Key Insights from KMF Research Launch: Integration of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Approaches in Accountability Mechanisms for Atrocity Crimes


“If we want to really be as humane and as professional as possible, we need a very good sustained psychological accompaniment”

  • Nathalie Olijslager (Director of Stabilisation and Humanitarian Aid, Special Envoy Mental Health and Psychosocial Support, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs), on the importance of MHPSS approaches in accountability mechanisms. 

On May 16th, KPSRL co-hosted a research launch event with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The research project is titled “Integration of mental health and psychosocial support approaches in accountability mechanisms for atrocity crimes” and was supported by KPSRL’s Knowledge Management Fund. The event was moderated by Marlies Stappers, Founder and Executive Director of Impunity Watch.

The lead researcher of the project, An Michels, presented an overview of the reports findings to a diverse group of policymakers, practitioners, students, and academics attending both in-person in The Hague and online via Zoom. She highlighted the reasons why this study is timely and essential: While accountability mechanisms for atrocity crimes rely heavily on witnesses and victims, they are often ill-equipped to allow for their meaningful participation. With a focus on the need to prove beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused, victims and witnesses primarily serve the process.  However, the integration of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) approaches can mitigate the risk that victims and witnesses are harmed by their involvement, can enhance their well-being and contribute to their healing, can improve the quality of evidence-gathering and can address the risk for vicarious trauma and other mental health risks for professionals. The study presents a  set of good practices, built on extensive research, to build in a psychosocial lens from the outset and through the different stages of the proceedings. By doing so accountability processes have the potential to bring more meaningful and tangible results to victims’ lives.

An Michels’ study is a critical contribution and an important step in the process of raising more awareness about the importance of a psychosocial lens, and offers very valuable guidance to integrate structurally integrate MHPSS approaches in national and international accountability processes.

 To hear An introduce her study, please watch the recording of the event. Her accompanying PowerPoint slides are available here. The full online version of the report is available here.

The launch also featured an engaging panel discussion with advocates dedicated to the supporting the mental health of victims and witnesses:

  • Megan Hirst, Barrister and international criminal law expert (victims’ representation and the post-conflict protection of human rights)
  • Anna Sosonska, Head of the Division for Investigation and Prosecution of Crimes of Sexual Violence, Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine
  • Ahmad Helmi, Co-founder of the survivor-led organization Ta’afi, Founding Member of INOVAS


Key Insights from the Discussion 

Megan Hirst: Agency Throughout the Legal Process

As a barrister, Megan interacts with many victims of atrocity crimes. Unfortunately, she cannot guarantee that the outcome of any case will go the way that victims want it to. That is why the legal process in itself is so central. We need to think about how, especially with such long and complicated cases, the act and process of seeking legal justice can provide agency and empowerment to victims, in addition to the ultimate outcome of the case.

Megan outlined three areas where she thinks we can do better regarding legal representation for victims of atrocity crimes:

  1. Increased institutionalisation of mental health expertise
  2. Guidance documents designed for the specialised work that atrocity prosecutors and victim attorneys do
  3. A change in the culture of our institutions to reflect how MHPSS approaches not only improve the experience of the participants of the proceedings, but strengthen the justice process overall.

To hear more from Megan about her vision of an integration of MHPSS approaches by legal representatives, watch the session recording.

Anna Sosonska: MHPSS Implementation by the Ukraine Prosecutor General's Office

Anna shared with us the story of how the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office implemented MHPSS approaches in their work following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Her team discovered many instances of conflict-related sexual violence committed by Russian representatives against the civilian population and prisoners of war. In documenting such war crimes, the office faced the difficulty of pursing justice and spreading awareness about the atrocities that Russian representatives were committing, while still not further traumatising victims and their families.

Thus, in January 2023, the Prosecutor General requested aid from the Registry of the International Criminal Court in conducting specialised trainings on the protection of victims. Since the trainings were facilitated, the Prosecutor General’s office has developed a strategic plan for the criminal prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence. The strategic plan was implemented in June of 2023 and focuses on protecting the interests of victims, witnesses, and their family members through adaptation to victim personalities in justice mechanisms, prioritizing the safety of victims, ensuring inclusiveness and non-discrimination, ensuring the possibility for victims to maintain control over their information, and prohibiting the transmission of any information about victims that could lead to actions to humiliate, condemn, ridicule, or disrespect them.

For more information on what the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine is doing to integrate MHPSS approaches in their work, view the webinar recording


Ahmad Helmi: MHPSS to Forgive and Forget vs. to Empower

On December 12th, 2012, Ahmad was arrested by the Syrian government for his nonviolent activism. His three years in nine different Syrian detention facilities were ended only because his family was able to pay a $30.000 bribe. After escaping, Ahmad founded Ta’afi, a survivor-led organisation which supports victims of torture and forced disappearance and fights for accountability and justice.

Ahmad told us how his work with other survivors has implemented MHPSS approaches. For two years of their work, his organisation made MHPSS available for victims, offering it as a way to overcome their experiences and to forgive, forget, and let go. Across those two years, none of the 150 survivors that they worked with agreed to take such mental or psychosocial support. However, once Ahmad and Ta’afi started offering MHPSS to survivors as a means to empower them in their fight for justice, all 150 survivors signed up for MHPSS help.

Ahmad agrees that we need to change the way in which we see victims – not as broken, but as powerful actors who we can help to empower and give agency. He also reminded the audience that victims apply a broader definition of justice and adopting an MHPSS lens, if done well, means that these broader justice needs are taken forward, which is what really contributes to healing and empowerment.  For more on Ahmad’s story and his experiences with MHPSS, view the recording of the event.

MHPSS in Peacebuilding: Reports, Guidelines, and Recommendations  

  • Inter-Agency Standing Committee, highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the United Nations system

  • United Nations Development Programme, 2022

  • Interpeace, International Organization for Peacebuilding

  • “Transitional Justice, Mental Health and Psychosocial Support.” To be found through this page.

  • By Professor Banndon Hamber, Key expert paper to inform the 2023 UN Guidelines on Transitional Justice.

  • ARQ: Nationaal Psychotrauma Centrum

  • Impunity Watch

For more resource materials, please see the annex of the study.  

Join our network

Login or register for free to get all access to our network publications. Members can also connect and discuss with other members. Participate in our network.