New Article: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Transitional Justice | The Center for Victims of Torture

New Article: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Transitional Justice

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Can testifying about surviving atrocity situations be a positive experience for survivors? In a new article titled, “The Survivor-Centered Approach to Transitional Justice: Why a Trauma-Informed Handling of Witness Testimony is a Necessary Component,” the Center for Victims of Torture says yes. However, victims’ needs must be prioritized. 

The article, published in Vol. 50 of the George Washington International Law Review and authored by former CVT staff Marie Soueid, Ann Marie Willhoite and Annie E. Sovcik, acknowledges that post-atrocity transitional justice mechanisms are set up with the intention of benefitting victims and their societies, as well as vindicating their rights. Why, then, do so many of the individuals at the heart of these processes—victim-witnesses—report having such a difficult experience with the testimonial process and the mechanisms for which they provided witness?

Even though truth commissions and tribunals are often hailed as having healing value, many witnesses in some of the most prominent truth commissions and internationalized tribunals report being re-traumatized after the experience or having negative psychological symptoms after (sometimes even long after) testimony. 

Soueid, Willhoite and Sovcik explore whether there is a way to remedy the negative experience of providing testimony while preserving the overall accountability and truth-seeking goals of the transitional justice mechanisms—namely, truth commissions and trials. To summarize, the authors have addressed the following questions:

What is the article’s proposed solution?

A meaningful integration of transitional justice with mental health and psychosocial considerations.

How do you integrate transitional justice and trauma healing?

Mental health needs and transitional justice are prioritized in situations transitioning from conflict, mass atrocities or structural violence.

Supporting the mental health and psychosocial needs of survivors contributes to the individual’s ability to come to terms with the past, individual and societal stability, healthier families and communities, the ability to participate in civic life and positive civil society growth.

Applied comprehensively, transitional justice supports stable institutions, guarantees non-reoccurrence of violence, fosters democratic institutions, and provides truth, justice and accountability for the victims.

How do you create a safe environment for survivors?

The article proposes applying trauma-informed principles which support a positive experience for survivors to testify in truth commissions and trials. Creating a safe environment for witnesses providing testimony starts from the earliest stages of trial and has five specific components:

  • Preparation: The Special Court for Sierra Leone was illustrative of the fact that extensive preparation, both for witnesses and legal actors, allowed for positive experiences in testifying, even in cross-examination, because they knew what to expect and felt safe.
  • Confidentiality: Its scope and limits should be fully explained and the availability of prior recorded testimony should be preserved.
  • Boundaries: The relationship of all actors in the tribunal or truth commission should be explained and maintained to ensure a stable environment and manage expectations.
  • Do no harm: Truth commissions should avoid forcing or compelling victims into reconciliation. Awareness of cultural and contextual factors is important to consider as a part of avoiding harm.
  • Follow-up: Mental health check-ins should be included as a part of the follow‐up process after testifying. Part of creating a safe environment includes follow-up procedures that ensure the witness continues to feel physically safe and emotionally valued after the testimonial process is complete. The differences in experience in some tribunals hinged squarely on this factor.

Allowing full truths to emerge. In the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia part of the witnesses’ dissatisfaction stemmed from their inability to convey their experience fully. In mental health care, after feeling safe and stable, a survivor would share his or her experience and integrate the traumatic experience into their full life story.

The testimonial equivalent would be giving the witnesses the space to share their experience with the accurate contextual factors. In truth commissions, witnesses have more space to share all aspects of their experience that they see fit.

In trials, the truth-telling interest must be balanced carefully against the rights of the accused. The right to confrontation is crucial to bringing about fair trials and outcomes. Providing room for witnesses to elaborate and discuss context does not jeopardize that right.

Despite the centrality of victims to prosecutions, “legal actors usurp the role of survivors as story tellers” by deciding the legally relevant facts. The authors explain that witnesses’ centrality must be reaffirmed, noting “Providing testimony must be contextual and must include the emotions as well as the facts and circumstance.”

What are the proposed next steps?

1) More research is needed on issues crucial to understanding the experience of witnesses in providing testimony. In her groundbreaking book on truth commissions, Priscilla B. Hayner studies over two dozen truth commissions. Empirical research is available on the psychosocial effects of testimony of only one truth commission. As new situations of transitional justice emerge in The Gambia, Syria, Libya and Cambodia, tribunals and truth commissions should be setup based on the past experience of the survivor beneficiaries of past systems. 

2) The United Nations’ human rights components often emerge as the experts on the creation and carrying out of transitional justice mechanisms. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Transitional Justice guidelines should integrate trauma-informed healing principles in their comprehensive work on tribunals, truth commissions, memorialization, lustration and institutional rebuilding.

a. Mental health care principles and transitional justice can be integrated at many different levels and in all aspects of a transition, be it institutional rebuilding, memorialization, truth-telling, reconciliation, local and tribal courts or internationalized tribunals. Individually, each aspect of these mechanisms can also integrate trauma healing principles. For example the road to trials can be trauma-informed from the moment of documentation of experiences, witness interviews and investigations, all the way through the creation of tribunals and courts, and up to the carrying out of the trials. 

b. Operational manuals should be developed on how to carry these principles out in implementation. Civil society, trauma healing experts and transitional justice experts should develop operational guidance.

3) Funders - in particular, governments - should ensure that their calls for funding require meaningfully integrated approaches to transitional justice in post-atrocity settings and provide adequate support for victims’ groups.


Click here to learn more about CVT’s Transitional Justice initiatives.

Photo credit: © Phartisan |


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