Reparations for Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence

On June 19th, as we marked the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict (CRSV), we had the opportunity to sit down with Olena SOTNYK, Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, and Khrystyna KIT, Head of the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association JurFem, to explore the potential implementation of a reparations system for survivors of CRSV and other war crimes perpetrated by Russian occupiers.

Khrystyna KIT: – The reparations system includes a wide range of measures aimed at aiding people in their recovery, allowing them to keep developing, living, working, and avoiding violence in the future.

Many people tend to think of reparations solely in terms of financial payments or reimbursements, but in reality, international practices include various forms of reparations beyond monetary compensation.

One such form is restitution which aims to restore the person and their belongings to their original pre-war situation before the traumatic events occurred. For instance, individuals might anticipate the return of confiscated or damaged property, etc.

Satisfaction is another form of reparations. Those who have experienced CRSV have consistently emphasized, through numerous studies, the importance of the state officially acknowledging their status as survivors of this specific type of war crime, predominantly through legislative means. In countries like Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Colombia, where armed conflicts and sexual violence took place, memorials are erected to honor the victims of CRSV, and various awareness campaigns are carried out. This is done to shed light on the extent of suffering, its profound impact on individuals’ lives, and to foster societal comprehension of the challenges encountered by these individuals.

Another important aspect of reparations is rehabilitation, which involves providing social, medical, and psychological care to help survivors regain their ability to learn and work. These initiatives assist individuals in reintegrating into society and resuming their lives prior to the war. In some cases, survivors of CRSV, including children or students, encounter barriers to continuing their education due to health issues, or struggle to find jobs. One survivor of sexual violence expressed difficulty in participating in group activities, explaining that because of psychological trauma she finds it challenging to communicate.

Certainly, monetary compensation is also available, which involves actual money. It is extremely important to mention both immediate and long-term compensation. We acknowledge that the war in Ukraine is not over yet, and those who have suffered sexual violence need financial assistance to sustain their livelihoods. Many have lost homes, jobs, and, most importantly, their health, so they require support and interim payments. Currently, Ukraine is working on developing mechanisms for these urgent compensations, determining payment processes, recipients, and funding sources.

Another crucial element of reparations is guarantees of non-recurrence. A study conducted by the Global Survival Fund (GSF) in 2014 and 2015 among Ukrainians affected by sexual violence during the armed conflict revealed that respondents, both men and women, were willing to testify if their children were assured of never experiencing similar crimes. The guarantees of non-recurrence rely partly on state mechanisms aimed at ensuring security, prevention, and the strengthening of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. They also depend on international institutions. NATO countries, the European Union, and other nations should take all necessary actions to stop future conflicts between countries.

Is this sufficient to ensure guarantees of non-recurrence?

 Khrystyna KIT: – Indeed, it’s crucial to involve Ukrainian society in this effort. Guarantees of non-recurrence depend on acknowledging that any violence, especially sexual violence, cannot be tolerated. Society must refrain from victim-blaming, which entails blaming the victim for not leaving the area, escaping or hiding from CRSV. Regrettably, this mindset persists among some of our fellow citizens. We must undertake extensive efforts to foster a culture of understanding, awareness, and sexual education to break down the stereotypes and stigmas, that often stop survivors from speaking out. That is why we still have only a few reported cases today.

What is the difference between immediate reparations and the general reparations system?

 Olena SOTNYK: – Immediate reparations are paid to individuals who are currently showing signs of trauma resulting from a war crime, which can be physical, psychological, or both. Therefore, these individuals urgently need specific assistance, including medical, psychological, emotional, financial, etc.

These reparations are different from the traditional system, where individuals and the invaded country have to wait for the aggressor nation to compensate for losses. International organizations play a vital role in this process. For instance, in Ukraine, we partner with organisations such as the Global Survival Fund and the Mukwege Foundation to aid CRSV survivors. They have signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Ukraine and are ready to provide assistance with allocated funds. Ukraine has also been offering other forms of immediate reparations through Survivor Centers for several months now.

These forms of reparations are temporary. Once a comprehensive reparations system is set up, immediate reparations won’t be used anymore. Currently, their main benefit is that they enable us to provide immediate assistance in the toughest cases and to test the effectiveness of the reparations process overall. This assessment helps us understand what works, what does not, what supports people effectively, and what does not. It enables us to better plan our future efforts and make efficient use of resources.

How do reparations differ from social support?

