Aid workers, killed on the frontlines of conflicts around the world, are being honoured on the first annual day.
World Humanitarian Day is being marked on Wednesday, August 19, the sixth anniversary of the truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 people including special UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
A foundation set up by his widow Annie and former colleagues is behind the move to pay tribute to the modern heroes who provide life-saving food, clean water, vaccines and shelter to civilians caught up in wars or disasters.
“August 19 was the first time that the UN was directly and violently attacked, but it will be an occasion to remember all humanitarian workers who have lost their lives,” Annie Vieira de Mello told Reuters in Geneva where a ceremony will be held.
The General Assembly, at the request of countries led by Sweden, last December adopted a resolution designating the annual day, separate to the UN peacekeepers day on May 29.
“In the past 10 years, 700 aid workers lost their lives in attacks, kidnappings and robberies. This day pays homage to them,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokesperson of the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news briefing.
“Aid workers are being targeted more and more in attacks, it is a real problem. As a result, aid operations are often interrupted, depriving vulnerable people of supplies,” she said.
2008 record year
In 2008, 260 aid workers were victims of violent attacks, killed, kidnapped or seriously injured, according to the Overseas Development Institute. The toll was a record for the 12 years since the British-based group began tracking such events.
Some 122 of them lost their lives against 36 deaths in 1998.
“The 2008 fatality rate for international aid workers exceeds that of UN peacekeeping troops,” the group said in a recent report. “Attacks against aid workers have increased sharply since 2006, with a particular upswing in kidnapping.”
Kidnappings of humanitarians jumped 350 % in the past three years, with expatriates preferred to nationals as they brought higher ransoms and a “more visible political statement”.
The three most violent countries for aid workers are Sudan, especially the Darfur region, Afghanistan and Somalia, it said.
This year has already seen killings in Pakistan, kidnappings in Somalia and the Philippines, and armed robberies in Sudan.
Four aid workers, three from the UN refugee agency UNHCR and one from UNICEF have been killed in Pakistan. The agencies are helping more than 2 million people who fled fighting between security forces and Taliban insurgents, mainly in Swat valley.
Aid workers have also been the targets of assassinations and kidnappings in Somalia during a two-year insurgency led by Islamist militants against the government and foreign backers.
“Somalia has one of the highest per capita incidents of aid worker attacks anywhere in the world. So far in 2009, eight aid workers have been killed and 13 remain in captivity since 2008,” said Byrs, noting that six others were released last week.
Pic: Kids drinking water from a tap installed by aid workers