United Nations War Crimes Tribunal uses UNT survey to study impact of war on victims and witnesses

James Meernik and Kimi King
James Meernik and Kimi King, faculty experts in peace studies, Department of Political Science, University of North Texas. Photo by Michael Clements.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - 15:45

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Not all scars of war fade for those who have witnessed or experienced its horrors. Scars run deep in the case of the Yugoslav Wars of 1991–2001, in which genocide, torture, rape and other inhumane acts destroyed entire communities as well as individuals. The justice system can put a criminal in jail, but what of justice for the victim? What remedy can heal suffering wrought by crimes against humanity?

University of North Texas political scientists Kimi King and James Meernik are leading a first-of-its-kind survey sponsored by the United Nations to study the impact of war on victims and witnesses of war crimes. Based on interviews and court testimonial experiences of witnesses from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the UN's first international tribunal for war crime trials, the survey assesses how individuals are coping, if not healing, physically, mentally and socially as employers, employees, neighbors and family members in the nearly two decades since the signing of the peace accords in the '90's.

"War crime trials do not happen unless you have witnesses and victims willing to come forward and provide an account for history about what occurred," said King. "There is increasing recognition by the international community that 'bearing witness' can come with tremendous psychological and physical costs. This survey is a systematic and scientific attempt to quantitatively measure witness well-being in the post-testimonial phase of the process."

The UN is committed to fostering post-war resolutions focused on peace building and the long-term wellbeing of war-torn communities. For the survey, King and Meernik, internationally recognized for their work on human rights, criminal tribunals, transitional justice and post-conflict security, partnered with the Victims and Witnesses Section of the ICTY.

With research on the ICTY dating to 2001, the survey began in July 2013 after multiple rounds of focus groups, survey development, language translation and compliance with ethical and regulatory protocols. Now at the midway mark of their project and with a total goal of 330 interviews, King and Meernik presented preliminary findings to high-ranking UN officials at The Hague, Netherlands earlier this summer.

"The response to the survey was extremely positive," said Meernik. "The tribunal's current president, Judge Theodor Meron, discussed it in his report to the UN Security Council, and now they are considering adopting it as a template for future work with victims and witnesses, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda."

Answers to the survey's questions also provide feedback to the tribunal about its processes. Witnesses for the prosecution and defense, and those called by the judges, are asked what it was like to testify and how they were treated, if their experiences were positive or not, what advice they might give future war crimes witnesses and what the institution could do to improve. Some opt out of the survey, but Meernik said that most witnesses respond positively for the opportunity to talk about their experiences, with almost all saying that they testified in part to help judges reach a fair decision.

"The reasons why some witnesses do not participate range from fear of reprisal to the pain of opening old wounds," King said. "Some witnesses' experiences will go untold because key witnesses died or moved away. Engaging a cross section of persons of all ages, ethnicities, religions and experiences is key to the survey's legitimacy and what makes it different from other tribunal studies involving witnesses."

Meernik and King had initially hoped for 10 to 20 percent of the witnesses to complete the survey, and more than 57 percent of those contacted have responded that they are willing to participate. King attributes the success of the survey to how it was designed to provide a safe and supportive experience for the witnesses. A team of professionals contributed expertise at every stage of the survey's development and implementation, from the questions and methods of interacting with witnesses to the establishment of referral procedures in the event a witness needs in-depth counseling. The UNT Department of Psychology and information technology staff at UNT's Center for Learning Enhancement, Assessment, and Redesign contributed to this effort.

The current survey is scheduled to end by 2016. After the ICTY finishes its trials, the survey will continue to be administered by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals. In going forward, Meernik and King said the partnership with the United Nations gives the survey an important place in international criminal justice that will serve victims and witnesses as well as the courts, scholars and those living and recovering in war-torn communities.

Both King and Meernik agree that the one of the most important things that can come from the survey is the recognition that society needs to listen to the voices of those who are most affected by wars and civil conflict

About the UNT Department of Political Science

The Department of Political Science is divided into four major areas: American Government, International Relations, Comparative Politics and Political Theory. It offers one of the strongest peace studies programs in the United States. UNT Peace Studies includes the Castleberry Peace Institute, the first peace institute in the state of Texas, and the Human Security, Democracy and Global Development team, a cross-disciplinary consortium of faculty experts focused on conflict resolution strategies, the protection of human rights and the promotion of economic development, health and neighbor relations. The department is the editorial home of the American Political Science Review, the world's premier journal of political science.

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