Samaritans in the line of fire
On World Humanitarian Day, we should remember those who put themselves in peril for the greater good
Today is World Humanitarian Day. It marks the anniversary of the day on which Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the special representative of the secretary-general to Iraq, and 21 colleagues were killed by a massive car-bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. It is a day to pay tribute to all humanitarian personnel who have lost their lives in the line of duty and to all those who continue to take risks to relieve the suffering of the less fortunate.
The Canal Hotel bombing, as it became known, irreversibly changed the security situation in which humanitarian aid workers operate. In the past, aid workers were respected, not targeted. The flags and emblems of humanitarian organisations that traditionally provided a shield for aid workers are now turning them into potential targets.
Humanitarian work is one of the world’s most dangerous professions. Kidnappings, shootings and death threats are all part of the job description in places such as Sudan, Syria, Somalia and others blighted by conflict. Those who work in this rocky terrain are increasingly exposed to risk while maintaining a lifeline to the victims of wars and disasters.
It is self-evidently unacceptable that they are subject to harassment, abduction or even plain murder while serving humanity.
Attacks on humanitarian posts have tripled in the last decade. Since 2011, 109 humanitarian workers have been killed, 143 others were wounded and 132 have been kidnapped, according to the United Nations. Crimes against unarmed civilians are never justified. When these crimes are committed against people who dedicate their lives to saving others, the injustice is ever more apparent.
But it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of these victims are not international aid workers from western countries, but those serving in their own country, working closest to the local population. Humanitarian aid is not the preserve of the west but a global imperative. The many national aid workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice bear witness to this.
Over the last 12 months, Syria has become a killing ground. Six humanitarian aid workers have been killed since the beginning of this year, all of them Syrian staff. In two cases, it is alleged that the victims, both from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, were deliberately targeted. As with the shooting at ambulances, the misuse of hospitals and the shelling of civilians, these are direct violations of international humanitarian law.
The safety and security of aid workers are directly linked to safe access to vulnerable populations and the sustainable delivery of assistance. The violence committed against aid workers also affects those they are helping. Thousands of vulnerable people can be left without essential support if aid is suspended or closed due to insecurity.
Humanitarian principles and international legal frameworks offer a degree of formal protection but only if and when they are observed and respected. Sadly, the conditions in which humanitarian workers operate are growing more dangerous every year.
Humanitarians draw the world closer together by reminding us that we are one family, sharing the same dreams for a peaceful planet, where all people can live in safety and with dignity.
This is also a day to examine our lives and consider what more we can do to help – to reach out to people enduring conflict, disaster and hardship. Let those we honour today inspire us to start our own journey to make the world a better place and bring our human family more closely together.