Forms of Justice: A Guide to Designing Reparations Application Forms and Registration Processes for Victims of Human Rights Violations

Ruben Carranza, Cristián Correa, and Elena Naughton
Download document

Read the full guide in English here.

Read the full guide in Arabic here.

Read the full guide in French here.

Read the full guide in Spanish here.

The forms that can be used to apply and register for reparations contain a set of questions for survivors or victims’ family members to answer, sometimes with the assistance of government officials or even nongovernment organization staff. They often require applicants to submit additional documentation or proof of eligibility in order to receive reparations. In many cases, an agency implementing the program will carry out this registration process to build a reparations registry that not only lists individuals who are eligible for reparations but also includes data about them, their families, and sometimes their communities. A registry may also include entire communities that may be eligible for reparations. The resulting registry and its accompanying database become the basis for distributing benefits and may itself serve as a form of official acknowledgement of victims and the violations they experienced. It can also serve as a basis for designing or implementing forms of reparations, including symbolic and collective measures.

Because reparations programs are meant to cover as many qualified victims as possible and to acknowledge them collectively and individually, forms should transcend their administrative, legal, and physical function, becoming in themselves a means of acknowledging and reaffirming the dignity of victims who apply. Yet, a complaint often heard from applicants is that the pro-cess, including filling out the form and waiting for it to be reviewed and registered, can become overly bureaucratic, inaccessible, and even oppressive. To help prevent this, it is important for policy makers and those implementing the reparations program to design an application form and registration process that meet the international standard of providing “adequate, effective and prompt reparation for harm suffered,” as articulated in the 2005 UN Basic Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparations for Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights and Serious Violations of Humanitarian Law.

A reparations form is not an ordinary form to facilitate day-to-day transactions between the state and its citizen. It is the documentary representation of what is often a one-time, extraordinary, and usually very direct and personal experience for victims of finally getting justice.

Well-designed application forms used in an effective registration process can help to secure victims’ access to some forms of justice and help to identify those in need of urgent care or assistance. When filled out, these reparations forms can provide the government with data that informs the way reparations programs are implemented or support the design of the different forms of reparations that victims may need.

Foremost, reparations forms and the processes set up for managing them must reflect the economic and social context in which they are situated. In general, reparations must take into account both the needs of victims and the resources of the state. Administering a reparations program, including designing and using the reparations form, will require a functioning bureaucracy, basic levels of information technology, banking, and transportation and communications systems.

Policy makers and administrators must have a clear idea of both what is required and what is possible, not just to carry out the program but, more importantly, to ease the burden on victims and families who will be affected. Therefore, they should consider how the documentation and information required for determining a victim’s eligibility can be produced, whether victims entitled to reparations will have the resources necessary to participate in the registration process, and whether the form is easy to fill out while capturing the information that implementers need. Though the content and design of the reparations application form is only one part of a larger and longer process of registration, it has a decisive impact on whether a qualified victim or beneficiary actually receives reparations and experiences justice from the process.

Recognizing the economic and social context in which the form will be used during registration means recognizing victims’ often unequal access to the state bureaucracy as well as the obstacles they may face in accessing reparations in particular. Poorer, less educated victims will likely not have advantages like social connections that can speed up the process or access to documentation.

Determining what documentation to require is as important as determining what information to ask for. Ensuring that documentation requirements are not burdensome is particularly important in situations where victims may number in the tens of thousands or live in remote locations or experience economic hardship. Because many victims and potential reparations beneficiaries are marginalized by poverty, illiteracy, ethnicity, caste, or gender, they may not be able to apply for reparations on their own. Many may not possess or easily access the documentation or information they need to support their application.

In Peru, for example, victims were supported by a state agency in filling out application forms and locating documents they needed to verify their eligibility. To increase access, registration was conducted by mobile teams of registrars who visited rural areas throughout the country to collect information. In the Philippines, victims were given the option of submitting a range of different types of documents to complete their application, such as a sworn statement describing the circumstances of the violation and one or more of the following: a warrant of arrest or certification of detention, court or attorney records, and “news clippings” or other “secondary sources of information from reliable sources such as [a] church/NGO report.” For some victims these requirements were still too demanding.

