9 September 2008


9 September 2008
Press Release
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Unprecedented Gathering Hears from Survivors of Attacks Perpetrated Worldwide

With victims of terrorist attacks the world over gathered in New York today for the first-ever United Nations event designed to give them a voice, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Governments to draw on the survivors’ courage and strength to bolster international cooperation in support of victims and their families, and in implementing agreed counter-terrorism measures.

“[Terrorism] can affect anyone, anywhere […] it attacks humanity itself.  And it is for the sake of humanity that we must create a global forum for your voice and listen to you, the victims,” Mr. Ban said as he opened the day-long Symposium on “Supporting Victims of Terrorism” alongside Colombian politician and activist Ingrid Betancourt, rescued exactly 65 days ago after being held hostage by rebels in her country for nearly seven years.

Ms. Betancourt called on the United Nations to support international status for victims of terrorism and the creation of a centralized database to track and publicize their plight.  She was among the 18 invited survivors and relatives of terror-attack and hostage-taking victims from countries including Kenya, Jordan, Indonesia, United Kingdom, Iraq and the United States who addressed the Symposium.  Experts in psychological trauma care and recovery also shared their experiences.

Praising the participants as the “real heroes in the global struggle against terrorism”, Secretary-General Ban said their touching testimony was the strongest argument why terrorism could never be justified.  “By giving a human face to the painful consequences of terrorism, you help build a global culture against it.  You deserve to have your needs addressed; you deserve to have your human rights defended; and you deserve justice.”

Calling for practical steps to implement anti-terrorism commitments and protect the rights of terrorism victims and their families, he highlighted the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy -– adopted unanimously by Member States in 2006 and reaffirmed in a General Assembly review meeting just last week -– which, among other measures, urges an end to the dehumanization of terrorism victims.

Under the Strategy, countries committed themselves to consolidating their systems of assistance to promote the needs of victims and their families, and to facilitate the normalization of their lives; to promoting international solidarity in support of victims; and to protecting victims’ rights.  “Today, we must strive to give practical meaning to these commitments,” the Secretary-General said, calling for an open dialogue on the issue involving Governments, the United Nations, civil society and victims.

Recounting her treatment at the hands of rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) –- being chained to a tree and mercilessly tortured, among other cruelties -– Ms. Betancourt said that, since her dramatic rescue in July, “the miracle of being alive and free” had given her a responsibility.  “I accepted [the Secretary-General’s] invitation without hesitation because, deep down, I know I can never truly be free until those I have left behind are also free,” she said, vowing to forever speak for those who had lost their voice.

“For a victim of terrorism, the greatest danger of all is to be forgotten,” she continued, passionately urging the world body to press for the recognition of victims of terrorism under international law, as well as the creation of an agreed “international status” for them.  That “will enable us to centralize information about each victim so that, at any given moment, we can know who they are and what they are going through”.  Centralizing such data on a United Nations-backed website would mean that significant pressure could be exerted on behalf of those victims.

He went on to say that exposing the reality of victims’ ordeals was the best way to fight against indifference and abandonment.  Also, if a person were recognized by the United Nations as a “victim of terrorism”, they could benefit from the sponsorship of a State, a town or an organization, to follow his or her case and support his or her family.  Member States would also be able to develop legislation to protect victims’ families and stir public consciousness.  “When I was in the jungle, I had a face and I had a name.  I am now asking that we do the same for those who stayed behind,” said Ms. Betancourt, who was kidnapped as she campaigned for the Colombian presidency.

She urged the Secretary-General to “open up this debate” for the world was in dire need of action.  “We must never accept silence as a strategy for confronting the plight of victims of terrorism.  We must come up with a response today, now, immediately.”  Since the fate of terrorism victims was, “above all, a political affair”, the antidote to the deadlock was action.  “Without political will, there is nothing.”  The Symposium could open the way to a better world, where the courage of those who were free and had the power to act could answer the silent call of those who were suffering.

