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United Nations honors aid workers on World Humanitarian Day

United Nations Secretary-General Antóonio Guterres at United Nations

United Nations Secretary-General Antóonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, Aug. 1. Credit: EPA/Justin Lane

UNITED NATIONS — The UN’s top diplomats praised the people who help the world body meet its goal of helping the planet’s most vulnerable people — including those who have lost their lives doing it — while pleading for more women to get involved in critical humanitarian work.

“World Humanitarian Day honors aid workers around the world who risk their own lives to help save and improve the lives of others,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, marking the 10th anniversary of World Humanitarian Day. “This year, we pay special tribute to women humanitarians and the huge difference they make for millions of women, men and children in urgent need.”

The event, observed every Aug. 19, was established to commemorate the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing of a UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, an attack that killed 22 people, including Séergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s top representative in Iraq. Since then, more than 4,500 aid workers of all genders have been killed, injured, detained, assaulted or kidnapped while carrying out their work, said Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator.

“From supporting civilians caught up in crisis to addressing disease outbreaks, women humanitarians are on the front lines,” Guterres said, reminding world leaders that humanitarian workers must be protected under international law. “Their presence makes aid operations more effective by increasing their reach. It also improves the humanitarian response to gender-based violence, which increases during emergencies.”

At a wreath-laying ceremony at UN headquarters in Manhattan, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed called for a moment of silence in front of the UN flag damaged in the Baghdad attack.

“Today we have gathered here not only to honor the victims of the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad, but also to remember and recognize all those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of the United Nations, working for the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” she said.

“Sixteen years ago, on this day, the worst terrorist attack the United Nations has ever experienced took the lives of 22 of our dear colleagues," she said. "Across the years since, so many others have perished in the line of duty, on the front lines of crisis and in epicenters of dire need. These losses have seared our awareness as members of a close-knit United Nations family.”

Mohammed said the attacks have sparked changes in the way the UN deploys its humanitarian resources, including increasing “safety and security measures, preparedness training programs, integrated rapid response, increased counseling and mental health support.”

Ursula Mueller said 2018 was the worst year in five years for humanitarian workers and the second worst on record with 405 victims, 131 of which were killed, 144 wounded and 130 kidnapped in 35 crisis-affected countries.

In 2019, she said, so far there have been 156 victims, 57 of whom were killed, 59 wounded and 40 kidnapped.

“Even among these risks over half a million humanitarian professional workers work every day to protect, save and improve the lives of tens of millions of people,” Mueller said, adding that women make up about 40 percent of all humanitarian workers. “Women humanitarians are able even better able to access women and girls who might otherwise be out of reach to bring them the services, vital information and support which they need. And women strengthen humanitarian response by bringing different perspectives, insights and experiences.”

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