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Levent Altan on Upholding Victims’ Rights and Lifting their Voices

Understanding the implications and victims’ needs remains pertinent, if not the foundation, to establish a successful, fair, and reparative justice

Levent Altan has been the Executive Director of Victim Support Europe (VSE) since 2014 and is responsible for providing overall leadership, strategic direction, and management of the organisation. He started his career at the UK Ministry of Justice in 2001 before moving to the Home Office and the Cabinet Office under Prime Ministers Blair and Brown. Having previously worked in the European Commission for three years, Levent returned in 2009 to work as a national expert writing an EU Directive on victims' rights. Levent also developed the European Union's policy on victims' rights, leading the development and negotiation of the EU Directive, which establishes minimum rights for victims of crime in 26 countries. Furthermore, he has worked and spoken extensively on victims' rights across Europe and globally, providing expertise to national governments and the UN, Council of Europe, and the European Union. He helped found VSE's sister organisation, Victim Support Asia, and most recently also became Director of the EU's Centre of Expertise for Victims of Terrorism.

Interview conducted by C. Grace Poley (2022)


The interview was conducted in the spring of 2022 and has been edited for clarity

What are Victims' Rights, and what EU Human Rights Instruments exist?

Crime is a part of daily life and society, when you see a car get stolen or when someone is violent towards another person. That is a crime, and crime generates victims. According to the European Union (EU), annually, “an estimated 15% of Europeans or 75 million people in the European Union fall victim to crime” (EU 2022). However, one must question how one might receive reparations for a crime committed or live with the trauma of what has occurred. The answer is through protections afforded to them in the law, otherwise known as victims' rights. The concept of victims’ rights injustice is not novel in the EU. Victims’ rights are the rights afforded to victims of a crime. European provisions stem from the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, declared in 2000 and came into force in December 2009 (EU Commission 2022).

Yet, historically, criminal justice has focused on a perpetrator-oriented approach toward recidivism and justice. Yet, crimes leave a trail of suffering, and individuals who suffer because of the crime committed unless considered victimless. This is inherently true considering victims of terrorism (VoT). Yet, counter-terrorism strategies often fail to place VoTs at the centre of their approaches and responses to terrorism by prioritizing collective, national security, law enforcement, counter-radicalization efforts, and forgoing civil liberties (Ivanković et al 2017, 22).

Nonetheless, understanding the implications and victims’ needs remains pertinent, if not the foundation, to establish a successful, fair, and reparative justice. However, a moral obligation exists for states to provide access for victims to achieve justice and other needs that victims require. In this light, victims of crimes possess needs that must be met, protected, and supported by the EU, which is conscious of the need for an individualized approach to victims' needs. The EU has grouped the needs of victims of crime into five general classifications. Their needs constitute the following: respect and dignity, protection from secondary victimization, further victimization, supporting information, justice, and compensation restoration (EU Comm. 2022; DeNoix 2016).

Nevertheless, individuals are often reluctant to report crimes due to a lack of confidence in the state's prosecution, law enforcement, or the justice system. According to the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency's 2021 Survey, the physical violence reporting rate to law enforcement ranges from “40 % to 9 %, depending on the country” (FRA 2021, 9), which may undermine or limit their access and claim to their rights as a victim. In addition, stigma, reporting issues, and complex challenges result in a gap in crime data collection and victim identification, limiting the capacities of governmental efforts to comprehend the victims’ needs.

A Victim-Centric and Human Rights approach: the EU Victims’ Rights Directive

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, global social tensions reached a culmination due to the hysteria and the shattering of the West's perceived protected bubble. Terrorism is chaotic and sporadic, affecting "individuals, communities, and societies," and its modus operandi “is based on unpredictability and installing fear through (seemingly) random acts of violence” (INVICTM 2018, 17; Ivanković et al 2017, 20). Additionally, terrorism before the beginning of the 21st century seemed to be avoidable. In its 2017 report on bettering its Member States' capacities to aid VoT, the EU notes that "until 9/11 there was at least an illusion of avoidability from terrorism, by avoiding susceptible locations, like Northern Ireland or South Africa”, bring terrorism to the forefront of the public’s minds (Ivanković et al 2017, 20).

