Remembering victims of Baghdad bombing, UN marks first World Humanitarian Day

19 August 2009

United Nations officials and staff marked the first World Humanitarian Day today by paying tribute to the efforts of aid workers on the frontlines around the globe and by vowing to redouble the international community’s commitment to continue to assist people in need.

Last year the General Assembly proclaimed 19 August as World Humanitarian Day to commemorate the 2003 Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, which claimed the lives of 22 UN staff members, including the world body’s top envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and wounded more than 150 people.

Speaking at the wreath-laying ceremony at UN Headquarters in New York in memory of the victims of the Baghdad bombing, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that more humanitarian workers were kidnapped, seriously injured or killed last year during violent attacks than ever before.

“This is unacceptable,” Mr. Ban said, pledging to do all that he can as UN Secretary-General to help victims while protecting the security and independence of those who work so hard to save them.

He noted that just yesterday two Afghan UN staff members along with more than half a dozen others were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul, two days ahead of the country’s presidential and provincial council elections.

Mr. Ban also voiced his sadness at the violence today in Baghdad, where an “appalling” string of attacks reportedly killed at least 95 people and wounded 500.

In a separate message marking the Day, Mr. Ban said the UN continues to draw inspiration from the legacy of the people who were killed in Baghdad, and noted that the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation is establishing an annual prize in his name to recognize outstanding achievements in the peaceful reconciliation of conflict.

Mr. Ban said that the men and women who serve as humanitarian workers “come from many backgrounds. But they share a conviction that one person’s suffering is everyone’s responsibility.”

He stressed the need for the international community “to renew our commitment to help vulnerable, voiceless and marginalized people wherever they may be. That is the abiding mission of the humanitarian community.”

Joining Mr. Ban at the Headquarters ceremony, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg noted that aid workers are working in ever more dangerous conditions.

“The last two years have been successively the most deadly for aid workers on record,” she stated. “Too often, UN and NGO flags and emblems are no longer protections but provocations.”

In her message, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted that the Baghdad bombing is just one of many attacks against UN staff and other humanitarian workers. In Algiers in December 2007, another 17 UN staff members were killed while two more staff died just yesterday as a result of a suicide bombing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

“Killing those who are trying to help others is a particularly despicable crime, and one which all governments should join forces to prevent, and – when prevention fails – to punish,” she said.

Ms. Pillay emphasized that humanitarian work and human rights are inextricably entwined.

“And without humanitarian aid,” she added, “the basic human rights of millions of people – including the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to education, and, most fundamental of all, the right to life – would be denied. Similarly, if human rights are ignored during a humanitarian crisis, the crisis will often deepen.”

General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto used the occasion to denounce the escalating attacks on humanitarian workers and demand that those responsible be brought to justice.

“We demand that States fulfil their obligations under international law to protect humanitarian workers and UN personnel, too many of whom continue to be harmed and even murdered, often with impunity,” he said in his message.

Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), issued her own message highlighting the “humanitarian imperative” to extend help to those who have been displaced, or injured, or need food, water, shelter, comfort and essential medical care.

“As the number of emergencies continues to increase, we must remain steadfast in our determination to help – to be quickly on the scene in the growing number of ‘hot spots’ around the world,” she noted, reaffirming WHO’s commitment to lead global and national responses to the health component of emergencies.

Aside from the ceremonies in New York and Geneva, events are also being held at UN offices around the world, including in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Fiji, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, the occupied Palestinian territories, Pakistan Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Zimbabwe.


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