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Betancourt seeks changes for terror victims

10 September 2008

UNITED NATIONS — Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt implored diplomats to create an international bill of rights for victims of terrorism at the UN’s first symposium on victims of terrorism on Tuesday.

"If there is no political will, there is nothing," said Betancourt who was freed in July after being held hostage for years by rebels.

Such a statement could spell out legal protections and lead to the creation of a UN Web site that lists acknowledged terrorism victims, she told The Associated Press, adding that "the most important step now is to think about the possibility of having a status".

Betancourt holds dual Colombia-French citizenship and was running for the South American country’s presidency when she was kidnapped by leftist guerrillas six years ago. Colombia’s military freed her in July along with 14 other hostages in a daring rescue.

She was among 18 people summoned from the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas to share their experiences as victims of bombings, hostage-takings and other terrorist attacks in the past several decades.

Arranging the discussion was especially tricky considering that the United Nations does not have an agreed upon definition of what constitutes terrorism.

Naomi Monchari Kerongo, a former trade development officer in Kenya, was among 4,000 injured when twin bombs ripped through U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 213 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for that attack, which collapsed buildings into rubble.

In a trace-like recitation on Tuesday, Kerongo told of spending two years in a mental hospital, losing her job, her house and her family. Ten years after the attack, she is now destitute and living in the slums of Nairobi. Tanzania bombing survivor Henry Kessy was moved to put his hand on her shoulder when her eyes glistened.

"Nothing can take us back to the day before the bomb blast," Kerongo said. "But something can and must be done to answer our call for help. …We are not asking for charity. It is justice we seek."

Most speakers urged greater international cooperation in fighting terrorists, with greater attention paid to the societal and mental health consequences of the losses and pain caused to victims, their families and the broader communities.

Betancourt and Laura Dolci Kanaan – a UN human rights officer in Geneva, Switzerland, whose 5-year-old son is growing up without a father because he was killed in the 2003 bombing that targeted the UN headquarters in Baghdad — proposed an international bill of rights for victims of terrorism.

That’s something Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would consider. His office had to navigate a mine field of political sensitivities in picking who to fly in for the event particularly since the United Nations has never agreed on a definition of terrorism.

"The list keeps growing longer, bringing with it greater pain and grief that cascades mercilessly through families, communities and nations," Ban said. "And it is for the sake of humanity that we must create a global forum for your voice and listen to you, the victims. Your stories of how terrorism has affected your lives are our strongest argument why it can never be justified."

Ban’s top policy official, Robert Orr, who also heads a counterterrorism task force, said the UN decided what should be considered a terrorist act and the participants were then chosen accordingly based on guidance contained in 16 international legal documents.

Some in attendance noted the absence of any victims of "state-sponsored" terrorism that is not defined legally.

Last week, the 192-nation General Assembly agreed by consensus to reaffirm its counterterrorism strategy adopted two years ago. It calls for stepping up border controls, developing a database on "biological incidents," clamping down on counterfeiting of travel documents and developing ways to stem terrorism on the Internet.

By shifting attention onto victims’ needs and away from attention-seeking terrorists, U.N. officials also hoped the symposium would show the generational impacts of terrorism.

{AP / Expatica]