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Ex-TRRC vice chair responds to JFJ on ‘New study exposes shortcomings of Gambia’s reparation process’ article

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By Adelaide Sosseh

Reference is made to the newspaper article entitled New Study Exposes Shortcomings of the TRRC’s reparation process from the Journalist For Justice, JFJ, published in your Newspaper on the 3.05.2023. As former Vice Chair of the TRRC and Chairperson of the Reparations Committee, I would like to correct some of the serious anomalies that have been made in this article and to address some of the misconceptions of the victims. 

In its press release, Journalists For Justice (JFJ) indicates that the report “is intended to empower victim groups and communities through communication, skills and knowledge to actively engage policymakers in order to influence the design and implementation of an integrated, transparent and victim-led reparations programme.” JFJ, in espousing this objective, will no doubt contribute enormously to the full implementation of the recommendations of the TRRC.  It is thus my view that we (TRRC family and JFJ) are working towards the same goal and that all our energies should now be focused on the full and urgent implementation of the TRRC Recommendations. The correction of inaccuracies in their press release is made in this spirit of cooperation.

I thank the JFJ initiative but also want to point out that their efforts should be based on contextual realities and not on misinformation and poor understanding of the TRRC in general and the reparations process in particular.

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It also has to be understood that while reparation is a vital component of the TRRC mandate established by the National Assembly (TRRC Act, 2017), it is not the only one. The Commission, ipso facto, had to address the whole gamut of its mandate which were to: create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights from July 1994 to January 2017, in order to promote healing and reconciliation, respond to the needs of the victims, address impunity, and prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered by making recommendations for the establishment of appropriate preventive mechanisms including institutional and legal reforms; establish and make known the fate or whereabouts of disappeared victims; provide victims an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered; and grant reparations to victims in appropriate cases.

The Commission had to work judiciously with the resources that were provided by the government and partners, notably the UN Peacebuilding Fund.

I will address the issues as they are presented in the article.

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Lack of a TRRC communication strategy on reparations:

The TRRC had a comprehensive Communications Strategy in place which was applicable to all the Units of the TRRC, thus it was not necessary to have a standalone Reparations communication strategy.  All units were aware of the inclusive nature of community outreach programmes and I myself and other Members of the Reparations Committee and staff of the relevant units-Victim Support and Women’s Affairs – all jointly participated in the outreach programmes where the Reparations Process was adequately explained in the appropriate languages.  In addition, the Women’s Affairs Unit held several listening groups, focused group discussions and “bantabas” for Women to ensure that they were given the opportunity to tell their stories and to get timely and reliable information on the Reparations process.  Partner organisations such as ICTJ and Fantanka held events on Reparations and I and other members of the team participated in these events which were designed to inform and educate not only victims but the general public on the TRRC Reparations process. At the end of all these events, participants were questioned about their understanding of the process, and where clarification was needed, this was always given.  The staff of the Victim’s Support Unit also held radio and television programmes on the Reparations process. Thus, from our perspective, the TRRC had used multi-media platforms including electronic media and face-to-face meetings to adequately provide information on the TRRC Reparations process and the other work of the TRRC. 

Since the TRRC was comprised of communication professionals with diverse perspectives and abilities, the Communication Unit held a message development workshop to develop synchronised messages that were designed to be focused and centred on the goal.  This was to ensure that the same messages that were being transmitted were not open to misinterpretation. Thus, the statement, by Amadou Kora, a resident of Tamba Sansang ”that Government gave D50 million and was shared amongst the victims” is unfounded as no member of the TRRC would make such an irresponsible statement. The meeting in Basse certainly explained all the details.

Poor planning and implementation of TRRC reparations programme

Nothing can be further from the truth than this statement. The Reparations programme had a legally established process.  Decisions of the Reparations Committee were guided by the Reparations Policy and Guidelines and all decisions were approved by the Commission. The Reparations Policy and Regulations were developed with the support of partners such as the Africa and West Asia Programme of International IDEA (AWA IDEA), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the United Nations Development Programme – The Gambia, the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Ministry of Justice of The Gambia with input from experts in this domain. This was to ensure that an accountable, effective, equitable, transparent, and gender-sensitive Reparations system was in place to guide the process.

