Protecting humanitarians 20 years after deadly Baghdad attack, amid rising risks

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The wreath-laying ceremony at the UN in New York was held on the eve of World Humanitarian Day, commemorated annually on 19 August.

This marks the day in 2003 when a suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives outside the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

A change in operations

Among the staff who lost their lives was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and head of its mission in the country.

More than 150 people were injured in the attack, mainly local and international aid workers helping reconstruct the country following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

“That tragedy marked a change in the way humanitarians operate,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message for World Humanitarian Day, established five years after the attack.

He noted that although humanitarians are respected around the world, they may also be targeted by people seeking to harm them.

Crises and risks multiply

This year, the UN and partners are aiming to reach 250 million people worldwide affected by conflict and other crises, or 10 times more than at the time of the Canal Hotel bombing, and amid a shortfall in humanitarian funding.

“As crises multiply, it is unacceptable that humanitarians are being forced to reduce aid to millions of people in need,” the Secretary-General said.

The risks that humanitarians face have also multiplied, he added, citing rising geopolitical tensions, blatant disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law, deliberate assault and disinformation campaigns.

Protecting humanitarians worldwide

Last year, 444 aid workers fell victim to violence in 235 separate attacks. Of that number, 116 were killed, 143 injured and 185 kidnapped. Most were national staff working with non-governmental organizations.

“World Humanitarian Day and the Canal Hotel bombing will always be an occasion of mixed and still raw emotions for me and many others,” the UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, said earlier this week.

Mr. Griffiths and the UN’s head of Safety and Security, Gilles Michaud, have published an op-ed that calls for “protecting the people who protect the world”.

They said the Canal Hotel bombing “triggered an urgent review of the UN’s security arrangements”.

An independent panel, established in the wake of the tragedy, recognized the need for new approaches that would ensure “an acceptable balance between operational objectives and staff security in high-risk environments,” they recalled.

“The Panel recommended investment in a new, adequately financed UN security management system with the highest levels of professionalism, expertise, and accountability at its core,” they added.

“As a result, in 2005, the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, or UNDSS, was created, mandated to lead a collective approach to UN security.”

Not a target

The UN officials highlighted the need for humanitarians to be able to safely access affected populations, saying that “security approaches must listen to and be attuned to local dynamics and sensitivities.”

They called for greater international support, including to educate warring parties on their obligations to respect, protect and provide support to aid workers.

“It means demanding, clearly and unequivocally, an end to direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, non-combatants, and humanitarian workers during conflicts in breach of international humanitarian law,” they said.

“And it requires us to challenge the disinformation and misinformation that are increasingly putting them at risk of attack and undermining humanitarian operations.”

Honouring fallen colleagues

The op-ed also underscored the need to continue high-level diplomacy that supports humanitarian operations and access, especially in heavy conflict, as “recent experience shows that genuine agreements are possible, even when peace seems a distant possibility”.

One example was the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal Steel Plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol last year.

The development was the result of a negotiated pause in the fighting to create a humanitarian corridor for a joint mission by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

“As we reflect on the gains of the past 20 years and how we can build on them to address the challenges of the next 20, we remain resolute in our determination to protect the communities we serve, while also protecting our staff,” the officials said.

“This is how we can best honour the memory of those who lost their lives in the Canal Hotel bombing and reaffirm our joint commitment to the noble cause they served.”

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