Calling for the unequivocal condemnation of all acts of terrorism, General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim said it was precisely the “human suffering, senseless violence, the haunting stare of the victims” that had, just days ago, spurred the world body to renew its commitment to the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.  Member States had set aside political differences, rising above the long-running debate over the definition of terrorism, and agreed on practical, operational steps that must be taken to tackle the menace.  “We must not leave any doubt that these acts are criminal and reprehensible.”

With cowardly acts of violence, terrorists targeted innocent civilians to attain their goals, he continued.  Indeed, “the sinister nature of a terrorist act lies precisely in its malicious intent towards innocent victims; the more terrorists inflict suffering and damage, the greater they regard their gain”.  One of the commitments of the Strategy was to promote global solidarity in support of victims and foster civil society’s involvement in a global campaign against terrorism.  “We must do justice to this effort and to those gathered here today, who provide a courageous example of the suffering of so many thousands of our countrymen and women.”

The morning panel discussion was highlighted by sombre and disturbing declarations by Saneta Sabanov and her mother, Aleta Gasinova, survivors of the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, South Ossetia, that left nearly 350 people dead, including 186 children; and Ashraf Al-Khaled, who lost his father, father-in-law and 27 other friends and relatives in the 2005 suicide bombing of the hotel where his wedding ceremony was under way in Amman, Jordan.

Sandro Galea, of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and Institute for Social Research, and Augustine P. Mahiga, Permanent Representative of the United Republic of Tanzania to the United Nations, also spoke.

Among the other invited guests taking the floor, Naomi Kerongo, a survivor of the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, tearfully recounted how a chance encounter with agents of Osama Bin Ladin “on the day he decided to introduce himself to the world” had left her among nearly 4,000 wounded civilians.  The horrific attack had not killed her, but it had nevertheless destroyed her life.

She said she had spent the two years following the attack in a mental institution and was now among countless other survivors struggling with lingering psychological trauma and physical complications.  Constant medical attention had reduced her and her family to destitution.  In a country where more than half the population was already struggling against poverty, the situation of the survivors and their families was akin to a death sentence.

She said that, while nothing could take the survivors back to the day before the bombing, “something can and must be done to heed our call for help”.  The survivors were asking not for charity but for justice.  She joined others in calling for broad mobilization and the requisite political will.  With the right polices, affected Governments could alleviate the suffering of victims and survivors “caught in the crossfire of conflicting world views”.

Ms. Kerongo’s experiences mirrored those of other speakers, including Ben Borgia, who emphasized the mental trauma and social estrangement he had felt in the wake of the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that had killed his mother and teenage sister.  Most speakers urged more global cooperation to combat terrorists, and underscored the need to pay greater attention to the societal and mental health consequences of the loss and pain caused, especially for families, relatives left behind and their wider communities.

Also taking the floor was Henry Kessy, a survivor of the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania; and Rachel North, a survivor of the 2005 coordinated rush-hour bombings of the London mass transit system.  She echoed others in calling for the United Nations to ensure that victims of terrorism were “named, known and listed as belonging to all the world”.

Other invited guests included Carie Lemak, whose mother was killed in the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City; Chris Cramer, former CNN International managing director and former head of newsgathering for the BBC, who survived the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London, where he was held hostage; Rachel North, a survivor of the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London mass transit system; Arnold Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem; and Juan Antonio Casquero, victim of a 1992 ETA car bombing in Spain; and Joaquin Vidal Ortiz, who survived a 1991 mail bomb attack in Spain.

Osman Kaya spoke from the unique position of a Turkish National Police Counter-Terrorism Department official injured during a terrorist bomb attack in Ankara.  Rula Al-Farrah spoke passionately on behalf of her younger sister, Riham Al-Farrah, who was killed on her first day of duty when a terrorist bombed the United Nations compound in Iraq.  While Riham had dreamed of becoming a journalist “her dream died on that day, and so did ours”, her sister said today, calling for a change in “this culture of violence”, and for greater efforts in telling the stories of victims.

