A tribute to those who lost their lives in the service of human rights

Twelve years ago, on 19 August 2003, the Canal Hotel in Baghdad was bombed by a terrorist act causing the death of 22 UN workers, including the former UN 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 helping others.

“Today we mourn colleagues from OHCHR, and all others that we have lost in the course of humanitarian work,” said UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri during the annual memorial ceremony held at the UN Human Rights Office headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We honour their courage and their choices. They chose a life of hardship, danger and personal sacrifice because they wanted to help others. Their work enriched our world and made it a better place. And as we pay tribute to these fallen colleagues, and to their bereaved families, we also celebrate all those who continue to be dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights everywhere,” she said.

The memorial ceremony paid tribute to UN Human Rights Office colleagues 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 the Baghdad bombing; 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.

Pansieri said that over the course of her career at the United Nations, she has seen many changes in the world in which the UN operates and how humanitarian workers are no longer safe from attacks.

“Today more and more, UN staff and other aid-workers, are being targeted for violence and murder by all sides and in far too many conflicts, as well as by lawless gangs,” she added. “This terrible reality -- which was brought home to us, so bitterly, 12 years ago -- is something that all of us must live with now, along with our grief for those who have been killed.”

As humanitarian workers, Pansieri said, while dangers existed, these men and women knew that their actions would “set them on a path that would be passionately interesting, challenging, and rewarding in way that few other professions could equal.”

One of these humanitarian workers is Dhafer Al-Hussini, a UN Human Rights Officer who was working for the Office in Iraq during the time of the attack. During the ceremony, he reflected on that day in a personal statement. “That painful day was a turning point for my country and as the terrorist acts continue throughout Iraq my fellow Iraqis have been left with an overwhelming feeling of despair and fear,” he said.

Laura Dolci-Kanaan, a UN Human Rights Office staff member who lost her husband in the terrorist attack in Baghdad, spoke to colleagues about the importance of having this annual ceremony at headquarters. Her husband, Jean-Selim Kanaan, was a UN Human Rights Office staff member working in Vieira De Mello's office.

“As families and survivors of that tragedy, we wish to thank you for being here today,” she said. “Despite our grief, we take solace from seeing, year after year, how the World Humanitarian Day is increasingly resonating within the UN and around the world.”

This year on World Humanitarian Day, the wider UN launches the Share Humanity campaign to encourage people worldwide to join any of the world’s humanitarian organizations and become an active messenger of humanity.

19 August 2015

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