Listening to Victims | Big Bold Cities

Listening to Victims

Structuring participation for the most vulnerable

three colored squaresListening to Victims


Colombia’s national Victims and Land Restitution Law created a special participation mechanism in order to facilitate victims’ engagement with local authorities and ensure that their voices would be heard as the Law is implemented. Victims’ Participation Roundtables exist at every level of government, receive taxpayer support, and are democratically governed. Their composition ensures that vulnerable groups⸺including women, youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, Roma, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people⸺have representation. Finally, governments have a mandate to integrate the Roundtables into planning and services to ensure that consultation is happening.

Democratic Challenge

Consultations with traumatized populations are difficult for bureaucracies to do well. At worst, individuals may feel used or re-victimized by a forum in which they are asked to share, without compensation, a personal trauma so that officials can tick a procedural box. Even well-intentioned policymakers, who genuinely want to listen to program beneficiaries, can organize discussions that are baffling or alienating to people⸺thick with slow, arcane procedures and jargon like ‘program beneficiaries.’

How’d They Do It?

In 2011, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) which codified sweeping rights, protections and reparations for people and communities harmed or displaced by the conflict. Victimhood is defined broadly⸺in Bogota alone, nearly 350,000 people could qualify for the law’s rights and protections.

Law 1448 created Victims’ Participation Roundtables (Mesas de Participación de Víctimas) at the municipal, district, provincial and national level, to guarantee that victims’ representatives have a mechanism to participate in the design, implementation, execution and evaluation of policies emanating from the law. The Roundtables are designed to be anchored in the grassroots⸺the national roundtable must draw its members from the provincial roundtables, and members of each provincial roundtable must also sit at their city’s roundtable. Roundtables are also structured democratically⸺victims’ organizations nominate members who stand for election, and Roundtable members elect representatives to serve on various national boards and committees that oversee the Victims’ Law. (NDI has provided technical assistance to five Roundtables at the provincial level.)

Municipal and district roundtables, by regulation, must reserve seats for vulnerable groups such as women, youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, Roma, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Seats are also reserved for victims of particular offenses ⸺murder or kidnapping, physical injury, sexual violence, and forced displacement⸺and at least half of the seats in each of those categories must be filled by women. Bogota has a total of 23 Victims’ Participation Roundtables: 19 neighborhood roundtables, one city-wide roundtable with 28 people: 17 women and 11 men, and additional roundtables for women, ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples.

Local governments have specific mandates under the Victims’ Law, including:

  • Administrative support for Roundtables. Public advocates at each level (e.g. the municipal ombudsman) are designated to serve as a technical secretariat to the appropriate Victims’ Roundtable; this includes registering victims and victims’ organizations. Subsequent regulation required local governments to cover the Roundtables’ meeting space, food and travel for at least four sessions each year.
  • Consultation with victims. Mayors are required to have a ‘participation protocol’ to guarantee that Roundtables are consulted on policy. Decision-makers must give advance notice of prospective decisions, allow comments, and respond with justification when victims’ recommendations are rejected.
  • Planning and coordination. By decree, jurisdictions must incorporate victims’ reparation programs into development plans and budgeting processes, and they must maintain an annual Territorial Action Plan specific to victims’ reparation. The Territorial Action Plans are designed to be coordinated across jurisdictions⸺municipalities and districts submit their detailed needs assessments and commitments first, then departments define their commitments on top of that, and then the national government announces its resource allocations accordingly.

Bogota has also created an Observatory to foster policy innovation through collaborations with scholars and other partners.

How’s It Going?

  • For the development of Bogota’s 2018 District Action Plan, more than 40 sessions were held with victims’ roundtables to share information about the process and the plan’s content, and to solicit input. Representatives from each of the roundtables then gathered with city officials to consolidate comments from victims. There were more than 440 comments or requests, which were forwarded to relevant entities for a response. A Monitoring Commission will collect these comments to facilitate accountability for the government’s answers and commitments.
  • Bogota’s 2018 District Action Plan noted that in the subcommittee processes which feed into the District Committee on Transitional Justice, victims’ representatives have progressed from listening to active participation and leadership.
  • In the first act of collective reparations, the Bogota and Colombia governments acquired and donated an estate to the Association of Afro Women for Peace, an organization of more than 1,000 women victims of violence. The property was chosen by Association members as a space to develop their social enterprises, psychosocial support services, and wellness programs.
  • The Bogota Mayor’s Office partnered with the Organization of American States on a ‘Laboratories of Peace’ project to connect rural and urban peace-builders. Stories of victims and ideas for reconciliation were captured in a multimedia ‘Capacity-Building Portfolio for Integration and Community Ideation.’
  • Bogota’s first LGBTI Congress for Peace, in November 2018, attracted more than 40 leaders to develop an action plan for how institutions and communities can work together to advance peace and participation. The Congress was led by the Mayor’s Office, through its victims’ reparations council, in partnership with city agencies and civil society.

Who Else Is Trying This

Various, United Kingdom

The Westminster Domestic Violence Forum, in London, partnered with a domestic-violence survivors’ group (Phoenix Group) to ensure that survivors could have meaningful input and impact as violence prevention was mainstreamed across government policies. The Forum made the partnership an integral part of its work from the beginning, and dedicated resources to regular, structured discussions with survivors, supported by a skilled and trusted facilitator. Read more

Toronto, Canada

Toronto’s civic innovation office wanted to learn about and overcome social and practical barriers that prevent residents from participating in policymaking. So a project team, which included resident activists, visited key neighborhoods and conducted participatory research. They conducted semi-structured interviews, held workshops for specific marginalized groups, and attended social events to learn more about when and where residents do participate in community life, and why. Insights from the process were incorporated into a service blueprint to guide future grant-making. Read more