Leading off the afternoon panel discussion, renowned activist Francoise Rudetski, who was seriously wounded in 1983 when a Paris restaurant was bombed while she and her husband celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, said she hoped that all that had been gained in respect of recognition of terrorism victims during recent years was not lost as more attention was paid to the acts and their perpetrators.  After the attack that had nearly taken her life, she had refused amputation and a team of surgeons had reconstructed her legs during multiple hours-long operations.  This year, she had had her sixty-sixth operation.

While she had contracted HIV during a blood transfusion required for that first surgery, it had kept her alive and given her the strength to wage what had become her lifelong battle against terrorism.  She had founded “SOS Terrorism”, one of the earliest organizations set up to deal exclusively with the needs of victims of terrorism and hostage-taking and their families.  Today, the organization boasted some 2,000 members of all nationalities.  She had also fought hard to ensure the French Government adopted a Solidarity Fund that provided insurance policies to finance full compensation for the physical and psychological care of victims.

She said she had also fought for victims to be recognized as “casualties of war”, and had helped usher in the relevant French legislation passed in 1990 declaring terrorism a new form of war.  Based on those experiences, it was high time the United Nations pressed for the creation of an international fund to provide compensation for the rehabilitation of all victims and to address their medical needs.

Haji Angus Bambang Priyanto shared his experience as an “ordinary citizen” moved to organize and lead volunteer evacuation measures after the 2002 terrorist attack in Bali.  Many ordinary citizens had provided private cars and motorbikes to transfer victims to nearby hospitals.  As the bodies continued to mount, he had sent volunteers to nearby homes to find sheets and clothes to cover the dead.  Some six years later, the horrific scene, with jaw bones, fingers and other body parts strewn for miles around, was difficult to forget.  “To hear the screaming and to see people burnt alive is unforgettable,” he said, lamenting that the bombings that had tragically taken the lives of nearly 250 people had ruined the image of Bali as an island of peace, compassion and harmony.

At the same time, however, that very spirit had driven ordinary citizens to lend a helping hand to complete strangers, he pointed out.  Moreover, no segment of the population had retaliated for the attack against any ethnic group.  “That is the Bali spirit.”  Still, the attack was now in the past and the international community’s common task now was to help ensure a better life for the families and children of the victims.

Laura Dolci, whose husband was among 21 other United Nations employees killed in 2003 when a bomb destroyed the Organization’s compound in Baghdad, said she had endured a “very lonely experience” after her husband's death.  “I am not your average mother living in a suburb of Geneva,” she said, calling for greater steps to acknowledge victims of terrorism and the social exclusion and other challenges they faced.  The institutions often targeted by terrorists should play a larger role, not only in ensuring recognition, but in helping victims and survivors reclaim their rights.  The United Nations, which was lagging in setting up a framework for victim support, should be at the forefront in that effort.

Also on the afternoon panel were Frank Gitau Njenga, psychiatrist; Nonzomu Asukai, Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry; and Jose Manuel Rodriguez ( Spain).  Other participants included Marwan Diab and Noureddine Khaled, both psychiatrists.  Mario Calabrisi, Chandra Mohan Poojari, Fatma Zohra Filchi and Bertha MacDougall were also among the invited experts.

Wrapping up the proceedings, Robert Orr, Assistant Secretary-General and Chair of the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, said the Symposium had been a “seminal event for the United Nations and the world”.  It was now the international community’s duty to take the discussions and turn them into concrete action.  “We cannot leave the victims to labour alone.  We must work in solidarity with and on behalf of all victims.  If we work with and support victims, we will deal a serious blow to terrorism.”

He went on to say that terrorists carried out their heinous crimes in the name of some greater cause or disaffected existence.  But no one listening to the heartfelt and painful testimony of the participants today would ever dare argue that terrorism could be justified.  It was important to give a voice to victims and the United Nations could continue to serve as a forum for providing such a platform.  What was needed was a truly global campaign -- of all people, States and international institutions –- to ensure that the needs of victims and their families were met.  “The first step is giving a human face to the scourge of terrorism, and from what we have seen here today, we have all taken a very big first step,” he concluded.

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