The frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan has dampened their shock value. Sadly, it is not the news of the attack, but the body count of the dead and injured that captures the headlines and stir the national conscience from slumber. Contrary to news hype on the terrorist attacks in the media and government’s robust defense to counter them, the information on the conditions of civilian victims of terror is pushed to the margins.

The plight of civilian victims and their families remains sketchy and peripheral to the human rights discourse in Pakistan. The worst victims of terrorism in the country continue to impoverish and suffer in isolation and away from the public domestic and international attention.

Despite more than 50,000 people dead and even thousands more injured along with colossal loss of business and property in the terrorist attacks and sabotage in 2009 alone, the concerns for the families of victims and survivors of terror remain overpowered by emotions of grief and apathy. Engulfed in the psychology of fear, we tend to become apathetic to the unfolding tragedy. But for how long, we can take refuge in the state rhetoric of deaths in terrorist attacks as supreme national sacrifice and turn our back on the human costs of the war on terror. While developing counterterrorism policy it is crucial to not only establish means to prevent future terrorist activities by counter radicalization measures but also to take into account the consequences for victims and survivors of terrorist attacks. The civilian victims are left on their own to cope with their crises day by day, hour by hour. During such crisis periods it is difficult for the victim to take the initiative and to ask for what they is entitled to by law. The human rights groups and state representatives should search them out to offer their services.It is high time that we focus our attention on this aspect of the tragedy.

The Way Ahead

If we can not stop the suicide bomber from striking, can we not build our individual and institutional capacities to cope with the disaster unleashed by the terrorist attacks? Shall we stop at vigils and commemorations or make short term and long term strategies for disaster preparedness and response?

Post-Emergency Response Needs to be Strengthened

However, it appears as if the human costs of the war on terror have not been a significant factor in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy, as the existing institutional arrangements for disaster mitigation are restricted to emergency medical and police response. Beyond these preliminary remedial measures, there are no institutional mechanisms to cope with the post-disaster situation. The horrific experiences of victims’ families and other survivors in trying to locate their loved ones in the immediate aftermath of a blast are heart rendering reminders of such gaps. The harrowing tales of the families of those who died or went missing in the terrorist attack are attributed largely due to absence of any coordinating institution that can act as clearing house of information on victims and the immediate aftermath of the disaster. These incidents are ample warning for all of us, that unless we institute a system of identification and reporting on victims and survivors, our relatives may have to walk through hell to be able to identify our charred black bodies, smelling like roasted beef. >From the very serious attacks in the world elsewhere, we can learn a great deal about assistance and support to victims and survivors of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

Ephemeral Disasters and Unknown Victims

We know a lot about the needs of victims of more ordinary forms of crime and natural disasters, through the government, the media and NGOs like international human rights watch dog, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). But we do not know much about the rights of the victims and survivors of terrorist attacks, as they are yet to congeal into an identifiable group whose rights to life, liberty and property have been violated. There are no legal provisions for the victims for seeking justice for the damage caused by a terrorists disaster, including human as well as material. Arbitrary steps are only taken when there is a sustained pressures from the victims and survivors of such attacks, as in the case of Karachi rioting of markets in the aftermath of terrorists attack.

A contributing factor is the ephemeral nature of the disaster caused by the terrorists attacks in the cities. The visible marks of disaster as a result of bomb blasts and sabotage are erased from public memory faster than scaled up images of disaster caused by floods and earthquakes. The rapid removal of debris, reconstruction of the buildings, refurbishment of material infrastructure and above all dispersal of victims and survivors contributes to the ephemeral impact of bomb blasts and fires in urban centers.

As a result, while other man-made disasters such as forced displacements as a result of military warfare for instance, gain world-wide attention along side attracting international material aid due to longstanding UN conventions establishing the victimhood of IDPs, the victims of terrorist disasters are yet to configure prominently in the implementation of the charter of human rights. Even the United Nations has recently declared the victims of terrorist attacks as the most neglected victims in the world today.

