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East Timor's lessons for our abuse Royal Commission

  • 29 November 2012

The support group for victims of sexual abuse, Broken Rites, has proposed that victims be given the opportunity to tell their stories as part of the proceedings to be undertaken by the upcoming Royal Commission. 

According to the Fairfax press on Monday, the group's spokesman, Dr Wayne Chamely, is advocating that a 'truth commissioner' be appointed specifically for the purpose of listening to victims. The commissioner 'would move around and meet people in their own communities' and carry out this function concurrently with the Commission's other terms of reference. 

At the heart of this proposal is a conviction that the Royal Commission must be as victim-friendly as possible if it is to get at the whole truth, contribute to the healing of victims, educate the public about this entrenched issue and its origins, and generate effective recommendations.

Broken Rites is clearly concerned that the Royal Commission may not be able to adequately accommodate victims because some may not feel comfortable testifying in such a setting or will not be heard because the Commission, due to its anticipated huge work load, will have to be selective.

Faced with similar challenges, East Timor's groundbreaking truth commission opted to take a system-wide victim-friendly approach to its work.

The Comissao de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliacao (CAVR) (or Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) functioned 2001–2005 and was set up to address the huge number of human rights violations committed 1974–1999, particularly during the Indonesian occupation, including widespread sexual violence.

Its core mandate focused on establishing the truth about these violations, facilitating community reconciliation, and reporting on its work, inquiry, findings and recommendations. 

Sensitivity to victims informed every aspect of the CAVR's design, structure, operation and reporting. Its enabling legislation required the commission 'to assist in restoring the dignity of victims' and it employed a number of strategies to achieve this.

Some were procedural, such as consulting victims about the commission's terms of reference and the selection of commissioners, bringing victims together to share their experiences with other victims, recording and preserving victim testimony, and administering an urgent reparations scheme for the most vulnerable victims.

Others were organisational, such as allocating a victim portfolio to one of CAVR's seven commissioners and establishing a victims unit charged with ensuring that the needs and rights of victims were addressed across the commission's activities. 

The centrepiece of this victim-friendly approach was listening to victims. For this to work, significant planning, resources and time were invested in preparing communities