Just a month ago, on November 9th, on a blustery but bright afternoon, representatives from across our continent came together in Brussels for a conference organised by Victim Support Europe. The conference programme was focused on the imminent implementation of the European Union Directive on establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime.
On that afternoon there was a real sense of belonging and shared endeavour– victim support agencies representatives from across Europe were joined by colleagues from politics, the legal profession, policy experts and others to look at how the Directive requirements are actually going to translate into really effective services to victims. A particular focus was to look at some of the most marginalised and traumatised in our societies: migrants and trans – gendered victims, and also to consider those bereaved by homicide.
It was with a real sense of optimism and expectation that the afternoon session began the two days of the conference. The dinner following the session was a tangible demonstration of the fact that, despite cultural, language and differing approaches to jurisprudence, there was a common voice and determination to look at how victims across Europe could better be supported. Representatives from Hungary, Holland, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, France, Ireland and other countries all came together to share knowledge and experience. The following day was to focus on the need for common standards and how better organisations might collaborate across state boundaries.
None of use realised that a few days later there would be many more victims as a result of the attacks in Paris. Over a hundred killed and many, many more affected by those dreadful events and the ongoing investigation (and pursuit) of those responsible focused on Brussels, the venue for our meeting. These events have been a timely (if traumatic and unwelcome) reminder of how important it is that the focus of all of us working across the criminal justice system, in whatever country, renew efforts to focus on the support needs and protection of victims.
The need for cross border cooperation has never been greater. To someone who becomes a victim of crime, what matters most is that practical and effective information and support is available, when most needed, and for that to happen, especially if one becomes a victim in a country other than one’s own, requires a much more joined up approach than we see at present. And that applies not just to the criminal justice agencies of the state, whichever state that may be, but to support organisations as well.
One of the most acute frustrations expressed by victims is that services and information or advice provision so rarely seems to be coordinated or joined up. Things have, certainly, improved over the past twenty years or so but there is still a long way to go. The rhetoric and good intentions are not always, nor often, matched with an effective translation into action. Too many victims either do not get the support they need or have to continuously re-visit their own story and spend many wasteful hours re-telling it to different organisations and individuals. Despite our best (if they are, indeed, our best) efforts we still fall a long way short.
The events last month, and the events occurring on a daily basis across the world, should, if they are not to be seen as just yet another example of the tragic waste of human life, galvanise all of us into looking again at how best we can offer help and support to victims of crime and witnesses. We need to do this individually, within our own organisations, across agencies and across state boundaries. The overall decline in the rate and prevalence of crime, as highlighted by statistics, are of little comfort or benefit to those many people who are still traumatised and whose lives are devastated when they are one of the victims or a witness.
The conference in Brussels was an ideal opportunity for us to consider how better we can work together and how better we can start to measure the effectiveness, the outcomes of the services we provide and deliver to victims and their families. How much more so in the wake of those dreadful events in Paris. There is a real and more pressing need for people to be clear about how they will be treated if they become a victim, if they need to engage with criminal justice agencies, wherever that may be, and how they can be sure that they will receive effective support and information that will help them on the road to recovery.
The attention of the world has been on Paris and the US recently. And while, thankfully, we do not see this kind of massacre repeated on a daily basis on our streets, we all know that there are many traumatised, wounded and hurt people in our community who have not been the focus of attention and who have not received the help they need, desire and to which they are (or soon will be) entitled.
The EU Directive offers a chance to refresh our approach to victims and their rights. It was heartening to hear the EU Commissioner, Vera Jourova, acknowledge that victims have high expectations and that these must be met. Her commitment, to seeing that rules drafted are actually applied in practice, and expressing that she would not hesitate to act in member states that were not fulfilling their responsibilities, is welcome. In addition, the recognition that there is a need for a network where best practices can be shared, for more effective support to organisations at ground level, for better training and effective campaigning are all parts of the tapestry that needs to be woven if services are to improve and victims are to be well supported.
We need all, as we approach a new year, to look at what part we can play in this endeavour and look forward to that part making a positive difference to the lives of individuals and to the life of our community, both within our own borders and beyond.