Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths Op-Ed on World Humanitarian Day

Two decades since bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad: It’s time to walk the talk on protecting humanitarian workers

This World Humanitarian Day, we commemorate 20 years since that murderous day when terrorists detonated a suicide bomb outside the United Nations headquarters in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, on 19 August 2003. As the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at the time, it was one of the darkest days in the history of the United Nations. It still is.

For me, World Humanitarian Day will always be an occasion of mixed, and still raw, emotion.

Among those killed that day was Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was serving as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Iraq. Sergio was my friend, and my daughter’s godfather.

Sergio was devoted to the United Nations. He joined the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1969 not long after leaving university, and he spent the rest of his tragically curtailed life with the UN in increasingly senior positions. I first worked with him in 1996, when he served briefly as UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Great Lakes Region, and I served as his deputy before taking over the role. But I really got to know him when we moved to New York together in 1998 to set up the new Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – he as the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and I, again, as his deputy.

We became close, bound together by a common passion for the realities of humanitarian dilemmas in the field and how to resolve them. Like many of our best, