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Court offers unique help scheme for victims

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Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) - August 8, 2007

Special fund can help war crimes victims even when no trial will ever take place.

By Lisa Clifford in The Hague (AR No. 124, 30-July-07)

With nearly three million euros in the bank and a mandate to spend it helping war crimes victims, André Laperriere wasn’t sure what to expect when he visited Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in June.

Laperriere is the newly-appointed director of the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims, and was visiting Africa to raise awareness about the fund and lay the foundations for its first projects.

He knew that people affected by war crimes would not be hard to find in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and Uganda, where countless numbers of people have lost their homes, livelihoods and lives during years of brutal conflict.

What was perhaps more surprising was their reaction on encountering someone who was offering to help.

“I met hundreds, if not thousands, of victims, and I can’t think of a single one who asked for money,” Laperriere told IWPR.

The trust fund is a little-known arm of the International Criminal Court, ICC, established and administered by the court itself but reporting to an independent board that includes South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu and former European Parliament member Simone Veil from France.

The fund can intervene wherever the court itself can act – in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity – by channelling money to the victims of these crimes. It has powers to act in those countries where the ICC operates, which so far are Uganda, DRC, Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Observers say a trust fund connected directly to an international criminal tribunal is unique.

"There are lots of funds that target victims of conflicts, but to have a fund attached to a court, that's very new," said Carla Ferstman, director of REDRESS, a non-government group which seeks reparations for torture survivors.

One of the fund’s functions is to give out money that the court orders as reparations. But since no ICC trials are yet under way and any judgements are therefore likely to come well into the future, the fund is also able to help people in need of immediate assistance. Finally, it can intervene when war crimes victims are identified but no perpetrator is ever tried.

Advocacy groups like Ferstman's see the fact that the fund can operate in the absence of a trial or even an accused as a major bonus.

"At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, female AIDS victims weren't entitled to anything, even though they were involved in the court proceedings,” she said. “They were dying before the trials, and the defendants in prison were getting all the retrovirals. The Rwanda court tried to set up a much more limited fund to help these women and others testifying before the court, but it didn't get off the ground."

Ferstman concluded, “The ICC fund is much more ambitious – it will need a lot of support to be effective.”

Laperriere told IWPR that fund administrators have received 34 proposals from Congo and Uganda, with more coming in from the Central African Republic, where the ICC recently announced it would begin investigations.

He said that although the fund does receive individual requests for help, it encourages victims to group themselves together. “When you’re in a group you’re stronger, you can be better heard and better helped,” he said.

In Uganda, one such group is a small farming community in the north which Laperriere visited in early June. In repeated raids by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, members of this community of 1,500 suffered killings, torture and torture. Homes were destroyed and cattle were stolen.

Conditions were so bad that the villagers were eventually forced to evacuate en masse. Several hundred have now come back, but as they told Laperriere, they are struggling to resume their lives. Their homes are gone, their fields overgrown and their farming equipment destroyed or plundered.

As he talked to the villagers, Laperriere discovered their needs were simple. Among the most important things they wanted were help with reburying their dead; seeds to replant their fields; and the road to the village to be repaired so that they could sell their crops in the city.

“We sat down with the victims to assess the damage with them to see what kind of reparations they needed and define with them their role in implementing the solutions,” said Laperriere.

He offered them gravel to fix the highway, and seeds in return for every kilometre of road they fixed.

He also proposed lending the village 200 chickens to be returned in 12 months. “I said to them, ‘whatever you multiplied you can keep’. So one year later we’ll take the 200 chickens and give them to the next village, and they can do the same.”

Laperriere added, “I told them don’t expect to receive any cheques by mail, because that’s not the way we work. What we want to do is see what you want to do and how we can help you achieve that.”

Another reason for Laperriere’s African trip was to assess the effectiveness of the aid programmes that exist specifically for victims.

He discovered that there were numerous victims’ aid agencies working there, but questioned how effective some of them were.

“Many victims have been insufficiently helped, then let down,” he said, citing the case of two former farmers who retrained as shoemakers but were unable to work at their new trade because they had no tools.

“That’s even worse than if they hadn’t been helped at all,” he said. “We met women in the same situation who were trying to do tailoring but don’t have machines.”

Laperriere said the trust fund’s training programmes would advance money for materials and machines, which trainees would eventually pay back by selling what they produced.

“It reflects the fact there’s no free lunch,” he said. “We’re not giving them anything. They are earning their tools so at the end of it they can be proud, because it is the fruits of their labour.”

But is there enough money to do all this? The victims trust fund currently contains a relatively modest 2.7 million euros – about 3.7 million US dollars – the majority of it contributed by governments, although supporters are quick to point out that formal fundraising has yet to begin in earnest.

The contributions are voluntary, so fundraising is now high on Laperriere’s agenda. He told IWPR that he was travelling to New York to expand the fund’s pool of donors and that in addition to governments, he would also approach foundations and private individuals.

“I want them to know how little it takes to change the lives of these thousands of people – that they’re not asking for charity; they’re asking for their dignity back and a little bit of hope, and that’s what we can give them together.”

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.



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