Header image for news printout

World Humanitarian Day 2016

Memorial Ceremony in remembrance of those killed in the service of human rights

18 August 2016

My dear colleagues,

I am always moved by the tenderness of that video portrait of our 22 fellow team-members whose lives were cut short 13 years ago – among them, High Commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello.

As we come together again to mourn the victims of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, it is fitting that we have among us some of the wounded survivors of that attack, including Mona Rishmawi and Shawbo Taher-Al-Talabani. We also have here with us today many close friends and loved ones of those who died including Annie Vieira de Mello and her son, Sergio’s son, Laurent; and Laura Dolci Kanaan and her son Mattia-Sélim, who was just 3 weeks old when his father was killed.

Joining us here is the Ambassador of Iraq, H.E. Mr. Mouayed Saleh who will say a few words. Also with us are UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi, Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, and Director General Michael Moller who were all old friends of Sergio.

I think, too, of some of the survivors of the Canal Hotel attack who are not with us in Geneva today – Adam Abdelmoula, who was unscathed and David Marshall, now in New York.

Also with us is Andrew Clapham, who was Sergio’s academic adviser on IHL and will always be a member of the OHCHR family. Carole Ray and Dhafer Al Hussini were, quite by chance, away from their desks in Baghdad, and they will forever grieve for many members of their team.

We are here to comfort each other, and in that warmth, to keep alive our memory of those whom we have lost.

Tragically, the men and women who died in the Canal Hotel attack now stand for many more OHCHR and UN colleagues – international and national staff – who have been killed in acts of random murder since 2003. And some of the staff wounded in those attacks also stand among us today. We hold you in our hearts.

All these colleagues were bold and brave. Despite the risk, they stepped forward and put their many and various talents at the service of others – to give help, and a voice, to people who are abused and robbed of justice. They went out to right those wrongs.

We lament the absence of those who are gone, and we cherish their memory.

There has been so much blood shed by random atrocities since 19 August 2013. And every time a brutal attack causes civilian casualties, it brings back memories of those we knew. Perhaps all of us now must struggle to cope with the reality of this terrible, blind violence. And it is deeply good to be able to stand together, around the memorial statue in front of this Palais, and share our search for the strength to overcome our pain.

For we grieve, but we also continue. We know we have been given the gift of time that our colleagues were not. We take up the task of continuing their selfless work, in the same spirit of moral courage – pushing back the forces of injustice and chaos, and helping to establish equality, dignity and the rule of law.

In this way, we honour forever the memory, and the example, of our many fine colleagues whose lives and work have been cut short. Because the work that they, and we, have committed ourselves to achieving – with skill, with effectiveness, and with honour – is essential.

A few days ago friends of my family lost their six year old boy Rakan Stormer to cancer. He had been undergoing chemotherapy almost all his life, and suffered, very bravely. And I thought, as I was reviewing the remarks I would make today that all our friends whom we lost on 19 August 2003 - and so many whom we have lost since, all of them leaving a gaping hole in us, and especially in their loved ones and families – they were able to live a life, a life of service. And that little boy who brought immense joy and love to his family and friends, but he didn't have an opportunity to serve. They did. You realise, then, that they were blessed, also. As all of us are.

We may not, individually, be able to save the world. But we can serve it.

Colleagues, I pay tribute to our fallen friends, and to you all.