World Humanitarian Day

by Conor Foley on August 19, 2009

John Holmes the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs has a nice tribute to the UN workers who died in the Baghdad Bombing of 19 August 2003, six years ago today. he notes that ‘On this day in 2003, the UN offices in Baghdad were blown up by a truck bomb, killing 22 humanitarian workers and dedicated professionals, among them Sergio Vieira de Mello, a lifelong humanitarian who had saved lives and reduced suffering in some of this planet’s toughest places.

In remembrance of this tragedy, today is the first World Humanitarian Day, an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable achievement that when crisis strikes today, it is taken for granted that aid workers will be on the scene within hours.

I had turned down a job with the UN mission in Iraq to go to Afghanistan a few months beforehand, and several of my former colleagues from Kosovo were among the dead and injured that day. Since then I have lost count of the number of friends and colleagues who have been killed, maimed, kidnapped or emotionally traumatised in the course of their work.

Holmes notes that: ‘The number of conflicts around the world has shrunk over the past 20 years but the humanitarian fallout of conflict remains appallingly high. The kind of internal conflict we see so often is particularly ruinous for civilian lives and livelihoods.

Developments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan this year have strained our humanitarian aid system to the limit. An estimated 2 million people have been displaced in Pakistan during the past few months – the fastest displacement of people in recent memory. In Sri Lanka, the guns have finally fallen silent but about 300,000 people are still in camps, waiting anxiously to return home and depending on assistance to survive.

Long-running conflicts in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the occupied Palestinian territory and Somalia continue to affect millions. The humanitarian operation in Darfur – the largest in the world and now in its fifth year – struggles to provide assistance to 4.75 million civilians.

Given the news of another massive attack in Baghdad today and the continuing rising death toll in Afghanistan, it might seem wrong to single out aid workers for special mention, since we do after all volunteer to go to such places. However, I think that there is a debate to be had about the changing nature of aid work, how it is become politicised and what could be done to make it more effective according to our core humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality.