Persons and communities affected by violence deserve empathy from the government as well as dignity and closure, human rights activists have said.
At House of Justice, Nigerian nongovernmental organization’s 2020 “Molluma Yakubu Medico-Legal Lecture” in Kaduna, tagged, “From Atrocity to Closure: Managing Victims and Deploying Forensics in the Aftermath of Mass Killings,” world-renowned geneticist, Mishel Stephenson, representing Fredy Peccerelli, executive director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, GAFG said families affected by violence have “diverse range of emotions, needs, and priorities.
These she said include “locating the bodies of their loved ones, knowing the cause of deaths (right to the truth), giving their loved ones a befitting burial, finding closure or ensuring justice. The skills required to meet these needs are multi-disciplinary as it include genetics, anthropology, and psychosocial support.”
Forensic genetics according to her help in identifying dead bodies “when they are located and could also help in the prosecution of alleged perpetrators or bringing to justice persons behind mass atrocities for the purpose of truth and justice.”
Stephenson revealed that in Guatemala, the work of the FAFG has helped to locate over 3,500 victims and to bring many people, including a former President of the country to justice. According to Stephenson, the families and communities of victims are the real victims and the driving force behind investigations of this nature.
She warned that investigating mass killings takes time, effort and could be excruciating but is the only way that the collective dignity and humanity of both victims and survivors could be validated.
Osai Ojigho, Country Director of Amnesty International in Nigeria, who was on the panel of discussants, decried the acceptance of impunity and lack of accountability for mass killings in Nigeria.
Ojigho referred to cycles of killings and reprisals by terror groups and security forces, the so-called inter-communal clashes and regretted the seeming lack of interest on the part of the Nigeria government to bring these cycles to an end. She gave the example of the massacre of Shiites in Zaria, Kaduna State, in December 2015 where security forces were involved in the mass killing and disappearance of hundreds with no consequences and no closure for the families despite the recommendations of a judicial commission of inquiry.
She underscored the importance of the “right to truth”, pointing out that truth has oftentimes been caught in between a citizenry who demands accountability and government officials who disdain the kind of work that groups like Amnesty do in pursuit of the truth about mass killings.
Drawing from the experience of Indian-Administered Kashmir, Khurram Parvez, a panelist, and chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances stressed the obligation of government to protect its citizens and communities, noting that apart from the impact on individuals and families, mass killings also undermine bonds of coexistence and faith in institutions.
Parvez explained the importance of ensuring effective documentation of such crimes even when it is not immediately evident that any prosecutions will take place. In Kashmir, he disclosed, they have worked to document over 6,700 mass killings and mass graves.
Another discussant, Abiodun Baiyewu, executive director of Global Rights, said the closure would be much easier to achieve if the government shows empathy and sincerity in investigating mass killings and bringing their perpetrators to justice. “…this is the most effective way to break the cycle of atrocities and reprisals. When this does not happen, atrocities and impunity can be said to be ‘state-backed’, ” she argued.
Ahmed Salkida, editor-in-chief, HumAngle, and conflict reporter from Nigeria, argued that mass killings and massacres will continue as long as the government and its agencies neglect their primary duty which is to protect the citizens and their communities. He noted that in Nigeria, the government deploys effective assets to protect property but often behaves as if its people are expendable. “The government must choose its citizens over properties”, said Salkida.
Peter Kiama, executive director of Independent Medico-Legal Unit, IMLU, in Kenya, also a panelist at the event argued that mass killings do not occur by accident but are enabled by government policies which mean that policies can also be made to curb or eradicate them.
He also asked that attention be given to the trauma needs of survivors who are often affected in ways that society and government are unwilling or unable to pay attention to.
While Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, who chairs the International Advisory Board of the Molluma Medico-Legal Centre, added that it is important for families to have closure and be able to locate and identify the remains of their loved ones and that could be made possible if citizens and government learn to count and account for each other.
Citing the examples from both Guatemala and Kashmir, Odinkalu underscored the importance of attention to details , documentation, and dignity in responding to mass killings. ‘All these require patience and time’, he said.
The executive director of the Molluma Medico-Legal Centre, Gloria Mabeiam Ballason, said that the 2020 lecture was necessary to empower citizens to put pressure on the Nigeria government to ensure accountability for the instigators, sponsors, perpetrators, catalysts, and enablers of the mass killing that now characterize the country. “These killings will not stop until no one benefits from them”, Ms. Ballason noted, concluding that Guatemala is a great example of the power in citizenship movements.
Molluma Yakubu Medico-Legal Centre was commissioned in 2014 to ensure accountability for victims of medical crimes and of mass atrocities and to give victims dignity even in death. The Centre is located in Kaduna- Nigeria. The 2020 lecture is the third in series.