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Realizing the rights of victims of terrorism

On 19 August 2011, a day of remembrance for the UN, Laura Dolci-Kanaan, a staff member with the UN Human Rights Office, sits on a bench in a beautiful garden, the Jardin de la Paix, in Geneva.

Mattia-Sélim Kanaan in front of a photo of his father and other victims of the terrorist attack © John O’BrienIn front of her, there is a memorial plaque honouring the 22 UN staff members killed in the terrorist attack against the UN Headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. One of them was Laura’s husband, Jean-Sélim Kanaan; he was 33 years old. 

On the anniversary of the attack, this year, Laura will go to the Jardin de la Paix. “With my child, I will be laying flowers and looking up at the sky,” she said

She recalled that tragic day eight years ago. She had just returned from a stroll with her three-week old baby, Mattia-Sélim, when she read the breaking news of the attack on the Internet. “My legs started to shake, I could not control them. I had to reach to a chair, I was afraid that our baby would fall off my arms.”

Now, she continues to rebuild her life while working to affirm the rights of victims of terrorism.

“When a bomb goes off and kills indiscriminately it leaves terror in those who survive. Terror and incomprehension continue to resonate inside of you for years,” Laura says. “The damage is generational. The real challenge is not to let fear and despair take the upper hand and continue to believe in the good of humanity and justice. The very values that my husband and his colleagues stood for.”

In addition to those killed and the survivors, victims of terrorist acts include “relatives and dependants of those killed, injured or abducted, other persons who may have suffered harm in intervening to assist them,” said UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay at a UN Human Rights Council panel discussion on human rights and victims of terrorism last June. Pillay stressed that victims require immediate assistance and long term medical and psycho-social support, as well as financial assistance to rebuild their lives.

Acknowledging the human rights of victims of terrorism “means recognising their loss as well as their rights to reparation, information, justice and a life free of fear, with all the support they require,” Pillay said.

At the event, Danny Vannucchi from Amnesty International talked about the importance of victims’ access to justice and truth. ”Victims of terrorism often do not see those responsible brought to justice and do not receive support from the state to redress the harm they have suffered,” he said. “Victims must be given adequate opportunity to be informed of and involved in investigations and trials.”

Commenting on the importance of the Panel, Laura observed that victims “should be comforted by the notion that their right to truth and justice can be claimed.” “The fight against terrorism,” she explained “is predominantly characterized by extra-judicial procedures, which often violate the rights of terrorist suspects. Such extra-judicial and secrecy practices can further victimize victims of terrorism.” 

The UN panel on victims of terrorism and human rights sought to build on the recommendations that had emerged during a Symposium on Supporting Victims of Terrorism held in 2008 in New York under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General, when, for the first time, 18 victims of terrorist acts gathered together to share their stories.

Laura was there. So were other people, coming from all over the world, strangers to one another but with one thing in common: they were victims of acts of terrorism.

The purpose of the Symposium was to give victims a human face and an identity, to provide a forum for discussing concrete steps to assist victims in coping with their experiences, to share best practices and to highlight measures already taken by Member States and non-governmental organizations to support and empower victims.

In opening the Symposium UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon told the victims that by giving a human face to the painful consequence of terrorism, they helped 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.”

For Laura and many other victims, the 2008 Symposium and the 2011 Human Rights Council panel discussion represented important steps towards acknowledging their suffering and developing tools and structures to assist them.

“I am not any single mother living in the calm suburbs of Geneva,” Laura stated at the Symposium, “How could I sit for coffee with my neighbour when overwhelmed by nausea after my husband’s belongings retrieved from the rubble were delivered to my home address? There are still days I feel like I am split in two: the normalcy of my daily life and somewhere inside me pieces of horror.”

22 August 2011