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Human rights work

“Their fighting spirit has stayed with us”

18 August 2023

Volker Türk leading a group of colleagues, friends and family during the memorial ceremony. ©OHCHR/Pierre Albouy

Saturday, 19 August 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the day the United Nations lost 22 colleagues in an attack at its Canal Hotel building in Baghdad, Iraq. The bombing profoundly changed the way in which the UN and the wider humanitarian community operate – from being respected, to being targeted.

That frightful day is recognized by the organization as World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It is a chance for UN staff and others working in the humanitarian field to remember the lives of colleagues, family and friends lost around the world due to conflict, rising geopolitical tensions, the blatant disregard of international human rights and humanitarian law, deliberate attacks, and disinformation campaigns.

At the annual memorial ceremony held at UN Human Rights’ headquarters in Geneva, the colleagues, family and friends who remain came together to celebrate the lives of the departed.

Mattia-Sélim Kanaan was just three weeks old when his father, Jean-Sélim Kanaan, was struck down at 33-years-old in Baghdad where he had been deployed as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq with other members of staff. His mother and Kanaan’s widow, Laura Dolci-Kanaan, has continued to work for UN Human Rights and is now the Secretary of the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council. Now 20 years old and a student, Kanaan is looking to the future.

“Twenty years is a long time, almost the equivalent of a new generation, a generation of new hope that can and must do its best in these uncertain times,” Kanaan said. “My generation has to look up with pride to heroes like the ones of Baghdad – people that decided to put their talents and ambitions at the service of humanity… Their fighting spirit has stayed with us and is a bright and powerful light that guides and directs us in our lives.”

Dhafer Al-Hussini, who is now stationed in Geneva, was one of the national staff working in Baghdad at the time. He said that national staff bore the brunt of the attack and the majority had to leave the organization, for fear for their lives or because their contracts were not renewed.

“I was one of the few who remained, but I kept recalling in my mind the saying of a wise man, “Never be lonely on the path to truth due to its lack of paths.” Against all odds, this made me more determined to serve the humanitarian cause with courage and indeed this is the path that I chose,” Al-Hussini said. “A man’s honour and merits in life will always remain dependent on one’s ability to make noble and solemn sacrifice for the sake of humanitarian work.”

Now retired after years of service for the UN, Shawbo Taher-Al-Talabani recalled what had been a normal morning on 19 August 2003. The usual office chatter was interrupted by laughter by Sergio Vierra de Mello, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Iraq at the time and his Special Political Adviser, Ghassan Salamé, heard from an adjacent office.

“We didn't know these would be their last laughs in this place,” Taher-Al-Talabani said.

Then, at 4.30 p.m., there was the blast and its deafening sound.

“Many fell down; some never got up again, others were amazed to be still in one piece; incredulous to be still breathing. Those few long hours that afternoon seemed like an eternity,” she said. “Some of us returned to our modest hotels, dazed with sadness, waiting anxiously to see who would re-join the usual crowd … and waiting for those who never will, Sergio, Nadia, Jean-Selim, Rick, Saad and 17 other colleagues we lost that day.”

Annie Viera de Mello and her grandchildren laying flowers by the memorial bust in her late husband’s likeness, Geneva, Switzerland. ©OHCHR/Pierre Albouy

Annie Viera de Mello and her grandchildren laying flowers by the memorial bust in her late husband’s likeness, Geneva, Switzerland. ©OHCHR/Pierre Albouy

World Humanitarian Day is also when UN Human Rights honours the memory of colleagues lost in Afghanistan, Haiti and Rwanda.

"It is very important that we honour their memories, that we cherish their memories, that we take from their lives, from their service to human rights, to development, to peace something that keeps within us and lives further," said UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, at the memorial ceremony.