In memory of those who lost their lives working for human rights

Speaking at a memorial ceremony held at human rights headquarters in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay spoke of the “acts of simple and unselfish courage by UN and NGO staff”, who choose, often, to work in very dangerous situations “to mitigate oppression, repair disaster and heal the scars of conflict.”

Pillay was speaking at the annual memorial ceremony held on what is now World Humanitarian Day, 19 August, the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, a terrorist act causing the deaths of 22 UN workers, including the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

In 2008 the UN General Assembly designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day to honour those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and those who continue the work of assisting others.

The High Commissioner recalled the colleagues from her Office who have died working for human rights: in Rwanda in 1997, five people were killed in an ambush; in Iraq in 2003, 22 UN employees died; in Haiti, two OHCHR colleagues perished in the 2010 earthquake; and in 2011, a human rights officer was killed in Afghanistan in an attack on a UN compound.

“The motivations of these humanitarian workers are the universal values that underpin the work of the United Nations,” Pillay said, “justice, freedom, human rights, safety, integrity and the embrace of human diversity. They seek to improve the human condition, so that all human beings may live in freedom, equality and dignity.”

Pillay, whose mandate as High Commissioner comes to an end this month, after six years, said she is moved by the hardships and hazards endured by many of those she has come into contact with and she noted that UN staff, aid workers, journalists, and medical personnel are being targeted more often than ever before.

As we mourn, she said, “we reaffirm our own commitment to pursuing the ideals of those colleagues, who have perished, by continuing to protect and promote the human rights of all – no matter where they are.”

This year on World Humanitarian Day the wider UN is celebrating the spirit that inspires people to take up humanitarian work. The campaign, Humanitarian Heroes is calling on supporters to tweet #humanitarianheroes to demonstrate support for those who risk their lives every day to assist people in need.

19 August 2014

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