Despite possessing a 2004 Compensation Directive framework to provide “access to national compensation schemes to victims of violent, intentional crime,” the EU sought to reinforce victims’ rights within legal instruments at the EU level in 2012. The EU passed further provisions for victims entitled the Directive Establishing Minimum Standards on the Rights, Support, and Protection of Victims of Crime (Victims' Rights Directive) to bolster existing national measures by creating an EU minimum standard of application for Member States (EU 2012). In addition, the Victims’ Rights Directive defines a victim as the following: “a natural person who has suffered harm, including physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offense” (EU 2012 Art. 2 (i)). An innovative principle in the EU Directive is that family members of “a person whose death was directly caused by a criminal offense and who have suffered harm because of that person's death” are considered victims (Ivanković et al 2017, 23). This may not be fully considered or afforded to victims ' family members in specific legal frameworks such as the United Nations and other national structures.

The Victim Rights Directive’s purpose aims to “deal with victims’ needs in a tailored and non-discriminatory manner through a targeted approach” (FGM 2015, 4; (Ivanković et al 2017, 22). Additionally, this directive seeks to “ensure information, support, and protection for crime victims and safeguard their procedural rights" (Ibid). According to the directive, the binding legislation sets out three specialized categories in which victims receive special provisions “more directly to the specific needs of some victims” (EU Comm. 2022, 15). Those distinct categories are victims of human trafficking, child victims of sexual exploitation and child pornography, and victims of terrorism. In this framework, the EU specifies that national governments must provide access to the following rights for victims: “understand and to be understood during contact with an authority; receive information from the first contact with an authority; make a formal complaint and receive written acknowledgment; interpretation and translation; receive information about the case’s progress, and access victim support services” (EU Commission 2022). This third directive enabled the EU to develop “a strong legal framework” to protect victims in Europe (EU Commission Statement 2022). In 2017, the EU reinforced existing frameworks by adopting the Directive on Combatting Terrorism, which specific provisions for victims of terrorism. Furthermore, the 2017 Directive aims specifically “to provide for access to professional, specialist support services, immediately after an attack and for as long as necessary and have in place protocols and mechanisms to provide an efficient emergency response” (EU Commission 2017).

VSE’s Advocative and Supportive Role in Victims’ Rights: The Quest for ‘Safe Justice’

Theoretically, issuing such mandates should guarantee victims’ rights and meet their needs; nonetheless, like most things, in practicality, application and implementation bring new challenges and issues. However, one right of victims that is imperative to highlight is access to support services. One notable group has accomplished admirable work for European victims in this arena: Victims Support Europe (VSE), the leading European umbrella advocate organization for all victims of crime (VSE 2022). The organization's mission emphasizes that it advocates for all victims “no matter what the crime, no matter who the victim," and its mission is to improve EU and international victim rights legislative frameworks (Ibid). The support group, comprised of 70 national member organizations, seeks to provide “support and information services to more than 2 million people affected by crime every year in 31 countries” (Ibid). At the center of their critical efforts are victims and victim support that they accomplish through “using research, knowledge development, and capacity building at the national and local level” (ibid). Importantly, VSE underscores victims’ access to safe justice through a victim-centric approach; however, often, victims "feel let down by criminal justice systems that do not deliver the justice they expected” (Altan 2022; VSE 2022). Remarkably, this is not only the case for European countries but globally. Indeed, these critiques of the Victims’ Rights Directive and European legal frameworks raise a significant concern: victims are not able to successfully access their rights (Wahl 2020; Altan 2022). This is a critical issue because these individuals have suffered trauma; that complied with the fact that they fail to receive proper protection and application of their afforded provisions at both the European and national levels, suggesting further advancements should be achieved for victims (VSE 2013).

A primary advocate for victims’ rights and safe justice is Levent Altan, VSE’s Executive Director since 2014, who has shared some insights into the field of Victims' Rights. He also has been working in justice and victims’ rights since 2001, starting this time at the UK's Ministry of Justice and later with the EU Commission. According to Levent, during a student-conducted interview, one of the most critical issues and elements of working with victims and justice is ensuring 'Safe justice' (VSE 2022). It is a question of how "we measure success in our justice systems appropriately" (Altan 2022). At present, "it is failing victims, and as a result of failing victims, it's failing society" (Ibid). Safe justice is one of the priority advocacy efforts pushed forward by VSE, according to Levent (VSE 2021; VSE 2022). Furthermore, he highlights current standards by which society measures justice's effectiveness limit victims' access to safe justice. This concept builds upon the idea that justice’s success should not only be quantified by “whether people are found innocent or guilty,” but in addition by “how well do we protect and safeguard the victim and do we prevent them from suffering further harm within the system” (Altan 2022).

