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Panel: Breaking the Stereotype of the Weak Victim: Contribution of Victims to Human Rights Legislation and Beyond

Lessons from Victims: The Role of Victims in Legal Evolution Within Domestic and International Law

Dr. Beatrice Coscas Williams, Lecturer in the Department of Criminology, Western Galilee College

Victims in the criminal justice system are often perceived as a burden to justice, portrayed merely as passive individuals seeking help and recognition. Contrary to this perception, victims play a pivotal role in shaping both the law and the judicial framework.

Our project addresses this paradox, emphasizing the contrast between the stereotype of victims as weak and burdensome and the reality of their integral role in the emergence and evolution of domestic and international law. We aim to recognize the invaluable participation of victims in legal evolution, focusing on their journeys and contributions to new fields of law, thereby improving various legal domains.

Our article explores the challenges victims face due to stereotypes, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging their significant contributions across different legal domains. This recognition extends beyond areas directly related to victims, such as victims’ rights, to encompass broader fields like the rights of women, children, and other vulnerable populations.

We will illustrate situations in which victims, drawing from their traumatic experiences, have contributed to legislative reforms not only in victims’ rights but also in several other legal domains.

Turning Victimhood into Agency through the Power of Stories: How Survivors Make Sense of Human Trafficking

Victoria Wozniak-Cole, PhD researcher, KU Leuven

In the aftermath of human trafficking, survivors try to make sense of what has happened to them. In this article, we combine feminist standpoint theory with narrative victimology to argue for a term we coin “situated storytelling”. We then ask ourselves how “situated storytelling” can contribute to the sense-making of survivors of human trafficking experiences. We will answer this question based on a narrative thematic analysis of five interviews with human trafficking survivors. We will discuss our threefold findings (1) the embodied self: physical coping strategies during and after trafficking and physical reactions surrounding interactions with the authorities. (2) the narrative self: how survivors made sense of their experiences, how they look back at it, and the impact it had on them, including their views on justice and their job as experienced workers (3) the autonomous self: their relationship with their traffickers, family and community, and peers, and mental health professionals. Due to the impact of human trafficking on the survivors, survivors are oftentimes described as vulnerable by society. However, seeing themselves as vulnerable, may not be fruitful for their recovery process. This article will highlight how survivors individually can turn this perceived vulnerability into agency through the power of storytelling. This has the potential to restore their embodied, narrative, and autonomous selves. Until today the idea of the vulnerable, passive, and weak victim prevails, this article will try to counter this, which can influence practice, policy, and future research.

Political Genocide. A Legal Tale from Colombia

Tatiana Fernández-Maya, PhD Candidate at UNSW (Australia), International scholar at KU Leuven

Once upon a time in Colombia there was a political party called Unión Patriótica (UP). The party was violently persecuted for years and almost exterminated. In a recent judgement of the Inter American Court of Human Rights, Colombia was declared responsible for the extermination of the UP, although victims of this group have always called it political genocide. In this presentation I will describe how the fight for legal justice in this case contributed to the inclusion of political groups within the definition of the crime of genocide in the Colombian criminal code. Such inclusion, I argue, is not only the result of contextualising international law to domestic reality but also a product of victims’ persistence in demanding recognition at different levels.

Rethinking Domestic Courts in Transitional Justice Cases: Challenges and Opportunities for Justice, Agency, Participation and Recognition for Indigenous Women Victims of Conflict-related Sexual Violence in Guatemala.

Mariana Lara Palacios, PhD researcher at Leuven Institute of Criminology (LINC), KULeuven

It does not come as a surprise that trust has been lost in domestic justice systems especially in post-conflict societies trying to come to terms with their past of serious human rights violations. A distrust well founded. It does not come as a surprise either that, for this reason, scholarly work has also had a tendency to shift its focus from the formal justice system to alternative ways of justice. However, when it comes to serious violations of human rights, justice is closely linked with accountability and prosecutions, which are important in this specific context to consolidate the rule of law, the pillar of democracy. Furthermore, when justice comes about through criminal prosecutions, it breaks the cycle of violence by eradicating impunity. In addition, the increased involvement of the victims in these processes starting even before a judicial procedure, allow victims to acquire a sense of justice, often necessary for the personal, psychological healing that allows for reconciliation, in addition to agency, participation and recognition. In this paper, I will analyze concrete cases where domestic courts have dared to shift from a purely punitive approach to a more transformative one, cases presenting opportunities but also obstacles, which will also be analyzed.