Geneva, 19 August 2013
Today is the tenth anniversary of the devastating attack on the United Nations Headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on the 19th of August 2003. A day that is etched in the memory of all of us in the UN, and in the wider aid community. A day that shook OHCHR to its core, and still leaves deep scars ten years later.
We lost 22 close colleagues, friends and loved ones, including the Human Rights High Commissioner at the time, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
19th of August 2003 was also the day when the international humanitarian and human rights community lost its innocence.
While fatal attacks on UN and NGO staff had occurred with growing frequency during the 1990s, we had never before faced an attack such as this. We were used to helping others who had suffered the horrors and tragedy of wars, human rights violations and natural disasters. But we had never before been the targets of an act of such extreme, calculated, malevolence ourselves.
That day, ten years ago, changed the way we operate. It changed the way we think about ourselves, and it changed the way others perceive us. The veneer of inviolability, that had protected UN staff during many previous dangerous missions, was stripped away.
Finally in 2008, the General Assembly honoured the victims of the Baghdad bombing by designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day to pay tribute to all those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service.
The date marks the atrocity in Baghdad, but the day commemorates all those who have died, and continue to die, working for the benefit of others. Sadly, reprehensibly, the Baghdad attack was the first, but not the last, time that a massive suicide bomb attack has been specifically aimed at killing as many UN and other aid workers as possible. After Baghdad, came the huge bomb attacks targeting UN premises in Algiers on the 11th of December 2007, which killed 17 UN staff and 7 bystanders; and 13 UN staff were among the 28 people who died following the suicide bombing of the United Nations House in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Dozens more colleagues from the UN system and other international organizations, including many brave frontline NGOs, have been killed, kidnapped, raped and assaulted in recent years.
Here, at OHCHR, we have lost five colleagues during an ambush in Cyangugu, Rwanda in 1997 and a colleague in Afghanistan, in 2011. Two other colleagues died in the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010.
In the wider UN family, the number of casualties rises into the hundreds – and, despite a serious effort since 2003 to improve our collective memory, the true absolute total throughout the entire UN system is still not known for sure.
To ensure that our Office honours all those colleagues who have died while serving the United Nations in the cause of human rights, we are today launching a special webpage on our website dedicated to their memory.
Many colleagues work in the world’s most volatile and dangerous environments to make the world a better place, and fortunately the great majority never come to any harm.
Our work in the field really counts. All of us who have worked directly with victims of human rights violations and humanitarian crises, know that there is immense fulfilment as well as occasional dangers.
When something tangible we have done lights a smile on the face of a victim, or a victim’s child or parent or spouse, then we know why we do what we do.
When we help to change a bad law, or to create a better constitution, or to jail a torturer or war criminal, we know that – whatever risks and discomforts we may face from time to time – our work is immensely worthwhile, and we can feel great pride in what we do, and what we stand for.
This year, many of our colleagues who were in Baghdad and survived, are attending a special Memorial Service in New York, along with the family members of those who died. In addition to marking this sombre anniversary, the ceremony will specifically honour those 30 individuals who lost their lives in the service of the United Nations from September 2012 to the 30th of June this year.
I believe that this annual commemoration, is of great importance, and something we should never take lightly. We must never forget that for some colleagues, the lights went out long before their time. We should continue to grieve, and to honour their memories on this, and every other day.