Nevertheless, additional considerations are necessary to analyze the exact needs of victims on a large scale and an individual level. Specifically, Levent Altan notes that “from a legal, policy, and implementation perspective, [one must] work out what are the foundational issues which are relevant to all victims, and then what [is needed] to do differently for other specific groups of victims” (Altan, 2022). For this reason, access to safe justice boosts the notion of meeting the needs of victims in their current situation, which can be equally said for VoTs, if not further called for because of their specific needs (VSE 2021; VSE 2022).

Why is there a need for special directives for Victims of Terrorism?

To respond effectively and successfully to different victims, one must understand the reality of victimhood, diverse manifestations of victimization, and their role in the justice system. Inherently, victimhood, for VoTS, is practically various from that of other victims of crime due to terrorism's nature. In his interview, Levent points out that the "environment in that situation makes it particularly complex to address the needs of victims” (Altan 2022). He articulates that “there is a different set of actions you need to take for victims of terrorism, and they have different needs” (Ibid). Levent continues that it is imperative to understand that “there is a starting point, the fundamental recognition that victims of terrorism are targeted as a way of getting at the state.”

Furthermore, the VoTs' needs may differ or transform throughout time, requiring support providers to be adaptable and victim rights actors to adopt a victim-centric approach and ‘a flexible approach’ towards not only each victim but each attack (UNODC 2015, 59). This reality justifies the EU's approach to establishing specific directives and legislation to suit the individualized VoT needs better. International instruments have attempted to define victimhood; however, no sole victim of terrorism definition exists in international laws, stemming from terrorism’s unpredictability. Yet, international organizations such as the UN through its reports and counterterrorism strategies have attempted to develop holistic definitions of victims of terrorism by implementing four distinct categories: direct victims, secondary victims, indirect victims, and potential victims (UN 2022). This approach is akin to the Circles of Impact model, demonstrating the immense impact a terrorist attack may have on society and victims. As underlined in the INVICTIM 2018 conference report, the Circles of Impact Model recognises that the harm cause by terrorism ripples outwards from the direct victims to many other groups including family members, friends, first responders or support providers, and broader society (INVICTIM 2018, 8). The smallest and first circle consists of individuals attacked or those directly affected by it (Ibid). 'Direct victims of the victim's social environment' (i.e., their family, friends, or peers) compose the next ring (ibid). The third circle encapsulates the victim or victims’ formal support network, such as first responders or victim support providers. In contrast, the last group encompasses the victims' society on a larger scale (Ibid). The vastness of potential victims of terrorism derives from terrorism's ability to disrupt society at a fundamental core and its aftermath, where the shock pervades into the broader community. Such societal disruption and shock have been felt and observed by European communities with the 2015 Paris attacks, 2016 Brussels attacks, and countless others.

To best counter terrorism and violent extremism, caring for the victims of terrorism is “a very powerful weapon in the fight against it" (Ivanković et al 2017, 22). To achieve this demands a comprehensive approach that “requires the acknowledgment of the diverse ways in which an individual or community can be harmed – from physical, psychological, social, financial, vocational, practical etcetera” (Ibid, 23). Nonetheless, caring for and supporting the victims of terrorism calls for adaptation. Flexibility is integral to adapting to individualized victims’ needs through legislation since VoTs possess “specific needs that require specialized support” (Ibid). Mr. Altan further articulates the comprehensiveness of the Victims’ Rights Directive as a law that has been “organized and driven by the needs of victims.” (Altan 2022). In addition, the innovative element of the Victims’ Rights Directive, its breath of rights coverage: “it is there for all victims of crime, irrespective of what the crime is, who the victim is, and where the victim is from," affording them equal protection regardless of nationality or residency (Ibid). Often in terrorist attacks, a victim may not wholly understand what has occurred to them due to how the brain reacts and processes information (RAN 2016; RAN 2018, 4; Altan 2022). The importance and purpose of a broad VoT definition encompass the entirety of victims and victimhood, which was introduced into EU law through the Victims’ Rights Directive (Ibid). Specifically, a victim should have access to support regardless of definitions and status. For example, Mr. Altan remembers a victim’s story, in which the woman was looking for a victim support organization in Germany, “was passed on to six or seven different organizations because her situation was never quite right for those organisations” until she encountered Weisser Ring in Germany which is a generic victim support organisation serving all victims of crime (Altan 2022). Ultimately, her case highlights the undeniable need to successfully access victim support services, regardless of their legal status as victims, and receive the care they so desperately need. However, implementation challenges may arise.