It rings truer in the case of Pakistan, where despite a three decade long history of terrorist attacks in the cities there is little recognition of their significance as disasters, which require fresh government intervention in disaster preparedness and mitigation. The victims and survivors of war of terrorist attacks are routinely compensated largely on grounds of political expediency but not as a matter of public policy. Therefore, along with the imperatives to evolve effective mechanisms for crisis management in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we need to bring the process of compensation and rehabilitation work to be carried out on long term basis and under constant public scrutiny.

Civil society can play a key role in the initiation, development and implementation of policies and services that empower and support victims of terrorism. While the state must not abrogate its responsibilities in the field of assistance and compensation, civil society can play an active part in supporting victims, particularly by providing advice and psychological support along with material aid. Non-governmental organizations and agencies can provide practical support for victims such as counseling, welfare assistance and supplementary therapies. Human rights organizations can contribute with broader social and political support, such as advocacy and lobbying on behalf of victim groups.

There is a need to raise awareness of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (2006) among civil society in Pakistan and explore the possibilities for greater civil society participation in efforts to implement the global framework in a manner that reflects the local contexts, needs, and priorities across the region

Who is a Victim of Terror?

There is no universal definition of the term ‘victim’. In the context of terrorism, and particularly when we are dealing with large-scale attacks, United Nations considers it as broader than the people actually killed and their survivors. Eye witnesses, care workers, relatives and friends can be counted to this group as well. Other people can find it difficult to cope with their anxiety and anger as a result of the attack. Society as a whole experiences the consequences. This means we must adopt a broad, differentiated approach to immediate victims and to society as a whole.
What can civil society and state do?

Our organized response can take place at several inter related levels. Some specific suggestions are as under:

  • We can raise awareness about the consequences for the victims of terrorism by forming victims associations in various cities in Pakistan. Through networks and associations, we can share our personal information about victims’ families, who need short term and long term support. One such network is Pakistan Terrorists Survivors Network, founded by Tahir Wadood Malik, a survivor of a terrorist attack in which he lost his wife in Islamabad. For more information, please visit his blog at http://gsntahir.wordpress.com/
  • We should lobby with the government to authorize NADRA to generate certified lists of victims of terror, (like the ones they have for IDPs), without which no sustainable rehabilitation can take place.
  • We can contact medical and pharmacist associations to seek commitments for free private treatment of the injuries and burns of victims of terror.
  • We also need legal aid for victims of terror for seeking compensations for the loss of livelihood etc. lawyers fraternity can be contacted to offer their free professional services.
  • We can contact public and private sector educational institutions for offering scholarships to the children of certified victim families.
  • We can contact the heads and faculty of colleges and universities to create local networks for the support of victim families, and make sure that their students, teachers, alumni and employees, if affected, will be entitled to direct material and social, economic and psychological support from the institutions.
  • We can set up rehabilitation centers for those survivors, who suffer from physical disabilities caused by terrorists attacks
  • We need to create interface with the provincial and federal governments to implement the recommendations of the UN Counter Terrorism Strategy, 2006 and UN Symposium on the Support of Victims of Terrorism 2008.
  • We need to lobby with government to revise the mandate of federal disaster management institutions such as National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), to include terrorist attacks and urban disasters in its institutional purview. At present, it deals almost exclusively with natural disasters and IDPs due to military conflict.
  • We can help create a talking cure by inviting the survivors of terrorist attack to share and document their experiences on different forums, such as on FM Radio and publish their stories and testimonies in weeklies and dailies and on the electronic media so as to break their isolation. By blogging on the issue of raising awareness for the rights of victims of terror in Pakistan, we can create networks of support.

The above list of suggestions is not exhaustive. It is meant only to generate a preliminary response to cope with the disasters caused by acts of terrorism. These acts critically undermine the enjoyment of human rights, including the right to life and to physical integrity of the victims. Terrorists exploit victims by using them as means to convey their message of fear to the wider population. Preventing terrorism, assisting its victims, reinforcing solidarity with and among victims, and involving civil society in this effort is crucial in order to improve security and foster long-term stability.

By empowering victims of terrorism, state and civil society in Pakistan will be reinforcing their own people and communities against isolation after future terrorist threats.