VSE: Aleksandra, tell us about your experience in human rights field, especially in human rights of the most disadvantaged groups. How did you get your start?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: My very first legal job started two exams before I officially graduated from law school – I was given a trial job as a junior lawyer at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Chamber was a post-civil war institution which was adjudicating human rights violations of Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens in the first few years after the war, before the country was accepted as a full member of the Council of Europe. Those were very trying times, where refugees and internally displaced were trying to reclaim their property and return to their homes and the wounds of war were still very fresh. This kind of got me hooked on the rights of the most fragile and the most vulnerable.
The next important step was years later when I bought a lottery ticket. Looking for the winning numbers in the paper I ran into an ad for scholarships at human rights masters at the University of Oxford. Needless to say, I won the scholarship and never found out if my actual lottery ticket has ever won anything – I had won already. The rest is, as they say, history…
VSE: What are the most important multi-country projects you managed for now?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: Well, I have to say, this list is quite extensive, so I’m finding it hard to find my favourites. I’d say the project on advancing rights of children with disabilities, as one of the most vulnerable groups, was probably the most challenging one. It was an 8 country project I ran for Validity (previously Mental Disability Advocacy Centre). This was an intensive project – we were educating lawyers on the rights of children with disabilities and then showing how to claim those important rights at courts. Another project that would certainly be highly placed on the important projects list is also the project we ran last year in VSE for the European Parliament on the needs of victims of terrorism. This has been the first comprehensive piece of work we, at VSE, have run on the needs of victims of terrorism – a topic that is, sadly, gaining momentum in recent years. I’m currently also coordinating our project on practical evaluation of the Victims’ Rights Directive, VOCIARE, which is the biggest project VSE has ever won. The project involves 26 EU Member States and takes a unique approach to the implementation of EU Victims’ Rights Directive. Instead of just looking into how Member States transpose provisions of EU legislation into their own legal systems, the project is analysing how these legislative solutions then work in practice. Keep an eye on our work, as until the end of the year we’ll have our 26 country reports and the final EU-wide synthesis reports out!
VSE: What do you consider to be the main problem in current democracies in regards to victim rights and victim support?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: Unfortunately, too often governments see victim support as a project – something that they can fund for a couple of years and then say, OK, this is now done, let’s see what we can do next. What many policy makers fail to understand is that victim support needs to exist as an ongoing service, with sufficient funding and resources, and it must be be offered for as long as there is crime and crime’s victims in our societies. Another side of this is – it is often misconceived if such service should exist, that it must be organised and provided by the government, under-appreciating the important contribution NGO sector can and does bring into the field of victim support. Our research shows that services funded by the governments, but provided through NGOs are generally better adapted to respond to victims’ needs and are usually ensured at a lesser cost to the victims and the society as a whole.
VSE: What does VSE do to implement The Victim Rights Directive in member states?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: We rarely do anything ourselves in the states directly. We do, however, work with our members and our broader networks on a daily basis to make the Directive a reality for all European victims. We have recently launched our standards for accreditation for our members, we develop projects in which we involve our members and we work with the EU stakeholders to support governments in the implementation of the Directive. In the few countries in which we don’t have members, we develop partnerships and relationships to encourage development of victim support services.
We organise, every year, in cooperation with our members, our annual conferences, where we bring leading experts on victims’ rights into countries and get to the same room government officials, victim support professionals, and most importantly victims themselves – and for a few days we have everyone’s focus on victims’ rights, sowing the seed that we hope will grow once the conference ends and we come back to Brussels
But, what I believe is the most important aspect of our work is the fact that in, whatever we do, we never lose from sight victims themselves and whatever we do, we always do it with victims in mind.
VSE: How would you evaluate the role of VSE in regards to the promotion and fulfilment of victim rights?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: VSE is indeed first and foremost the voice of victims in Europe. In the past, almost 30 years ago (our 30th anniversary will be in 2020), under the outstanding leadership of a very dedicated board, we have become the first point of contact for the European Commission and the Parliament, the European and non-European governments, universities, companies, basically anyone who wants to do anything about victims’ rights. We’ve delivered important work for the UN, World Bank, we are developing relationships with the OSCE and the Council of Europe. But, with fame comes responsibility. It’s easy to get carried away, but we have our collective strategy that we are trying to achieve and we must not be led astray by low-hanging fruit or shiny opportunities without much substance. We need to make sure that our message is coherent, that we always represent the interests and positions of our members and that we have victims’ needs at heart.
VSE: At the moment, VSE is going through an ambitious growth-focused transformation. How will you contribute to this growth?
Aleksandra Ivankovic: I’ve already started taking 7 o’clock train, instead of the 8 o’clock one and am looking into postponing going home in the afternoon too. But, all jokes aside – what we do is immensely important. 10 percent of European population are falling victims of crimes every year. That means that, statistically speaking – each of us will be a victim of crime at least once in every 10 years. Victims are owed support, since the States are failing to protect them from crime. And that’s all of our concern. From petty thefts in public transport to sexual abuse and terrorism – we can all be victims. Our growth is only a reflection of a growing awareness of policy makers that victim support is not just an expenditure, it is an investment to a better and faster recovery for both the victims’ and the entire societies’ sakes. We are currently in the process of completing a preliminary cost-benefit analysis for the introduction of victim support services in Serbia. This is a pioneering work for which we are hoping will give us a scientific foundation to justify victim support also from a financial point of view. What we are trying to prove is that victim support is not just important from the ethical point of view and it’s not just a legal requirement from the international human rights law, Victims’ Rights Directive and many States’ constitutions and legislation, but that it’s also financially sound from a budgetary perspective.
How I fit into all this? With my legal and human rights background, I’m hoping to bring some aspects of strategic litigation into VSE. This year we are already working on some elements, but hopefully we’ll do a bit more soon. With my background in work with vulnerable groups – I’m going to make sure that our work will increasingly become accessible for persons with disabilities and in general that our work reflects a commitment to mainstreaming interests and needs of the most vulnerable into everything we do. We’ve been growing in a steady pace and while growth is important and generally a good development, it needs to be carefully managed not to create a bubble that might burst unexpectedly. This job will not be easy, but with the great commitment we have from our members and our Board, I’m sure that we’ll be only getting better as we get bigger
So, do stay tuned and watch out for our amazing work coming in the next months and years. You will not be disappointed.