UNHCR pays tribute to fallen colleagues on World Humanitarian Day

News Stories, 19 August 2009

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
After a World Humanitarian Day ceremony at UNHCR headquarters Wednesday, UNHCR staff members individually paid respects at a memorial honouring those who gave their lives while serving refugees.

GENEVA, August 19 (UNHCR) Hours after a bomb killed another two UN employees in Afghanistan, UNHCR staff on Wednesday marked the first World Humanitarian Day by honouring their hundreds of colleagues in humanitarian organizations around the globe who have been killed while carrying out their duties.

"This has been a particularly painful year for UNHCR, with the loss of three colleagues in the same operation," Guy Avognon, the chairman of the Staff Council, said at a ceremony in Geneva. The three members of UNHCR staff killed in attacks this year in Pakistan are among 30 who have been lost in operations since 1987.

The date of 19 August, which is also Staff Memorial Day, commemorates the specific day in 2003 on which the UN office in Iraq was bombed, killing 22 people including Sergio Vieira de Mello, a UNHCR veteran who was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a Special Representative to the UN Secretary General at the time.

High Commissioner António Guterres, speaking at the headquarters ceremony after observing a minute of silence, said UNHCR was acting to improve security for staff but noted that the danger for humanitarian workers was increasing. The two UN staff members killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday worked with the UN mission helping to rebuild the country; some 700 humanitarian workers have died worldwide in the last decade.

Humanitarian workers have increasingly come to be seen as targets in conflicts, with traditional respect for aid workers disappearing and the lines between military and humanitarian action increasingly blurred both by armies and their armed opponents.

This has been a particularly painful year for UNHCR, with the loss of three colleagues in the same operation.

Guy Avognon, UNHCR Staff Council chairman

Humanitarian action is now sometimes not a source of protection, but a reason to be targeted, said Guterres, who was speaking on the same subject at a later event in Geneva's Parc des Bastions organized by OCHA and the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation.

"All these reasons have contributed to shrink humanitarian space and to increase the risks of humanitarian action," the High Commissioner said. "It is important to raise the attention of the international community for that, it is not only to commemorate our colleagues, it is not only to remember them, and it is to make the international community assume its responsibilities for these situations."

Last year 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in attacks, the highest yearly toll on record. The average number of attacks in the last three years has been three times the level of the previous nine years.

Among the casualties for UNHCR in Pakistan this year was veteran UNHCR driver Syed Hashim who was shot dead in Pakistan last February during the kidnapping of John Solecki, the head of UNHCR's Quetta sub-office. Solecki was released in April after two months in captivity.

In June, Aleksandar Vorkapic, a UNHCR staff member on emergency duty helping Pakistanis displaced by fighting in North West Frontier Province died in the bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar. And in July, UNHCR senior field assistant Zill-e-Usman was gunned down in a camp for internally displaced Pakistanis in Peshawar by unknown assailants.

Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone, who was in Pakistan this week discussing security concerns with staff and government officials, thanked staff for their work and said he fully understood the strain security threats and challenges placed on their lives. He said a concerted effort was being made to improve staff safety.

"One option that is not on the table is to cut and run," said Johnstone, who termed Pakistan one of UNHCR's most critical operations and the one by which the agency would be judged. "We are not going to abandon our mission in Pakistan because of the security threat. Rather, the question is how do we respond given the security threat. "

The statement reflected the dual role of World Humanitarian Day: paying tribute to those who have been killed or wounded while performing their duties; and honouring the huge number of humanitarian workers continuing to work despite the danger.