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Victims and victimhood in Afghanistan

As a researcher of transitional justice since 2008, focusing on Afghanistan, I have remained engaged with victims at close proximity. The concept of victimhood is particularly complex in Afghanistan, considering that, over decades, one brutal and repressive regime has led to another, afflicting millions of lives. Many have been victimized under all regimes; some have been perpetrators under one and victims under another. In other words, various narratives of victimhood exist in the country, which does not necessarily lead to acknowledgement of the “other”. Therefore, no matter what legal definitions we may ascribe to the term, “victimhood” is a socially constructed notion, heavily influenced by our objective and subjective realities.

A rarely addressed dilemma in transitional justice (TJ) discourse and practice, victimhood is embedded in a country’s cultural, economic and social norms and realities, which makes it a complex and subjective term, particularly in multilayered political contexts. Objectivity is contingent upon political, socioeconomic, cultural and historical contexts within which we live in and within which victimhood is constructed. Subjectivity, on the other hand, conveys perceptions, a much more difficult phenomenon to determine and measure empirically. However, this does not happen in isolation; there is a constant reciprocal dialogue between the subjective and objective aspects of understanding victimhood, thus giving rise to multiple interpretations of the concept.

This means that response mechanisms are necessarily diverse as well. What may satisfy the need of one victim might seem a luxury to another. Individual suffering is very personal, especially when it concerns the loss of a loved one or immediate basic needs, such as safety, food, shelter and healthcare. In these situations, there is little time for reflection, for considering others’ harm, let alone a genuine understanding of others’ needs. Typically, basic immediate requirements shape the worldview through which people perceive themselves and others. Victims of war, particularly in underdeveloped contexts, suffer from the loss of civil, political and socioeconomic rights. While the interdependency of these rights has long been established, the fact remains that if one’s stomach is empty, if one does not have shelter or access to medical care when needed, the right to truth and accountability, among other civil and political rights, may seem a luxury. Basic physiological human needs trump moral and ethical issues, including care and consideration towards others.

The issue then is whether to look at ‘victims’ as passive individuals of inaction or as active agents of change. Can a rights-based approach play an important role in transitional justice discourse and practice in relation to victims?

A Rights-Based Approach (RBA) framework includes participation, accountability, nondiscrimination, empowerment and human rights norms. Above all, this approach accentuates the notion of local people’s agency, with an emphasis on the importance of advocacy and mobilization in turning people into active citizens and agents for political change.  Active participation through empowerment and agency can thus become transformative. In my work with local organizations, I have seen the impact of raising awareness among ordinary people and the important role it plays in turning people into active citizens.

RBA principles, therefore, can potentially respond to some of the challenges discussed above. For example, the principle of participation can allow victims/survivors to contribute to how they and their demands should be conceptualized and turned into legal and political language. By bringing their perceptions into the discourse, the gap between objective and subjective measures is bridged as well. Significantly, victims/survivors should also be included in the implementation stage. Experience has shown that when people are directly involved in a process, they feel more empowered, which in turn can lead to more desirable outcomes, such as in the case of Colombia.

Similarly, accountability, another central element of a rights-based approach as well as transitional justice, is critical in relation to victims/survivors. To overcome the challenges of political manipulation and to address corruption, it is crucial that ordinary people are aware of their positions as rights-holders who can demand accountability, transparency and responsibility from duty bearers and those in power.

Finally, the notion of empowerment as a central component or, some argue, the end goal of RBA, can play a key role regarding the function of victims/survivors during the TJ process. Empowerment through RBA can offer victims a sense of recognition as individuals with claims and entitlements, not just as the “poor victims”. Recognizing oneself and others as rights bearers can be a way for people not to ascribe everything to ‘destiny,’ but rather to their own power to challenge and change.

Headline image credit: Children in Afghanistan by WikiImages. CC0 via Pixabay

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