Victim Assistance and Witness Protection

The impact of crime on the people affected by it can be profound. Victims may suffer from physical, mental, emotional and financial harm, from which some may never recover. Injuries may be threatened or inflicted upon victims, witnesses or their families, and threats may even be made against lives.

In addition to the strong human rights incentives for assisting and protecting people who have fallen victim to or witnessed serious crimes, there are criminal justice incentives for doing so. The cooperation of victims and witnesses is crucial to achieving successful prosecutions of criminal offenders and dismantling organized criminal groups. Yet one of the challenges faced by many criminal justice systems in the investigation and prosecution of crime, is obtaining such cooperation.

Victims and witnesses may be reluctant to give information and evidence because of perceived or actual intimidation or threats against themselves or members of their family. This concern may be exacerbated where people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are particularly vulnerable. For instance, by virtue of their age and developing levels of maturity, children require that special measures be taken to ensure that they are appropriately assisted and protected by criminal justice processes.

Victims who receive appropriate and adequate care and support are more likely to cooperate with the criminal justice system in bringing perpetrators of crime to justice. However, inadequacies of criminal justice systems may mean that victims are not able to access the services they need and may even be re-victimized by the criminal justice system itself.

UNODC response

States have a responsibility to respect the fundamental rights of victims, assist them in accordance with their special needs, and protect them from further harm.

All criminal justice systems have a duty to put in place procedures to provide measures for the protection of persons whose cooperation with the criminal justice system in an investigation or prosecution, puts them, or persons closely associated with them, at risk of serious physical or emotional harm.  Such measures may include:

  • Assistance before and during trial to cope with the psychological and practical obstacles of testifying;
  • Protective measures before, during and after hearing or trial for "at risk" witnesses.
  • Court procedures to ensure the witness' safety while testifying;
  • A covert witness protection programme.

The challenges posed to States in providing assistance and protection measures to victims and witnesses of crime are compounded when such organized crimes are also transnational. Adequate witness protection measures may be in place in one country, but fail to protect them against threats present in others for lack of cooperation mechanisms. This transnational challenge highlights the need for a higher degree of international cooperation.

In accordance with Articles 24 and 25 of Organized Crime Convention, State parties shall take appropriate measures within their means to provide effective protection as well as assistance to victims and witnesses of crime.  Such measures may include inter alia establishing procedures to safeguard the physical integrity of people who give testimony in criminal proceedings from threats against their life and intimidation. Witnesses must be protected from threats, intimidation, corruption, or bodily injury and States are obliged to strengthen international cooperation in this regard.

Victim and witness assistance and protection

UNODC promotes an integrated and holistic approach starting with early identification of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, through to management of witnesses by specially trained law enforcement officials. In exceptional circumstances, witness protection may involve permanent relocation and re-identification.

To support Member States in assisting and protecting victims and witnesses in accordance with the provisions of the Organized Crime and its Protocols, UNODC provides technical assistance in reviewing and strengthening legislative frameworks for victim support and witness protection. It also assists States to craft national policies with respect to victim assistance and witness protection, and to develop the capacity of existing institutions and agencies to provide victim assistance services, in accordance with the  Basic Principles of Justice for Victims and to provide protective measures, in accordance with International standards and the United Nations, Good Practices for the Protection of Witnesses. (link to the document). 

UNODC has also developed several tools to assist States to strengthen their witness protection capacities. Key among them is the manual on Good practices in the protection of witnesses in criminal proceedings involving organized crime and Model Witness Protection Legal Provisions.

Relevant tools to protecting and assisting victims of trafficking in persons.

More information on protecting and assisting children.

Witness protection programmes

Effective witness protection programmes are an essential component of a comprehensive criminal justice response to protect those who are key to dismantling organized crime groups. UNODC supports States to strengthen witness protection programmes and strategies by providing technical assistance including:

  • Legal and institutional assessments;
  • Legislative assistance;
  • Awareness raising programmes targeting criminal justice authorities (including judges, prosecutors, police and prison officials);
  • Training to judges, prosecutors, police and witness protection authorities;
  • Specialized support and advice to assist in the establishment of witness protection units, including advice on developing standard operating procedures, appropriate structures and staffing arrangements;
  • Strengthening international cooperation for the protection of witnesses.