A well-designed application form will take account of contextual detail, rather than simply assume that it is just like any other form. It must reflect its own very specific context: what violations took place within a specific period (and an understanding of the larger context of war, authoritarian rule, or massive violence that occurred), how victims were affected, the challenges they face, and the specific characteristics of the various communities or organizations that victims belong to or are perceived as part of. The form used by Sierra Leone’s National Reparations Program asked victims not only about the nature of the violation and harm they suffered (for example, loss of limbs or sexual violence), but also about the particular areas of vulnerability they faced (such as lack of shelter or family or community support and whether they had children to care for). These questions helped victims to gain access to additional benefits, like handicap-accessible housing for amputees. Applications for collective reparations in Colombia, Peru, and Morocco have included an extensive process for approaching the community and identifying collective harms and possible priority projects.

A well-designed reparations form and registration process must also recognize the resources and capacity of state institutions to manage both the information they collect and registering potentially large numbers of applicants. The way governments and institutions have implemented reparations varies significantly. Some countries, particularly in the Global North, clearly have more capacity and resources than others to carry out an efficient and fair reparations registration process.

Designing the form means anticipating what will be involved in the larger process: What institutions will distribute the forms? Who will help victims fill out their forms? What kind of data management and computer systems, staffing (such as registration staff, translators, and data encoders), or physical infrastructure and resources (secure registration centers, transportation, and communication) will be required? Have the necessary budget commitments been made? When these questions are not considered ahead of time, registration is delayed or becomes more difficult for victims and implementing agencies.

Like other efforts to provide acknowledgement and justice to victims of human rights violations, the form and the registration process should send a clear message to victims and society that the violations were wrong and that victims have rights that must be respected. Reparations application forms are likely to be a victim’s first personal encounter with how transitional justice is pursued, because not all victims are able to testify (or submit statements) to a truth commission or testify in or even attend a trial.

This guide recommends some basic principles to guide the process of designing a reparations application form:

Learn from other registration processes. At the outset, government agencies and international organizations with previous experience of dealing with massive human rights violations, internally displaced persons, victims’ groups, and civil society organizations should be involved in the drafting and designing of reparations policies and programs.

Avoid being legalistic. Reparations forms should be designed by a multidisciplinary group of persons and agencies. While lawyers can contribute significantly, persons with experience facilitating community outreach, managing information technology, dealing with large data-bases, conducting interviews, and gathering data in developing countries have equally important contributions to make in designing the form and determining how it will be used.

Use the design process to spark dialogue. The process of designing an application form and registering victims is an important time of contact between, and among, victims’ groups, civil society actors, and the government. Designing the form is an opportunity for dialogue about how reparations can commence. Amid the registration process, implementers will also have the chance to adjust and revise the reparations form and the registration procedure.

Do no harm. Well-conceived application forms (and registration processes) should reflect the admonition to “do no harm” to victims and their families. This includes ensuring no undue administrative and financial requirements are placed on victims that add to their burdens. The process of designing the form should also consider that for many victims it is painful to remember and narrate their experiences. The form should ease the burden of recollection by giving time and space to those who fill them out, and reparations implementers should anticipate the need for psychosocial support.

Find ways to make filling out the form itself reparative. Both the reparations form and the process for registering victims should be reparative in effect. The reparations form and/or the accompanying guide may include statements acknowledging victims and the harms they suffered. The registration process itself should, likewise, treat applicants with the re-spect and dignity accorded to victims who have suffered human rights violations.

Anticipate how the form will be used. It is important to understand in advance the purpose and objectives to be served by a reparations form. What information or documentation is needed from applicants, and why? How will that information be used and analyzed? What has already been learned from truth seeking and needs assessments? The amount of information required from applicants during the registration process may be less due to what is already known about victims, the violations, and harms suffered, or where detailed recommendations already exist about the scope and content of a future reparations program. If a reparations policy has not yet been finalized or planners are still assessing victims’ needs and require additional data, a different type or level of detail may be required from applicants. Sometimes a small pilot study may be conducted, followed by a full registration effort.

Taking poverty and marginalization into account in designing forms. The reparations form and the registration process should be designed so as to ensure that eligible victims can access reparations, particularly low-income and marginalized victims. To that end, it is necessary to anticipate the financial, literacy, logistical and emotional challenges that low-income, marginalized victims typically face. Additionally, designers should consider the insecurity, fear, and mistrust of authorities, concerns about potential stigma, lack of formal education, social and economic vulnerability, and other difficulties victims will need to overcome to show violations or lasting harms occurred, often years after the events.