Olena SOTNYK: – Social support and assistance are typically provided during times of peace and are the responsibility of the state. Reparations, however, are associated with extraordinary circumstances, in our case with wartime, where individuals endure various forms of war crimes. In such cases, there is a responsibility to hold the aggressor accountable and to restore individuals and their belongings to their pre-war condition. Besides holding the aggressor accountable for the war crimes, under international humanitarian law, they are also obligated to provide compensation and reparations. I believe that in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine, reparations are expected to serve not only a financial and restorative purpose but also a moral one, contributing to the restoration of justice. If global pressure mounts on Russia, it will have to acknowledge its wrongdoing, which is also an essential aspect of reparations.

Khrystyna KIT: – Social assistance and support are just a component, and they do not require a separate law or system for their provision. Ukraine has various social aid schemes for people in different situations. However, these programs are not enough for those affected by wartime sexual violence. Survivors require more comprehensive assistance, including tailored rehabilitation to address their individual needs.

Why do we need to establish a reparations system for CRSV survivors b? Why prioritize this group?

 Olena SOTNYK: – CRSV is a specific form of war crime with severe traumatic consequences. Survivors of sexual violence keep their suffering hidden, with the majority choosing not to disclose the crimes they have endured. Without a specific system for reparations and recognition, the true extent of the victims may never be known.

Currently, around 200 CRSV cases have been officially registered. However, considering the efforts of psychologists in liberated territories, it is clear that only a small portion of these cases have come to light. These incidents were widespread during the Russian occupation. Taking into account the mindset prevalent in Ukrainian villages and small towns, survivors feel ashamed to speak about the abuse they endured.

Another factor to consider is that unlike victims of torture whose injuries are visible, CRSV survivors often do not exhibit obvious physical wounds, and their psychological trauma is difficult to identify without specialized assistance. Therefore, instances of sexual violence are often hidden and not readily recognizable.

Furthermore, the lack of public trust in justice institutions discourages CRSV survivors from seeking help from the police or law enforcement. The only solution to support the victims is to set up a dedicated system for them. It should be done now as failure to address sexual violence trauma in its initial stages can lead to irreversible repercussions later on.

Khrystyna KIT: – Certainly, the impact of the war extends to all Ukrainians today, with everyone needing some form of assistance. The law has been enacted to compensate for property damage, and discussions on related matters are ongoing. However, CRSV survivors require a different approach and additional rehabilitation programs due to the unique nature of their trauma and its consequences. We are talking here about people who suffer psychological trauma from explosions or prolonged shelter stays, and those who endure trauma from violation of their sexual autonomy and bodily integrity.

The existing social stigma prevents CRSV survivors from sharing their experiences. I believe having a reparations system for these survivors will reassure them that the government is willing to hear their voices, the experts assisting them understand their trauma, and will provide confidential and high-quality support.

Who should provide reparations to CRSV survivors? What role do the government and non-governmental institutions play in this regard?

Khrystyna KIT: – Under international law, the state where individuals have suffered from war crimes, such as CRSV, must establish mechanisms and legal framework to provide reparations. Currently, Ukraine is working on developing relevant legislation.

The Framework of Cooperation on the Prevention and Response to CRSV signed between the Government of Ukraine and the United Nations in early May 2022 has significantly contributed to this effort. An Implementation Plan has been created, with a separate section focusing on reparations and compensation.

Moreover, the state plays a crucial role in creating a Special Fund and allocating resources to ensure interim payments to survivors.

Civil society organisations also contribute to achieving these goals in various ways, including by providing expertise and supporting government institutions. For example, in April, we organized a study trip to Geneva for our government officials to gain a better understanding of international practices in reparations and implement them in Ukraine.

Moreover, since Ukraine has not yet adopted specific laws for CRSV survivors or implemented specialized rehabilitation programs at the national level, civil society organisations step in to provide various social services, including psychological counseling, medical assistance, and legal aid.

Olena SOTNYK: – The government plays a crucial and defining role in setting up the framework for providing reparations. Ukraine is wisely moving forward by creating an International Registry of Survivors, establishing an international committee to assess eligibility of survivors to receive compensation, setting up an International Reparations Fund, etc. In the future, there might also be a separate internal system for reparations, but this requires further deliberation, and relevant laws and regulations must be formulated.

Reparations should be paid by the aggressor country. We realise that it may take a long time to receive these reparations. Therefore, Ukraine’s task is to gather all its political, diplomatic, and legal efforts to convince our partners, using international pressure and diplomatic agreements, to seize Russian assets in other countries and redirect them to the Ukrainian Reparations Fund.

Additionally, international organisations and partner countries may partially cover these payments because the amounts are significant and are growing daily.

We are not just talking about CRSV survivors; we are also referring to people who have been subjected to torture, lost their homes, and suffered other damages caused by the criminal actions of the Russian Federation in this war.

Ukraine currently faces economic challenges, struggling to fulfill basic needs and social requirements. Burdening the state with reparations could strain resources and lead to inflated expectations and disappointment among Ukrainians.

