World Humanitarian Day

In the past decade, more than 700 humanitarian workers have perished while providing life-saving assistance to millions around the world.

High Commissioner Navi Pillay and OHCHR staff who survived the 2003 bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Iraq, remember fallen colleagues at OHCHR headquarters in Geneva. © OHCHR PhotoIn an effort to raise public awareness of humanitarian assistance, the General Assembly designated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. This inaugural year honours those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and those who continue to bring assistance and relief to millions.

In a recorded statement, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the Day “is meant to shine a spotlight on people in need, to ensure they receive the assistance they deserve. ”

The UN remembers that on 19 August 2003, a brutal attack destroyed the UN headquarters in Iraq, killing 22 people from the UN and the humanitarian community and injuring hundreds of others. Among those killed was Sergio Vieira de Mello, at the time UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Iraq. Symbolically, the General Assembly decided to establish the anniversary date of the bombing as World Humanitarian Day.

“Humanitarian work and human rights are inextricably entwined. It is very often abuse of human rights that causes humanitarian crises in the first place. And without humanitarian aid, the basic human rights of millions of people – including the right to seek asylum from persecution, the right to education, and, most fundamental of all, the right to life – would be denied. Similarly, if human rights are ignored during a humanitarian crisis, the crisis will often deepen”, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated on the Day.

Humanitarian action stems from the establishment in the 19th century of codes of conduct during armed conflict. States were determined to create equilibrium between humanitarian preoccupations and States’ military exigencies in the context of modern warfare. Since 1949, the Geneva Conventions at the origins of International Humanitarian Law seek to formally protect people who do not actively participate in conflict but also to restrict war tactics. Sixty years on, the Conventions are almost universally ratified.

However, in the 21st century, humanitarian action is no longer confined to the protection and provision of emergency assistance and relief to civilians caught in armed conflict. Natural disasters or man-made crises can also be the cause of vulnerability. The current food crisis, massive displacements of populations and the diminishing access to water and sanitation are a few illustrations of challenges which are the consequences of the global economic and financial crises and are exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

A new phenomenon increases the defencelessness of those in need of assistance: the deliberate targeting of aid workers, forcing the cessation of aid operations in certain regions. “Sadly, since 19 August 2003, there have been numerous other assassinations of individuals and further bombs”, Pillay added. “Killing those who are trying to help others is a particularly despicable crime, and one which all governments should join forces to prevent, and – when prevention fails – to punish.”

Still, the humanitarian community has not been deterred from its mission to respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies. It is that dedication which will be acknowledged each year by the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation which will award a prize for outstanding work to achieve peaceful reconciliation between peoples and parties in conflict. Beginning in 2010, the winners of the Prize will be announced on World Humanitarian Day.

19 August 2009