UNHCR joins calls for release of 19 staff, including John Solecki

UNHCR joins Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's call for the release of 19 UN staff members, including the agency's John Solecki, abducted in Pakistan.

In Our Thoughts: John Solecki, who was abducted in Pakistan on February 2. The UN has called for the release of Solecki and 18 other UN staff.   © UNHCR/M.Farman-Farmaian

NEW YORK, March 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other UN colleagues in calling for the release of 19 staff members of the world body detained or missing around the globe, including the agency's head of office in Quetta, Pakistan, John Solecki.

Solecki was abducted on February 2 during an attack in which another UNHCR staff member, Syed Hashim, was killed.

"We gather here today to express our solidarity with John and with the families and friends of all 19 UN staff members under arrest, detained or missing," Pierre Bertrand, director of UNHCR's office in New York, said at a ceremony on Wednesday to mark the 24th International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.

"We call for the prompt resolution of each and every case, allowing our colleagues to return to their loved ones and to the essential humanitarian work to which they are deeply committed."

Bertrand said UNHCR was no stranger to the pain and suffering that accompanies the abduction of a colleague. Solecki is the second UNHCR staff member held in captivity in the past two years. Hassan Mohammed Ali, head of UNHCR's office in Mogadishu, Somalia, was held for two months last year.

"The fact that such a Day of Solidarity exists is a sobering reminder of the difficulties faced on an all too regular basis by humanitarian workers reporting for duty around the globe," Bertrand said. "That their efforts to help the victims of conflict, human rights abuses and disaster should become a point of vulnerability open to exploitation by those who think little of the value of human life and dignity is an unwelcome and unacceptable feature of our working environment."

He noted, however, that dedication to the humanitarian cause was not to be equated with an obligation to accept unreasonable risk.

"Without appropriate security guarantees, effective humanitarian work is impossible," he said. "We look both to states and to the UN to take robust action in meeting their respective responsibilities to eliminate all manner of unacceptable risk threatening the ability of humanitarian workers to do the job expected of them."

Bertrand also expressed UNHCR's solidarity and condolences to the families of those killed in the course of duty, including Hashim, who had worked for the refugee agency for 18 years until he was killed while driving Solecki to the office.

In his remarks to the New York gathering, Ban Ki-moon noted that locally recruited humanitarian and UN personnel are the most vulnerable targets. Between July 2007 and June 2008, there were 160 arrests by state authorities and 39 cases of detention by non-state actors.

Ambassador Pablo Solón-Romero of Bolivia, delivering a message on behalf of UN General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto, stressed the need to act quickly when staff members are subject to kidnapping, arrest and arbitrary detention. "We can and must do more to protect and assist them in their assignments," he said. "We must be relentless in our efforts to secure their release in the case of detention."

The International Day of Solidarity marks the anniversary of the abduction of British journalist Alec Collet by gunmen in Beirut in 1985. Collett, a former director of the UN Information Centre, was on assignment for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. He has never been seen again.

Other events to mark the day were held in UNHCR offices worldwide, including a staff gathering in Geneva headquarters earlier on Wednesday.

"It is indeed puzzling in today's world that a day like today should be necessary - and not only necessary, but should represent a major concern of us all in the humanitarian world," said High Commissioner António Guterres. "The humanitarian space has been narrowing."

Guterres and UNHCR Staff Council Chairperson Guy Avognon assured staff that UN teams were working non-stop to secure Solecki's safe release.

Pierre Bertrand, director of UNHCR's office in New York, addresses the International Day of Solidarity event.  © UN Photo/P.Filgueiras