Redress for terror victims

IN the wake of the horrific Peshawar school attack, the government of Pakistan has resumed executions, ending a six-year ban, and established military courts. But there has been comparatively little talk of how the losses suffered by the victims of the attack will be addressed. The prime minister’s initial pledge to provide compensation was welcome, but ideally this should be the government response for all such conflict victims, regardless of scale or visibility. Dignity and redress, rather than revenge, can then become the legacy of the 148 children and teachers massacred by the Taliban.

The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has an opportunity to provide compensation and rehabilitation to the victims of the Peshawar school attack, and to establish a permanent mechanism to provide the same to countless other victims of terrorism and conflict. At this moment, a draft law, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Civilian Victims (Relief and Rehabilitation) Act, awaits the nod of the KP government to be tabled in the provincial assembly for enactment. If passed, this law would provide all the victims of conflict and terrorism in KP with a right to compensation and assistance. All political party leaders in KP, and throughout Pakistan, should come together to publicly endorse and forward the Civilian Victims Act to the provincial assembly for immediate passage.

Since Sept 11, 2001, more than 30,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed because of terrorism and armed conflict. In KP alone, well over 5,000 civilians have been killed. Many more have been severely injured and disabled, including 150 children seriously injured in the Peshawar attack, who require ongoing rehabilitation and support. Countless survivors and families still face daily struggles as a result of their losses.

If passed, a draft law in the KP Assembly would give victims of conflict and terrorism the right to compensation and assistance.Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments have a history of providing compensation and assistance to the victims of terrorism and conflict, including the KP government. But as the Institute of Social Policy and Sciences’ (I-SAPS) 2011 report found, the existing mechanisms have been inconsistent and often subject to political influence. Amounts and access have varied widely, and most of the victims and their families are unable to receive just, appropriate and timely compensation. As a result, many victims have too often gone unacknowledged, left to cope on their own, compounding their distress and grievances.

For the past four years, the I-SAPS and the Center for Civilians in Conflict have advocated for the establishment of uniform compensation and assistance for victims of conflict in all the provinces and federal territories of Pakistan. Convinced of the merits, the Balochistan provincial government set the precedent by promulgating the Balochistan Civilian Victim (Relief and Rehabilitation) Ordinance in February 2013. A year later in January 2014 the Balochistan provincial assembly unanimously passed the Balochistan Civilian Victim (Relief and Rehabilitation) Act. The Federal Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights shared the law, which was praised by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, with all the provincial governments as a precedent that should be followed. For the first time, this groundbreaking legislation established compensation and rehabilitation for civilian victims as a right.

Government-backed funds are crucial, but evidence from Pakistan and elsewhere in the world has shown that to be sustainable and accountable, funds must be made permanent through law and recognising victims’ rights, as the government of Balochistan has done. A legally binding, transparent framework can also help secure the necessary financial support from national and international entities.

Adopting a law on civilian victims’ assistance in KP could also provide political momentum for assistance to other hard-hit areas, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, whose residents have borne the brunt of the conflict, including the ongoing operation against militant groups in North Waziristan and other agencies.

For the family members of the 148 children and teachers killed in Peshawar last month, just as for victims in Balochistan, compensation can never make up for the loss of their loved ones. But many believe that assistance from the government is an important, dignifying gesture that recognises victims’ losses, acknowledges the government’s responsibility to provide medical care to the injured, and helps victims and survivors recover.

Right now, many in Pakistan are asking what will happen after this horrific attack. Will this prove to be a real turning point or another warning sign unheeded? Will the government “succumb to calls for revenge” or pursue real reforms?

But of all the tough questions being asked right now, the easiest should be, what will the government do for the victims?

It should enact the Civilian Victims Act to establish a permanent mechanism for compensation and ongoing support to victims of conflict and terrorism, and create a legacy that guarantees all victims the protection and dignity they deserve.

Ahmad Ali is a research fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Sciences (I-SAPS). Christopher Rogers is a program officer at the Open Society Foundations.

A slightly longer version of this article has been published in the newspaper today.


Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2015