These documents served as important reference documents not only for The Commission but for the public as well. A Users Guide was produced and widely disseminated to inform victims about the five forms of reparations – compensation, satisfaction, restitution, rehabilitation, guarantees of non-repetition and urgent interim measures, and how to access final reparations.  In addition to the legal instruments, Reparations guidelines were also established to determine the quantum of payments. 

The TRRC Reparations Committee consisting of 5 Commissioners received technical support and guidance from the Secretariat, Victim Support and Legal Affairs Unit in the execution of its mandate.   One had to be certified as a victim before one is entitled to compensation.  The process had to start with the person making a statement or making a request to be classified as a victim.  The TRRC cannot know of victims unless they come forward. Thus, there was a vigorous system of community outreach for statement-taking in addition to the in-house statement-taking.  The Commission made several calls for victims to come forward through public announcements, road shows and other media platforms. Once a statement is submitted, the Commission could only be guided by what was stated as the statement takers were not present when the violation occurred.  However, each statement was investigated for having taken place.

From the beginning, many meetings were held on the criteria of the reparations, reparations law –policy and regulations, guidelines and implementation parameters.

No special unit within TRRC to deal with compensation

The Commission did not deem it necessary as compensation was just one component of the Reparations process.  With oversight from the Committee, the Accounts Department (which had the competence and the capacity) to deal with this aspect was supported by Research and Investigation and the Victim’s Support Unit.

late creation of a Victims Support Unit in TRRC operations

This statement could not be further from the truth. The Victims Support Unit was established in 2018, prior to the swearing-in of the Commissioners. The first Coordinator of the Unit assumed office on the 1st of October 2018. The Unit was staffed with qualified, competent staff in victim support and was supported by a Psycho-social team. A triage by the Psycho-social support team and Paramedics Team at TRRC was set established.

Narrow definition of “victim” by the Reparations Committee

This claim shows the author’s complete misunderstanding of the process. The definition was derived from the TRRC Act, 2017 and reiterated in the Regulations.  Victims who suffered financial loss or loss of property were not eligible for victim status under the TRRC Act.

Payment of monetary compensation to “non-victims “

The granting of victim status went through a rigorous process of vetting by the Victims Support Unit, Research and Investigation, guided by the Legal team and validated by the Human Rights Commission as to what type of human rights violation the victim had suffered.  Based on this, the victim is awarded victim status. Many persons who saw themselves as victims, unfortunately, did not qualify for victim status.  The rigorous process and cross-unit assessment did not give room for error to have occurred in the classification of the victim status of a person.  Though human error is a possibility, the study could have highlighted instances where this occurred with specific cases rather than making a blanket statement.

Over 1500 statements were submitted to the TRRC out of which only 1009 were eligible for victim status under the mandate of the TRRC. Some victims declined their payments and requested that the Commission assist victims that were in greater need.  Others who qualified for victim status chose not to be classified as victims. 

Inadequacy of payments and differences in payments for same violation

Awards of compensation made are in respect of the harm the direct victim suffered. The payment of different sums to victims was dependent on the nature, type and duration of the victimisation.  Two persons may have experienced the same violation such as the witch hunt. One of them was branded a witch and taken away for a day and made to drink the concoction.  The other was also branded a witch, taken away and detained for three days, forced to drink the concoction daily, subjected to forced nudity and beaten.  Would the payments be the same?

Some victims downplayed the nature of their treatment in detention with some claiming never to have been subject to torture or inhumane treatment.  In this case too, would the payments be the same as the one detained for the same period beaten and tortured?

The TRRC established a tariff.  It was easy for anyone to calculate the amount of reparation one was entitled to on the basis of the statement or evidence adduced.  The payments made are in respect of the harm the direct victim suffered. The compensation is calculated on that basis to the direct victim if he or she is alive or to the heirs of the person if he or she is deceased.   It is just like a court process- you do not compensate the secondary victims when the primary victim is alive. There would be no end to the number of complaints. 

Currently only one third of the recommended reparations has been paid for those who were entitled to more than D50,000. Those outstanding sums have to be paid by the government. The resources provided and used for reparations were grossly inadequate and the Reparations Committee and the Commission had to set a standard and rules for distribution. These weren’t cast in stone! A future bigger reparations programme should no doubt get guidance from the Commission rules and practice, improving and changing some as deemed fit.