Challenges faced by victims and issues in Victim Rights Implementation

Copious practical challenges exist in Victims’ Rights, such as the legal implementation of prescribed legislative frameworks, access to rights, hearing the victim’s needs, and culture changes. In the case of the EU, the Victims’ Rights Directive applies a comprehensive approach to victims’ rights and definitions of victimhood; however, legal barriers and practical issues linger, particularly regarding its implementation within diverse legal frameworks of common law, civil party, and hybrid systems (Altan 2022). This is undoubtedly problematic for victim participation in proceedings and empowering victims’ voices in the justice system and protecting them “measures to protect them from further victimization in proceedings” (ibid). In addition, engagement of justice and law enforcement practitioners with victims continues to raise problems due to a lack of training and insensitivity to victims’ needs. This may result in limited access to their rights due to a lack of understanding of their rights and situation, due to external barriers, a lack of knowledge of the judicial system, law enforcement, and private sectors (Altan 2022; EU 2017; INVICTM 2018).

How can the future bring improvements for victims?

While the EU is leading the charge regarding victim-centric strategies and support of victims' rights within national member states' law, it is essential to emphasize that more can be accomplished for victims. Acquiescence should not be the norm for legal frameworks. We must re-center justice systems around victims and hear their voices, primarily by ensuring their access to safe justice in the courtrooms and after. A better adaptation of the VR Directive should be executed at a national level to ensure that national legislative frameworks conform to the directive and streamline the directive's elements, such as establishing national victim support programs for generic and specialized needs (Wahl 2020). Levant indicates a range of priorities to facilitate victim of terrorism engagement including: “ensuring that all victims have easy access to support services in particular through a single point of contact who can assess the specific needs of each victim, access to understandable, digestible information about their rights and services, and in the incorporation of victims issues into counter terrorism planning and preparation – so that proper measures are in place before an attack and can respond effectively for victims in the immediate aftermath of terrorism as well as in the long term.” (Altan 2022). Additional improvements from a victim’s perspective may include facilitating their right to information, de-traumatizing reporting mechanisms, incorporating victims into the center of remembrance and memorials, and access to peer support and professional support services (Ibid; EPRS 2017). This can be achieved through CSO networks, victims’ associations, peer networks, and network mapping under a victim-centric approach. For example, programs and networks are in place internationally such as the Radicalization Awareness Network Remembrance of Victims of Terrorism (RVT), Working Group, and the Commission commemorates VoTs annually at European Remembrance Day for Victims of Terrorism on 11 March (EU Comm. 2022). Further efforts may be improved through facilitating access to services, reducing barriers to reporting to minimize the crime underreporting data gap, and facilitating reporting mechanisms (FRA 2021, 6; Altan 2022).

Despite current challenges, the EU continues its progress in victims' needs programming, services, and networks, particularly for victims of terrorism. In January 2020, the EU founded the EU Centre of Expertise for Victims of Terrorism. The Centre provides expertise on VoTs, "guidance, and support to national authorities and victim support organizations on victims of terrorism” (EU Comm. 2022) and brings experts from multiple sectors together to exchange knowledge and innovate in the field. One of the Centre’s objectives is to determine the ability and need to establish a Coordination Centre for Victims of Terrorism (EU Comm. 2022; UNODC 2022). In 2020, the Commission adopted a progressive human rights-based EU Strategy on victims' rights (2020- 2025), developed an EU Victims' Rights Platform, and selected the first EC Coordinator for victims' rights, Katarzyna Janicka-Pawlowska (EU Com. Statement 2022, 1). Recently, a public-opinion consultation initiative on Victims' Rights Directive amendments was launched, enabling victims’ voices to be heard (EU Comm. Statement 2022, 1). The most powerful tool in our counterterrorism and human rights toolkit is to empower victims to undermine terrorism’s destructive nature.


About the interviewer: Christina Grace Poley is a recent Master’s graduate in International Security from Sciences Po Paris who concentrated in Human Rights and Intelligence. She is passionate about helping others and victim support. She is also an active advocate for victims’ rights.

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