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UNHCR staff worldwide demand end to killings

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UNHCR staff worldwide demand end to killings

21 September 2000

Thousands of humanitarian staff gathered in cities, towns and villages worldwide Thursday to demand better protection for aid workers following the murders of four UNHCR staff members in less than two weeks.About 1,000 people marched at midday from Geneva's Palais des Nations to a plaza outside UNHCR's headquarters, where they heard High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata call for concrete measures to strengthen staff security worldwide.Mrs. Ogata said that for its part, UNHCR was urgently re-assessing the security benchmarks that determine when it suspends its operations or evacuates staff.

"We all recognize that our work will never be without risk, but every measure must be taken to reduce those risks to the minimum," she said. "And we will have to evacuate quickly from any operations where the risk outweighs the help we can provide."

The High Commissioner also called on the international community to do its part to ensure that aid workers are protected.

"The international community must listen," said Mrs. Ogata, who had cut short a mission to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to return to Geneva just hours before Thursday's UNHCR Staff Council-organized event. "I have appealed many times to states, particularly those with the means, to fully and forcefully take on their duty to safeguard the lives of all aid workers."She said one way for states to fulfil their responsibilities is to adopt international laws to protect all humanitarian workers everywhere. Criminal provisions must be made for countries to swiftly and appropriately punish all those who so easily kill, attack, threaten or otherwise harm humanitarian staff.

Mrs. Ogata also called for a variety of measures at the operational level, including:

  • strengthening the UN staff security mechanism, or UNSECOORD;
  • the enhancement of security measures in field locations, including more staff equipment and communications;
  • and the timely provision of information relevant to the security of agencies working on front lines.

"These are concrete measures that cost money," she said. "The UN today desperately needs the support and resources to implement them. I hope that no more fatal incidents will have to occur to remind governments of their responsibilities and the urgency of these needs.

"The international community must strengthen peacekeeping efforts and develop effective mechanisms for establishing peace," she added.

The march to UNHCR's headquarters - organized by the Staff Council - and an earlier memorial service were also attended by staff from numerous other organizations and NGOs, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Food Programme and UNICEF."We are aid workers, not martyrs," said Staff Council Chairman Naveed Hussain.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson also spoke, and the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva, Mr. Vladimir Petrovsky, delivered a message at the memorial service from Secretary-General Kofi Annan.Thursday's memorial service was to honour Mr. Mensah Kpognon, a veteran UNHCR staff member who was murdered early Sunday in an attack by unidentified armed men on the town of Macenta, Guinea. Those attending the service also called for the release of Ms. Laurence Djeya, a Côte d'Ivoire national, who was abducted by the same attackers who murdered Mr. Kpognon. UNHCR, governments and others are pursuing a number of channels to try to locate and secure the release of Ms. Djeya, who has not been seen since Sunday morning when she was taken away by armed men.Mr. Kpognon, 50, was from Lomé, Togo, and leaves a wife and four children, two of whom attended Thursday's memorial in Geneva. He was the fourth UNHCR staff member killed in two weeks. Three were murdered by machete-wielding militiamen in Atambua, West Timor, on September 6."Only nine days ago, we gathered here to grieve the loss of Samson Aregahegn, Carlos Caceres-Collazo and Pero Simundza, killed in Atambua," Mrs. Ogata told the memorial service. "Still bemoaning their tragic deaths, the news of a brutal attack in Macenta was devastating."

Other events and memorials were held Thursday by UNHCR's 5,000 staff members worldwide, many of whom work in remote and dangerous places."Today, I stand before you and wear this white armband in solidarity with UNHCR colleagues in over 270 offices around the world - from Angola to Sri Lanka to Colombia - to deliver a message," Mrs. Ogata said. "The message is loud and clear: Enough is enough."