Victims of sexual violence were ignored

This statement is not only unfounded but unfair. These were the hardest victims to identify as they were not forthcoming and did not want to explain their abuse.  Special measures were put in place to get them to make statements or to testify such as the Listening Circles for Women, protected witness testimonies and closed sessions. In addition to these measures a safe haven (a room completely dedicated for statement taking of SGBV victims) was set up to enable the SGBV victims to make their complaint or to receive psycho-social support in a comfortable and safe environment.  An SGBV Committee was also established to provide guidelines for statement taking of SGBV victims, making testimonies and security of information.  It was through these processes that the victims of SGBV were identified as only a few were willing to talk about their experience.  However, those that were identified were awarded financial compensation and have been paid the first tranche of their monies. 

Testimonies of 36 Victims

It is unfortunate that a sample size of 36 victims and other stakeholders in 5 communities can constitute a comprehensive report of the TRRC Reparation Process.  This is bearing in mind that 392 witnesses testified before the Commission (TRRC Final Report) and 1500 persons submitted statements to the Victim’s Support Unit. Thus, using a sample size consisting mainly of persons who did not understand the process of reparations or whose expectations were not met to arbitrarily grade the TRRC reparations process is regrettable.  This notwithstanding the TRRC objective to: ‘provide victims an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered’ has been met.

Victim-Led Reparation Programme

Did the author expect the TRRC to ask the victimized person to determine the quantum of reparation? Where is the disappointment? Is it in the amount of money provided or in the design of the programme by the TRRC to disburse the monies made available for the purposes of reparations? It seems that the author is confused by these two wholly different issues.

In addition, there is a general perception that victims were not consulted about the reparation programme.  This again is inaccurate as the Victim’s Centre played a role in the development of the key instruments. Further, the reference to a meeting in Basse and the process of the passing of the law seriously undermines the argument of lack of consultation.

Contrary to the assertion that ‘if their opinion had been sought, the TRRC would have included other forms of reparation apart from its focus on cash payouts, Compensation only came at the end of the Commission.  During the process of implementation, the TRRC focused on activities leading to satisfaction through the public hearings, restitution, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition and urgent interim measures.  Memorialisation was high on the agenda and a Memorialisation Policy was developed and a recommendation has been made in the final report on Memorialisation. 

Interim measures also played a key role in the reparations process. The claim by a victim that he knew nothing about the interim reparations programme is contestable.  If he had submitted a written statement to the TRRC he would have known that this type of support existed.  The complainant (at this stage the person is classified as a complainant until their victim status is assessed) statement form had a section clearly asking which type of support was required by the complainant.  This included medical care, psycho-social, educational and livelihood support, and victim protection. The nature and type of interim reparation was contingent on the information given.

For those requiring medical care a triage by the Psychosocial support team and Paramedics Team at TRRC carried out assessments prior to referral to the Medical Board.   Psycho-social support was provided for three hundred and eighty-nine (389) individuals that required this support. 

The Medical Board set up by Government in 2018, greatly assisted the TRRC in providing urgent in country medical care to over one hundred and twenty-four (124) victims who were in urgent need of assistance and whose quality of life had been severely affected as a result of the violation meted against their person.  This was facilitated by the Victim Participation Support Fund established by the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund, the UNDP and OHCHR with victims “supported to a maximum of $1000 per person for non-recurrent costs for their medical aids and interventions.  

For victims who could not be treated in Country 7 were treated abroad.  Through the expert advice of the Medical Board the TRRC sent four (4) victims to Turkey in December 2019 under the framework of the Bilateral Agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the Republic of The Gambia (2014) for their medical treatment with varying levels of success.  Another three (3) had successful surgeries in Dakar in October 2020 funded through resource mobilization funds. 

During the COVID 19 pandemic some of the doctors on the Medical Board continued to give treatment including home based care.

This dispels the assertion that the focus of the TRRC Reparations was on financial compensation.

The author confuses reparations with accountability and justice.  That is the other side of the equation and forms the bulk of the TRRC recommendations.

Adelaide Sosseh is the former vice chair of TRRC and chairperson reparations committee.

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