Commemorating colleagues who lost their lives in the pursuit of human rights

On 19 August 2003, 22 UN human rights workers including the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira De Mello died during a terrorist attack on the UN Office at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq.

Thirteen years on, they are remembered by current colleagues during a memorial in their honour in Geneva.

“These colleagues were bold and brave,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein “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.”

The ceremony paid tribute to all colleagues who lost their lives while working for human rights. In addition to the losses in 2003, in Rwanda (1997), five people were killed in an ambush on UN vehicles; in Haiti (2010), two human rights workers were victims of the earthquake; in Afghanistan, a human rights officer perished during an attack on a UN compound in 2011; and in 2015, a human rights officer was killed by unidentified gunmen.

The ceremony remembered each of the departed individually. Damianos Serefidis, a UN human rights officer played a violin solo titled “In Memoriam”, a musical piece written in homage to those lost by Michael Wiener, also a human rights officer. Each note in the music represents a letter of all their names.

The ceremony was attended by Ambassador Mouayed Saleh of Iraq, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Mrs. Annie Vieira de Mello, survivors of the attacks, and friends and family of the deceased.

“Iraq has been fighting terrorism for the past 13 years on behalf of the international community to put an end to these gangs,” Ambassador Saleh said. “May God bless the souls of those who lost their lives in the service of humankind, putting an end to all these horrible crimes.”

Grandi emphasised the need for courage, particularly in humanitarian service. He encouraged everyone to draw strength and bravery from the lives of those lost in the line of duty.

Personal assistant to the current UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, Carole Ray was working in Baghdad in 2003. She read aloud a few excerpts taken from testimonies of friends of the deceased. The attendees observed a minute of silence after which flowers were laid at the memorial statue of Sergio Vieira de Mello in honour of those not with us today.

“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,” Zeid said.

In 2008, the UN General Assembly decided to commemorate 19 August as World Humanitarian Day to remember those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service.

17 August 2016

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