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

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Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet

19 August 2021

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for being here today.

Each year, on UN World Humanitarian Day, we come together to remember our colleagues who have been killed while in the service of human rights under the UN flag.

18 years ago, on 19 August 2003, twenty-two colleagues were killed in the terrorist bombing at the UNHQ in Baghdad. Before then, five colleagues had been killed in an attack in Rwanda in 2011. In 2010, two died in the Haiti earthquake. And two were gunned down in separate attacks in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2015.

Many other United Nations personnel have been killed in the course of their work to make the world a better place. Countless human rights defenders have lost their lives in the service of human rights. 

We mourn their departure, and pay tribute to their courage and commitment.

We also honour our colleagues that survived these crimes and tragedies, as well as those whom they have left behind – family members, friends and colleagues. I stand in solidarity with those present here today who lost their loved ones in that horrific explosion and the colleagues who survived, still carrying the wounds and memories of that criminal act.

We remember the dedication and leadership of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his team. We remember the commitment of our colleagues in Rwanda and Haiti. We remember the passion of our colleagues in Afghanistan.

We honour their legacy by living up to their example and continuing their work. By standing up for the universal values of human rights. By renewing the fellowship which binds us together as a community, with shared values. By caring for one another and supporting those in particular distress.

Our work saves lives. Our work breaks down hatred and violence. We are creating better, more resourceful societies – where fewer tragedies occur – but when they do, we equip people to surmount them.

Protecting the rights of people who are at risk of injustice also means that we step up when they are in danger. We stand alongside them. We push forward and raise our voice to ask for change.

For those whom we remember today and for many of us, this is the work of a lifetime – an opportunity to help transform the lives of many people, and a gift, which motivates and gives purpose to our existence.

The United Nations asks that each of us give the best of ourselves to our jobs. But we also need to take the best care we can of our colleagues.

We cannot guard against difficulties and trauma – especially not in our profession. But we can endeavour to respond more professionally to it, improving as a result, and to support each other along the way.

The past year and a half has presented new challenges for all us. But despite lockdowns, the lack of social contact, absence from our families and loved ones for prolonged periods of time – and, more tragically, despite the losses that some of us have endured – as an Office, we rose to the occasion. We adapted, we persevered and we got the job done.

I am committed to ensuring that appropriate counselling and care is available to every one of you – free of any stigma – to help with recovery and resolution of trauma, including in the face of malicious acts, and to support your well-being, both at home and in the Office, so that all of us can continue our challenging work.

I am moved and deeply proud of you who make up this Office – and the courage and dedication you show on a daily basis.

As we stand in memory of our fallen colleagues, I thank all of you for your service.