Does the international community support our ideas for creating a mechanism to collect reparations?

Olena SOTNYK: – The European Union, European Commission, and EU member states clearly assert that Ukraine is entitled to reparations, with Russia being obligated to provide them. This position is also backed up by the United States, Canada, and all our major partners.

Since Russia is denying its guilt in general, we must have an alternative plan for addressing this issue. Seizing Russian assets presents one viable option, as there are many such assets globally that could cover a substantial portion of the reparations needed.

Russian assets are being seized in Ukraine, with the money being allocated for various budgetary needs such as security, etc. However, our primary goal is to convince our allies, in particular the United States, Great Britain, and EU countries, to seize Russian assets for the benefit of Ukraine. The United States holds a substantial number of these assets, while Canada, having enacted necessary legislation long ago, possesses fewer assets from the Russian Federation. Great Britain and Austria, known for being safe havens for keeping and reinvesting Russian dirty money, could also make significant contributions.

The European Commission is working on this issue separately, laying the groundwork for all EU countries. It is important to establish a strong legal foundation to prevent Russia from claiming compensation from these countries through international courts later on. Therefore, ensuring the legal soundness of this mechanism is of utmost importance.

What practices of reparations are being implemented in other countries? Which ones could effectively work in Ukraine?

Olena SOTNYK: – We are in the midst of an international conflict, a war between countries, and it is vital to acknowledge this fact. We cannot treat all countries’ experiences equally; we must focus on those most relevant to our own situation. When considering CRSV survivors, we examine successful implementation practices from countries like Colombia, Peru, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. While these models are not perfect, we learn from both their successes and failures. Nevertheless, these are functional reparations systems, benefiting tens of thousands of individuals, beyond just survivors of sexual violence.

Summing up existing practices and lessons learned, all these countries demonstrate that an administrative approach is effective. This involves establishing a Registry of Survivors and implementing minimal evidentiary standards. Instead of requiring extensive documentation to prove a sexual assault occurred, survivors provide a detailed statement of their experience. Law enforcement and security agencies then verify the accuracy of these details against the actual events.

Some countries also require additional testimonies from other individuals, like neighbors or family members to support the claim. I would like to emphasize once again: this is not a criminal investigation, so the minimum standard of evidence is used. In fact, the key here is trusting what the person is saying and being willing to help that person.

Therefore, I believe that Ukraine should move in this direction to establish the status of CRSV survivors. The more straightforward and confidential our system is, the more beneficial it will be for the survivors and the more efficiently it will operate.

When it comes to providing monetary compensation as reparations, all countries employ different methods and approaches. Some countries focus on assessing the extent of moral damage to determine the appropriate compensation amounts. For example, in Kosovo, survivors and assigned and paid monthly pensions. Our colleagues there noted that this is highly advantageous, as pensions raise the status of affected women by contributing financially to their families.

In Mexico, survivors were provided education as a form of reparation and received monetary compensation to start over or address certain financial needs. On top of that, they were offered medical assistance and counselling services to aid their recovery from CRSV.

What path is Ukraine leaning towards regarding the general reparations system?

Olena SOTNYK: – Our country has not yet chosen a general reparations system. Instead, our priority now is on delivering immediate reparations to those most in need.

Ukraine has already taken measures to urgently rebuild houses destroyed during the war. This involves the submission of applications and assessments by relevant committees. Overall, this serves as a type of reparations. Ukraine could also ensure recourse against the aggressor state to secure future recovery of the expenses incurred by both Ukraine and our partners.

I would like to emphasize that dealing with immediate reparations during wartime is quite unusual. Unlike in Kosovo, where it took 10 years post-conflict to address reparations for CRSV survivors, we are already addressing immediate reparations. However, it is unlikely we will have a comprehensive reparations system in place within the next year due to the ongoing war. We are still unsure about the extent of our losses, the number of survivors, and the resources required to assist all people affected by the war. We also need to consider fairness and equity – we cannot favor some over others. Therefore, discussions about the general reparations framework are still ongoing.

How can survivors of CRSV obtain assistance while the reparations system is still being formulated?

Olena SOTNYK: – It is important to acknowledge that the government is already providing assistance to survivors of CRSV. They receive assistance at the UNFPA-supported Survivor Relief Centers, which offer legal aid, medical care, and other forms of assistance, effectively serving many reparative functions despite not being formally labeled as a reparations system.

The government’s next priority in helping CRSV survivors is to start providing immediate reparations, which could include financial aid, and then develop a more comprehensive reparations plan. We will have a better understanding of what this system will look like as the war unfolds and as we gain better insight into available resources, strategies for recovering damages from Russia, and international backing for these efforts.

 

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club Ukrainian Perspective

  

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.