Countdown to Human Rights Day
What makes a human rights defender?
“Struggling to uphold the rights of everyone – even in times of conflict and disaster – constitutes one of the hardest tasks in the world. We are here to pay tribute to all the heroes whose lives have been cut down as they engaged in that exemplary work.”
– UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet
Brave men and women risk their lives every day serving the cause of human rights. Many of them work in some of the world's most volatile and dangerous environments with one objective in mind: making the world a more equitable and safer place.
Whether it is through diplomacy, legal advice, training and advocacy, whether through research and investigation or through public campaigning, or through managing logistics and security, budget and technology, human rights staff members strive to make the enjoyment of human rights a reality on the ground, everywhere, at all times.
On 4 February 1997, five human rights observers from the UN Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda (HRFOR) were shot dead in the southwest of Cyangugu prefecture. The observers - three Rwandans, a Briton and a Cambodian - were travelling in two clearly marked United Nations vehicles in Karengera commune when ambushed by a large group of unidentified armed men.
On the afternoon of 19 August 2003, the United Nations headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad was largely destroyed by a devastating bomb attack. The blast resulted in the death of 22 people, including the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The bomb was targeting the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).
Sergio Vieira de Mello (Brazil) was Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative for Iraq. He had taken a four-month leave of absence from his post as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Prior to his appointment in 2002 as High Commissioner, Vieira de Mello served as the head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor helping to shepherd the Pacific nation to independence, and he briefly held the position of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Kosovo.
Vieira de Mello joined the United Nations in 1969, spending the majority of his career with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, and serving in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Bangladesh, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru and the Sudan. He also served at United Nations Headquarters in New York as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
On 12 January 2010, a devastating earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, hit Haiti killing more than 200,000 people and displacing more than two million others. Among those who perished were 102 United Nations personnel, including two human rights officers, constituting the highest loss of life from a single event in United Nations history. The earthquake leveled the capital city, delivering a severe blow to an already vulnerable Haitian economy and infrastructure, and severely impeding nation-building efforts in the country.
On 1 April 2011, a large crowd of demonstrators, angry at the burning of a copy of the Koran by a group in the United States, stormed an operations centre for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, (UNAMA) in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Three international staff working with the mission were killed, including a human rights officer, as well as four Nepalese Gurkha soldiers serving as guards at the operations centre. An unconfirmed number of Afghan demonstrators were killed. Many staff were also wounded.
On 12 October 2015, while travelling to work in the city of Kandahar, a colleague, the lone Afghan woman working for the UN Assistance Mission in Kandahar, was killed by two unidentified gunmen on a motorcycle.
This page pays tribute to those people who lost their lives working to advance the rights of those around them in the face of great personal risks.