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Victims’ Rights are Human Rights

Amidst the sadness, anger and fear of last week in the aftermath of the discovery of a quadruple murder in Belize City, the public may have lost sight of a possible ray of sunshine from an announcement by the Police Department that there would be greater protection of witnesses and victims of crime in Belize by the establishment of a Witness Support Unit.
The Human Rights Commission was pleased to learn of this new initiative and hopes that it may assist in reducing some of the entrenched obstacles confronting the criminal justice system.
Human rights include the rights of victims. In the criminal justice context, the mistake is often made that it is only the rights of the accused person or the criminal that is being looked after. While the rights of the accused is very important, so too must be the rights of victims in a properly functioning balanced criminal justice system.
HRCB has supported victims’ rights over the years, especially where women, children and the disabled have been victimized or abused.
More generally, the HRCB president had for several years advocated that Belize pass a law based on the Caribbean Model Victim’s Rights Legislation. That was long before things got to the present point and witnesses and victims became afraid, with good reason, to give statements to the police and testify in court. Such a law was never enacted.
It is not however too late to put certain measures such as this new Witness Support Unit in place to safeguard witnesses and victims that the system often relies upon to obtain convictions.
HRCB proposes that the authorities also consider instituting a comprehensive plan or policy to observe and protect victims’ rights in Belize. This has always been important but is even more so in the current environment. We recommend that at least the following be part of such a plan or policy. Obviously, the all-important protection of the life and safety of witnesses and victims of crime must be at the top of the list and this new Witness Support Unit is a start in that direction.
The other rights of victims that would be important to codify and protect include the right to privacy, the right to be informed about the progress of the case, the right to notification if an accused person has been released on bail during the proceedings or is being considered for parole after sentenced to prison, the right to have an opportunity to speak with the prosecutor about the case, the right to speak at the trial of the accused, and the right to restitution for injuries suffered as a result of the crime. The right to have the trial or the matter disposed of within a reasonable time and without unnecessary delay could also be included.
The public may not be aware that Victim Impact Statements were incorporated into criminal trials several years ago by a practice direction of the former Chief Justice. This allows victims to tell the judge after the verdict and before sentencing what effect the crime has had on his life so that the judge may take this into account in sentencing the convicted person.
If witness and victim rights are to be recognized and given more prominence in the system, as HRCB believes they should be, there must be an effective campaign to inform and educate people so that we are all aware and so that those who are the unfortunate victims of crimes or witness a criminal offence will know what to expect from the process.
At the international level in 1985, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power. This Declaration sets out the best practices of countries in their treatment of victims. Its’ underlying premise is that victims should be afforded fair treatment, with due respect for their dignity.
Further, victims should have access to justice and the right to a remedy.
Finally, the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says, among other things, that “…it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law…”
This means that the law should protect our rights. For example, the law criminalizing murder and manslaughter protects our right to life and the laws that make theft, robbery and burglary crimes protect our rights to property.
If the law fails to protect our rights, people will seek to do so on their own, taking the law into their own hands and they will rebel against laws that do not serve the purpose of protecting them. This is not a desirable situation and we should act immediately and with caution to avoid it – Human Rights Commission of Belize

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