By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Victims of crime, victims’ rights advocates and policy practitioners gathered at here on 30 November to review the state of progress in ensuring victims’ rights across the 28 EU states.
A conference, “Establishing Victims’ Rights and Support Services in Challenging Times”, reviewed how far EU member states have implemented — or ‘transposed’ — the directive 2012/28/EU which creates minimum standards for victim rights. The deadline for transposing was mid-November 2015. Progress has been painfully slow, however, with 16 members states failing to apprise the Commission of their efforts.
Adopted in 2012, the directive obliges the member states to adopt their legislation to establish EU-wide minimum standards for victims’ rights. Victims can include those subjected to crime, abused by a partner or injured in terrorist attacks. The term also covers the family members of victims, although the precise definition of ‘victim’ is left to each member states to decide.
Among other rights, victims must be able to understand what an authority tells them, and to be understood; receive information from the first authority they contact; make a formal complaint while receiving an acknowledgement; have access to interpretation and translation; receive information about a case’s progress; and have access to victim support services.
Alexandra Jour-Schroeder, head of the European Commission’s policy deparatment for justice and consumers, gave conference participants a sober status report on the directive’s transposition. She noted that the Commission has opened infringement proceedings against those member states that have failed to notify Brussels about their transposition measures.
The Commission will study national legislation “letter by letter” to determine how the directive has been implemented. “There are quite a lot of EU directives where we have an issue with member states,” she said. “But victims’ rights is really an issue for us.”
The conference also heard testimony from several victims of crime and terrorist attacks. Aimée Romina Metselaar, a Dutch citizen, was at home in April 2008 when she was attacked by a family employee who posed as a courier. She was stabbed 18 times, strangled and left for dead, with one of the stab wounds severing her spine. Now a paraplegic, she works as a lawyer on victim-rights issues.
For Metselaar, the most important right for a victim is simply the ‘right to speak’ during a judicial process. During her attacker’s trial, she was not allowed to offer any opinion about the potential sentence on grounds that the judicial process primarily involved the public prosecutor and the accused. But on 1 July 2016, Dutch law was changed to give victims of serious crimes the unrestricted right to speak in criminal proceedings.
Victims of Brussels’ 22 March 2016 attacks also addressed the event. Philip van Steenkeesten, brother of a woman who perished in the attack on Brussels’ airport said “before [the attack] I was a commercial and marketing director in New Zealand. Today I’m standing here a broken man: I can’t leave Belgium because my parents [fear] they would lose their only child.”
Like other friends and family of victims who have become victims themselves, Philippe feels abandoned by the Belgian state. “I feel like a homeless person in the midst of our society. It’s unbelievable. If I have criticism, it’s not towards people, but towards the system. Something is really wrong here, folks, and we need to change it.”
Kristin Verellen lost her husband in the Zaventum bombings as well. “I shouldn’t be here talking to you,” she said. “You should be coming to us…learning how to provide adequate support so that victims don’t feel neglected, because neglected is how we feel.” Three things could have helped her and other victims cope with the tragedy, according to Verllen.
First, better psychological support to help friends and family in the aftermath of an attack. “The specialists who came to see me didn’t know how to treat me,” she said. Secondly, the state should help victims connect with each other in order to form support networks. She described begging officials for other victims’ contact details, only to realise that she had to find those details herself.
Finally, she asked for more centralised and efficient communication. For five days after the Zaventem attacks, many family members were not sure if relatives caught in the bombing were dead or badly injured. Referring to “some telephone numbers” provided, she said “after hanging on the telephone for five hours, it felt useless to call them anymore.”
So she and other victims began visiting local hospitals, looking for their loved ones. “In Belgium, we had to do [everything] ourselves. Nothing is clear, and the victims are still waiting for clarity,” she said, adding that she was unaware of VSE’s existence until being asked to speak at the conference.
Sir Julian King, EU Commissioner for Security Union, said “nothing we say today can change what you’ve been through, but we can try to make a difference for the future.”
He agreed that victims require specific protection and assistance based on physical and psychological support, medical treatment and professional services that are free, confidential and accessible. These must be provided immediately after an attack, and available for as long as necessary, he said.
King, who was in Nice on 15 July 2016, the day after a radicalised man used a cargo truck to plough through and kill 86 people and injure 434, said, “I saw a positive example of effective cooperation on the ground. Victim support [was] working with police, emergency services, health services, the Red Cross”.
But this demands planning. “We can’t achieve an effective and sustainable security union without addressing the needs of victims caught up in such attacks,” he said.
This requires resources, however, in a European resource environment stretched thin by austerity and competing demands. One crucial task is to define who ‘victims’ are. Several speakers at the conference were family members of victims, and thus victims themselves, using the Director’s definition.
But some member states could define the term far more narrowly. The reality of European terrorism is indisputable, and there will be victims. If we can plan ahead for attacks with counter-terrorism measures, we can also plan ahead to help those who suffer them, and survive them. Call it post-terrorism.