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UNHCR pays tribute to staff killed in the line of duty, marking World Humanitarian Day 2013

News Stories, 19 August 2013

© REUTERS/S. Salem
A car bomb that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq on August 19, 2003 killed 22 people, including former UN diplomat and UNHCR staff member Sergio Viera de Mello.

GENEVA, 19 August (UNHCR) Francois Preziosi turned out to have tempted fate when in July 1964 in a field report from the UNHCR office he headed in eastern Congo, he described to colleagues the dangerous work he was doing in trying to protect refugees.

"If I seem to take some risks by going frequently to the front lines, it is not out of pure curiosity, but to be able, when the time is ripe, to intervene and try to prevent any inconsiderate action against the refugees both in the field and in the resettlement centres," he wrote. "To be able to do this I have to become a familiar sight among the officers and soldiers and therefore to visit them frequently."

Preziosi was murdered only weeks later, on 17 August 1964. His death was not at the hands of soldiers, but by a machete-wielding Congolese and Tutsi refugee mob at a camp near Bukavu, the capital of Congo's South Kivu. Their car was surrounded and they were set upon. Killed with him was a colleague, Jean Plicque of the International Labour Organization.

UNHCR was founded in 1951. Preziosi was its first staff member to be lost in the line of duty. He was posthumously awarded the Nansen Refugee prize, reflecting both his dedication and the depth of shock felt by many of his colleagues. His name is being read out today at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva in a ceremony to mark this year's World Humanitarian Day. Honoured alongside him will be 42 other UNHCR staff who in the years since Preziosi's death have also paid for their commitment with their lives.

Humanitarian work is today a high-risk profession. The end of the Cold War, and the post 9/11 era of the War on Terror, have both spawned new dangers including a proliferation of conflict within states, a wider availability of weapons, impunity and the viewing of humanitarian workers as easy or soft targets, and increased questioning of the neutrality of humanitarian and other civilian actors. Added to this, aid organizations have become increasingly active in the world's trouble-spots, meaning there are more humanitarian workers who are exposed to risk.

UNHCR's own data reflects this evolution. Eighteen of its staff were killed in the 1990s compared to just five in the three previous decades, 15 in the period between 2000 and 2009, and five since then. Of the 43 deaths, most were in Africa and Asia and 27 involved national staff. Not every year sees casualties, but overall the rise is clear and steady.

Data from other sources shows this same trend on a wider scale. In its 2012 Aid Worker Security Report Humanitarian Outcomes, a think-tank, lists 308 aid workers as having been killed, kidnapped, or wounded during 2011 a record high. Most of these incidents were in Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Sudan. By comparison, a decade earlier in 2001 the number was just 90.

Mike Dell'Amico is UNHCR's head of Field Security, responsible for managing the safety of UNHCR's almost 8,000 staff in some 120 operations worldwide. Like others, he has watched the post-Cold War security environment evolving from the 1990s when the primary risks were to do with working in conflict zones and being in the wrong place at the wrong time, to today where alongside these dangers humanitarians must also cope with the possibility of being directly targeted.

"The soldier's saying is that it's not the bullet with your name on it that you have to worry about, but the one that says 'to whom it may concern'," he says. "But for us it's the bullet with our name on it [that we worry about most]." Dell'Amico says protecting against a deliberate attack on humanitarian workers is much harder than reducing the risk exposure of staff in a conflict zone.

People were hiding in the bushes; they were armed with submachine guns, machetes and Molotov cocktails. Preziosi’s and Plicque’s car was stopped and encircled by a crowd of Congolese with automatic guns and Tutsi refugees with spears and machetes. Two searched Plicque and Preziosi. The crowd started hitting them with all kinds of arms, in particular with machetes. Plicque shouted, ‘The only reason we are here is to help you’.

A UNHCR cable describing the murder of staff member François Preziosi and U.N. colleague Jean Plicque in the Congo in 1964

"Another common assumption about field work is that if the security environment gets better, then there will be fewer casualties. But that's often not true," he says, explaining that relative improvements in security conditions can lead staff and operations to take on greater risks, ultimately resulting in more incidents.

Keeping out of harm's way in conflict zones and remembering those who have been lost will be on the minds of those at ceremonies in Geneva and elsewhere today. World Humanitarian Day was established to commemorate the anniversary of the 19 August 2003 bomb attack on the UN's headquarters in Baghdad in which 22 people died. Among them was former UN diplomat and UNHCR staff member Sergio Viera de Mello.

Many lessons about protecting UN and other field workers have been learned from the Baghdad bombing, but figuring where the next risk will come from remains as elusive a goal as ever. "As [Baseball player cum philosopher] Yogi Berra said, making predictions is difficult…," says Dell'Amico. "Especially when it involves the future."

By Adrian Edwards

Watch video of the Secretary General on Word Humanitarian Day