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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 233
August 27, 2011

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Human Rights Monitor

Protecting witnesses and victims:
special measures for women and children

Protection of witnesses and victims is crucial in any efficient investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations. A successful protection programme, designed to provide a full range of physical protection and psychosocial support to witnesses and victims, creates an enabling environment to report cases and is key to ensuring access to justice, fair trials and combating impunity.

“The act of being a witness can add enormous strength to a person's life,” said Wendy Lobwein, from the Witness and Expert Unit of the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. “It gives people a sense of clarity, a sense of understanding of the past, a resolution. I know there are ways witnesses and victims are able to use the experience of testifying to bring strength and resolution to parts of their lives,” she observed.

However, victims and witnesses of trafficking for sexual exploitation and sexual and gender-based violence may feel particularly vulnerable and reluctant to seek justice unless specific protection measures are in place. The types of measures depend on the gravity of the psychological and physical trauma suffered and the stigma attached to sexual violence; the multiple forms of discrimination of which they are victims, on grounds not only of their gender but also of their national, or ethnic origin or their status of undocumented migrants; and their fear of retaliation when perpetrators are State actors or individuals associated with State or State-like powers.

A meeting on gender and witness and victim protection, organized by the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva last May, assessed the integration of gender perspectives into existing witness and victim protection programmes and the negative impact that a lack of special measures could have on women's access to justice.

“Special protection measures are provided during testimony,” said An Michels, psychologist in the Victims and Witnesses Unit of the International Criminal Court. “They include providing in-court psychological assistance, shielding the witness from the accused, avoiding embarrassing and repetitive questions, offering space for free narrative, and inviting the witness to take breaks,” she added.

Michels explained that these measures “help to create a safe environment in which witnesses feel encouraged to tell their story.” Victims of sexual violence, for instance, often benefit from the presence of a support person or psychologist in the courtroom. “By giving them the space to tell their story in their own words,” she said, “they feel that their testimony can bring closure, even if the process of testifying is often very emotional and difficult for them.”

In Bangladesh every year hundreds of women and girls are kept in prison under "safe custody". Sara Hossain, Honorary Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, said that laws that provided for "safe custody" “are used as a mechanism of protection for children and women who are treated by courts as victims of certain crimes of circumstances.” They include women and girls who contract marriages of choice, often across community lines, and against their parents will; rape and trafficking survivors; sex workers and girl children rescued from brothels. Women and girls in "safe custody" are at great risk of custodial violence and numerous cases have been recorded in which they have been abused and, in some cases, killed.

In some countries, OHCHR plays a key role in supporting the development of national witness and victim protection programmes.

In Uganda, for instance, “OHCHR has been strategically involved in supporting national stakeholders, including the Uganda Law Reform Commission, in its efforts to develop a national witness protection legal framework,” said Florence Nakazibwe from the OHCHR office in Kampala, Uganda. The Office is also providing technical expertise on witness protection to different justice actors. “We will be hosting a judicial workshop on victim and witness protection,” said Nakazibwe, “which will primarily target judges presiding over trials at the High Court of Uganda.”

In Argentina, the Office, in cooperation with national authorities, has organized a seminar on the legal framework of witness and victim protection programmes.

The Office is also active in Nepal, where it provides technical advice to the Government in the development of a national law on witness protection.

Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition

"Humanitarian work and human rights are inextricably intertwined. It is very often abuse of human rights that causes humanitarian crises in the first place. And without humanitarian aid, the basic human rights of millions of people including the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to education, and, most fundamental of all, the right to life would be denied"( Navi Pillay : High Commissioner for Human Rights of UN). The United Nations' (UN) World Humanitarian Day is commemorated on August 19 each year. The day is a tribute to all humanitarians who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause, and those who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of duty. Enhancing public awareness about humanitarian activities worldwide and the significance of international cooperation is the ultimate aim of observing this day.

Humanitarians render life-saving aid to millions of people through the world. They put their own lives in peril to assist others in the conflicting regions and naturally hazard areas. Humanitarians provide support for different world crises such as hunger, gender-based violence, refugees and displaced people, help for children, as well as clean water and access to sanitation. While trying to assist the needy people in those areas more than 700 humanitarian workers have died or faced the most dangerous situations. World Humanitarian Day was established by the General Assembly of the UN in December 2008 and was first observed in August 2009. The date of August 19 is the anniversary date of the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad where twenty-two people lost their lives including, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The General Assembly decided to mark the anniversary date of the bombing as World Humanitarian Day. The World Humanitarian Day as a homage to all humanitarian workers who have made the ultimate sacrifices to make the world a better place for all sufferers of humanitarian crises and an encouragement to all their serving colleagues to aspire to even greater heights in achieving that impressive goal. Humanitarian activities stem from the adoption in the 19th century of codes of conduct during armed conflicts. States were agreed to create balance between humanitarian concern and States' military exigencies in modern warfare perspective.

The Geneva Conventions at the origins of International Humanitarian Law seek to officially protect mass who do not actively participate in the conflict. After sixty years, the Conventions are almost universally ratified. In the 21st century, humanitarian work is no longer limited to the protection and provision of emergency aids and relief to civilians whose lives were hampered during armed conflict. Natural calamities or man-made crises can also be the cause of vulnerability. Various global economic and financial crises like food crises, massive displacement of populations, crises for safe water are some miserable picture of current world which increase the need for humanitarians each year.

The writer is a student of University of Rajshahi.




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