The rising attack on aid workers causes concern

World Humanitarian Day

August 19 this year is being observed as the first World Humanitarian Day dedicated to increasing public understanding of humanitarian assistance activities worldwide and to honour humanitarian workers who have lost their lives or have been injured in the course of their work.

The date coincides with the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United Nations Office in Iraq in 2003, in which 22 people died. Among them was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Today is the first ever World Humanitarian Day, an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come towards the ideal that everyone in need should be helped. It is a remarkable achievement that when crisis strikes, it is taken for granted that aid workers will be on the scene within hours.

Yet if everyone agrees about the worth of humanitarian action, sadly the aid workers themselves are increasingly under fire. This has grave implications for our work — and the survival of those who rely on us.

Unfortunately, the need for humanitarian relief continues to grow. The causes of human suffering have multiplied over the years at least as fast as humanitarians have found ways to meet them.

While the number of conflicts around the world has shrunk over the last 20 years, the humanitarian fallout of conflict remains appallingly high. And the kind of internal conflict we see so often these days is particularly ruinous for civilian lives and livelihoods.
Major developments in Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the first six months of this year have strained our humanitarian aid system to the limit. An estimated two million people have been displaced in Pakistan during the past few months — the fastest displacement of people in recent memory. In Sri Lanka, while the guns have finally and thankfully fallen silent, nearly 3,00,000 people are still in camps with little or no freedom of movement, waiting anxiously for the possibility to return home, and depending on assistance to survive until they do.

Meanwhile, long-running conflicts such as those in Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Somalia continue to affect millions.

Natural hazards — ramped up in their ferocity and frequency by climate change — have had horrific consequences for many of the poorest people, particularly in Asia, in recent years. Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar last year killed 1,40,000 and left up to 2 million people desperately requiring humanitarian relief.

Aid workers are used to overcoming the climatic, geographic, infrastructural and logistical difficulties involved in getting massive quantities of relief to people in some of the most remote or hard to reach places on earth.

Facing hostility

But without the consent of the states involved that expertise counts for little. And increasingly today, that acquiescence for humanitarian access is lacking.
Intentionally or accidentally, when the delivery of humanitarian assistance is restricted, lives are lost and misery prolonged needlessly.

We are too often being attacked either for what we have, as in Darfur or Chad, where banditry is rife and largely unchecked, or even worse for who we are, as in Somalia, Afghanistan and this year Pakistan, where four UN aid workers have been killed in as many months. The last two years have been successively the most deadly for aid workers on record. UN and NGO flags and emblems have too often come to be no longer protections but provocations.

On this day, 19 August, in 2003, the UN offices in Baghdad were blown up by a truck bomb. Twenty-two humanitarian workers and dedicated professionals lost their lives, among them Sergio Vieira de Mello, a lifelong humanitarian who had saved lives and reduced suffering in some of the toughest places on earth.

So on this inaugural World Humanitarian Day, while we celebrate all that has been achieved, let us also remember the huge challenges in front of us from rising needs, do more to ensure that the basic humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality are respected; and act to keep humanitarian workers safe.

(Courtesy: UN Information Centre, New Delhi)

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