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Engaging Political & Diplomatic Actors to Advance Justice: Advice for Victim Groups

Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, speaks at a Museum event on Capitol Hill commemorating nine years of atrocities in Syria. March 11, 2020. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

By Beth Van Schaack, Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Stanford Law School

This post is part of a blog post series to coincide with the launch of our Handbook: "Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities: A Handbook for Victim Groups."

How can victim groups who have experienced genocide and related mass atrocities engage members of the international community as allies in their quest for justice and accountability? This is the question that animates Chapter 5 of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s innovative and timely new Handbook for victim groups on “Pursuing Justice for Mass Atrocities.” As this chapter details, the international community can support justice efforts in a number of ways, ranging from providing funding and technical support, to diplomatic messaging and institution building. Chapter 5, entitled “Advocating for Justice with Political and Diplomatic Actors,” offers practical advice on how victim groups can work effectively with these actors to achieve justice, broadly defined.

As the Handbook explores, forming a victim-centered coalition across affected communities is just one strategy that victim groups can use to build consensus, amplify their voices, and engage effectively with political and diplomatic actors. Coalitions can offer a forum for building consensus, allowing diverse victim communities to speak with a unified voice. While it may not be possible or appropriate to form a broad-based coalition in every case, Chapter 5 notes that victim communities that organize themselves around shared objectives can increase their political power and ability to advocate for themselves.

This chapter provides advice for all victim groups on securing their place at the negotiating table. As Chapter 5 explains, regardless of how victim groups decide to organize themselves, mapping potential partners and institutions where justice can be pursued is a good starting point. This “power map” can help victim groups to target and approach decision makers. It should identify key individuals, governments, and organizations—including multilateral fora such as the UN Security Council, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, human rights treaty bodies, and international courts. This information allows victim groups to determine which actors can take specific steps, ways that victim groups can engage them, and arguments that are likely to persuade or influence them. Victim groups can then approach relevant actors with specific justice-related requests—such as funding local actors to document the commission of international crimes and establishing investigative mechanisms to gather and store evidence (like the UN bodies established for Iraq, Syria, and Myanmar). Other requests may focus on “naming and shaming” specific perpetrators (for example by imposing sanctions or through UN resolutions drawing attention to the commission of genocide). This can ensure that perpetrators do not enjoy the privilege of anonymity and are constrained in their ability to operate internationally.

Requests for larger-scale initiatives can be more challenging; yet, as Chapter 5 points out, they may nevertheless be possible to achieve. An example of a larger-scale justice initiative is the establishment of a dedicated justice institution, including specialized chambers and ad hoc tribunals. To take another example of a more challenging initiative, victim groups can press for courts with jurisdiction to launch a case against perpetrators or governments. As the Handbook explains, victim groups can break this effort down into manageable pieces, for example by working with international partners to share information about crimes or the location of potential perpetrators with prosecutors and other investigators.  If this eventually leads to a court case, victims may be able to participate as witnesses and in some (but not all) cases, join the proceedings as a civil party. Chapter 5 offers clear blueprints for pursuing each of these measures, and more.

Chapter 5 also offers pragmatic advice about a whole host of topics: navigating large bureaucracies; taking advantage of strategic moments in time (such as the annual UN General Assembly High Level Week or the meeting of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties); building cross-sectoral coalitions; and maintaining pressure on decision makers with the power to advance the justice objectives of victims and survivors. All told, this Handbook is an invaluable resource for victim and survivor groups on the strategies that they can use to fight for justice for their communities.