8 September 2008


8 September 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Tomorrow’s symposium on supporting victims of terrorism –- the first of its kind at the United Nations –- was not a political event, but an attempt to “fill a real gap in the world’s consciousness” on how States, international organizations and civil society can better address victims’ needs, a key adviser to the world body’s Secretary-General stressed today.

“While the United Nations has convened meetings for victims of various kinds of atrocities in the past, we have never brought together a global meeting addressing the issue of victims of terrorism,” Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General and Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, said at a Headquarters press conference.

He went on to say that the one-day Symposium on “Supporting Victims of Terrorism” would be “historic and unprecedented”, offering an important occasion to put a human face on the tragedy suffered by survivors and victims’ families.  “It is solely designed to focus on concrete ways to better support victims around the world.”  The world would be surprised by the stories that would be told because the cameras went off once the “twisted metal and charred remains” were cleared from the scenes of various terrorist attacks around the world.  Victims of terrorism “just don’t have a voice [and] we must see that they have a platform”, he added.

Terrorism not only dehumanized victims, but the societies in which they lived, he explained.  “We often hear the voices of terrorists, but too seldom do we hear the voices and stories of victims.”  Indeed, victims and survivors were crucial in the fight against terrorism to provide a better understanding of long-term needs and to “humanize” the events, thus helping prevent future terrorist acts by convincing people to pursue their grievances in other ways.

He stressed that the media had a key role to play in that regard, noting that the entire event tomorrow would be open to the press and urging reporters to “make full use of this unprecedented opportunity”.  Further, the Secretary-General would hold a midday press conference featuring 4 of the 18 victims scheduled to participate in the Symposium.  They would include Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and rescued by Colombian forces some 10 weeks ago with 14 other hostages.  Upon request, some of the victims and 10 experts attending the event would take individual interviews.

Among other objectives, Mr. Orr said, the Secretary-General hoped the Symposium would present an opportunity to start changing the “often strained” dynamics between Member States and victims, who too often felt their needs went ignored or unrecognized by their Governments.  At the same time, Governments often felt the sting of doing too little and reacted defensively.  “This dynamic must change if we are to help victims and fight terrorism.”  Indeed, many Governments had stepped up their efforts to care for victims and it was to be hoped that tomorrow’s Symposium would open dialogue on developing best practices for victim support.

He said victims, experts, civil society, journalists, international organizations and Governments attending the Symposium could participate in an open exchange towards overcoming barriers and strengthening mutual trust.  On the basis of such a dialogue, the Secretariat hoped the Symposium would also provide a starting point for “building a grand coalition against terrorism”.

He continued:  “The adoption in 2006 -- and reaffirmation last week -- of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy signals Governments’ support to renew unreservedly their efforts to implement its provisions, including those on victims of terrorism.”  But Governments would not be able to do that on their own; it would take strong partnerships involving Governments, civil society “and, most importantly, the voices of victims of terrorism to move us ahead”.

On the specifics of tomorrow’s event, he said the Secretary-General had invited a “microcosm of victims from around the world” to participate, including five (victims of attacks) from the Middle East, five from Europe, two from Eurasia, three from Africa, two from the Americas and one from Asia.  “These are amazing people who have not only suffered much, but who have given even more [by] advocating for other victims, built networks and institutions to help victims and bravely offered themselves up to the glare of public scrutiny in order to help others.”

He said the invited experts also represented all regions, cultures, religions and professional specializations, reflecting worldwide expertise.  Three were from Asia, three from Africa, two from Europe, one from the Middle East and one from the Americas.  Their areas of specialization ranged from organizing victims’ assistance networks to analysing victims’ experiences, and some had themselves been victims.  Others had been invited because they had helped victims recover from other types of conflict or violence.  Indeed, one of the Symposium’s purposes was to better learn and apply the experiences of helping victims in other contexts to the question of victims of terrorism, “one of the most neglected types of victims in the world today”.

Mr. Orr then took a raft of questions, most of which focused on the vetting of the participants, the overall composition of the list, the General Assembly’s long-acknowledged stalemate over an agreed definition of terrorism, and journalists’ perception that certain Member States were either being overlooked or unfairly targeted.

He stressed that there was, in fact, a solid legal basis on which the Organization and the wider international community could proceed:  16 international legal instruments –- 13 conventions and three protocols –- that identified “acts of terrorism”, including terrorist bombing, kidnapping, hijacking and financing of terrorism.

On the issue of State terrorism, he acknowledged that it was not mentioned in any of the conventions, but emphasized to several reporters that the Observer Mission of Palestine had been invited to participate in the Symposium, simultaneously with all other Member States and observers.  Indeed, one expert attending the event was Palestinian.  “The victims that the Secretary-General has invited have suffered from an act of terrorism, as defined by those legal instruments.”

Responding to a question about the selection of participants, he said the Task Force’s working group on victims had been charged with submitting suggestions of any victims and experts; civil society groups around the world had been consulted for input; and, in the case of each victim, the Member State of their nationality had been consulted.  The Secretariat had not tried to vet every victim or expert with the wider membership:  “I think you can appreciate that that would not have worked.”  The criteria for and process of selection had been based on the broadest elements of consensus among Member States –- agreed international legal instruments –- in to “keep politics as far out of this as possible”.

Asked whether the Secretariat was worried about the Symposium turning into a politicized event, he said that, while it was not worried, some critical issues were best addressed “up front”.  Everyone was aware that one of the reasons for an international event in support of victims of terrorism was the gridlock over questions of definition.  At the same time, Member States had taken a pragmatic step two years ago to address “obvious and real needs” by adopting the Counter-Terrorism Strategy rather than putting their decision on hold while such definition issues were hashed out.  “Adoption of the Strategy opened the door for the holding of such an event for the fist time.”

“We know that there are sensitive issues.  We’re not naïve,” he continued, underscoring that everything possible had been done to ensure that the Symposium stayed focused on the victims and what they needed.  Victims, experts and international organizations participating had been asked to respect those ground rules.  Mr. Orr added that there were other venues in the United Nations where political issues could be raised.

To suggestions that victims of terrorist attacks in such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia were not participating in the Symposium, Mr. Orr emphasized the “very difficult situations” in those countries.  While the Task Force had tried hard, particularly to secure participation by Afghan victims, identifying and contacting people in those environments who were willing and able to come to New York and take part in such an open forum had been extremely challenging.  “I would like to have had someone from Afghanistan; the burden of victimhood is such that it would have been important […] we tried and unfortunately we ended up without anyone.”

In fact, until a few days ago, it had looked as if the list of participants might have been longer, but logistical challenges and other sensitivities had caused some to drop out, he continued.  “Coming to an international forum to talk about their own grief was maybe more than they wanted at this time.”  That was probably most true for victims of recent terrorist violence.

The Task Force had also worked to find participants from Iraq and Iran, he said, stressing that, overall, while “the list was not perfect”, weighed against regional, religious or cultural criteria, it was a fair representation of worldwide statistics on terrorism, including where it happened and to whom.

In conclusion, Mr. Orr stressed that the United Nations was examining how it could better address the needs of its own terrorism-affected staff.  “This is personal for the Secretary-General and all of us who work at the UN, just like it’s personal for the communities and countries around the world that have suffered from terrorism.”  The Symposium was a fist step in the global dialogue about victims of terrorism.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.