encouraging increase in initiatives to include victim representation in the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions, and other arms control fora. This has brought victims as witnesses, advocates, spokespeople, leaders and employees of campaigns and occasionally as part of states’ own delegations. But, as with so much, more still needs to be done.

AOAV’s guiding policy on victim assistance focuses on the participation by people affected by armed violence, in particular victims and survivors of armed violence, in international fora related to disarmament and arms control.

As Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, once said: “Participation and active involvement in the determination of one’s own destiny is the essence of human dignity.”

The manner in which victims and survivors of armed violence are currently engaged in the disarmament fora has produced results but leaves a lot to be desired.

Participation of victims has an informative perspective for the policy-makers. Survivor representatives and also championed the cause of victim assistance and survivor rights. Participation brings the realities into the diplomatic conference rooms and also brings real examples of potential solutions. Greater emphasis should be given to that aspect participation to ensure greatest effectiveness and value of engaging with survivors and affected communities.

What is participation?
Participation, meaning to have a voice in decision-making that influences our lives is, first and foremost, a right. It is a human right for all persons to participate in the processes that affect them. The right to participation is guaranteed under international human rights law. Most recently the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities codified participation as one of the general principles of that treaty and a theme running throughout all its articles.

In the disarmament fora, participation of victims and survivors is also a campaigning tool. By bringing the realities and the stories of the individual suffering caused by weapons, survivors reach the general public and diplomats from places where these weapons have never been used. Survivor’s stories bring to light the problem, they are evidence of the need to control weapons. Their testimonies and their presence are a good media attraction, which helps the campaigns get traction and reach a larger audience.

In practice, participation can be manipulated to give legitimacy to the agendas of people from outside affected communities:

We must also recognis the real difficulty in creating a process where communities do in fact communicate their identification of their needs and how they feel they can be met. The more typical practice is that they inform outsiders what they think they want to hear.

The promotion of active and meaningful participation from individuals, organisations and communities is required. The quality of the process of participation is important. Survivors are best able to participate and claim their rights when they know what rights they are entitled to and their engagement is supported. Emphasis should be on sharing information and facilitating individuals to fully participate in all decisions affecting them.

Fostering active participation
Active participation requires strengthening of peoples’ capacity to engage in the process. Ensuring an enabling environment makes it possible for people to develop and express themselves, including through adequate access to information, organisational capacities, supportive space and enough time to participate.

Responsibility for meaningful participation
A responsibility arises for those engaging with survivors and victims, and more generally persons from affected communities – this is to promote their interests in the frameworks and processes in which we are all engaging. Survivors may rightfully perceive participation without actual influencing decisions to be meaningless and hollow.

Beyond the principles: some stumbling blocks to participation
When survivors are given the stage, they are often foremost perceived as a sensitization or sensationalising tool for a disarmament issue, rather than part of the campaign’s advocacy network. Survivors find themselves called upon to “tell their story,” as a technique to fulfilling lobbying strategies. Rarely is it recognised that survivors have a right to speak without conveying the specific circumstances of their injuries or disabilities. Thus, survivors can get to speak publically but have no real voice within the cause.

Campaigners who are also survivors tend to be more informed than survivors who are not campaigners in their own communities. All survivors can find it difficult to reconcile slow progress in contrast with grand talk and the promises of the international arena. “I’ve been to these meetings before, people talk a lot but nothing changes,” is not an uncommon sentiment. Survivors can return some of the knowledge they experienced through international participation to their own programmes and communities. This can go some way to balancing the benefits of participation with the challenge of a lack of visible progress.

Opportunities for engagement
Lack of accessibility, both social and physical, must be overcome for survivor participants to feel integrated with the workings of a campaign in the same way as other campaigners. The wide gap between survivor participation and survivor ownership or leadership can be narrowed when participation results in the interests of victims and survivors being consciously considered in the processes.

Ultimately be it in human rights or humanitarian law, development, disability or other relevant processes surrounding armed violence in which survivors engage, their contribution should be included in the policy or legal outcomes of that particular process. This is a human right, a universal responsibility and the true way forward.

N.B. In the context of this article “Victims” means persons who, individually or collectively, have suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights in due to landmines, cluster munitions explosive remnants or armed violence. Survivors are individuals who have been injured and survived.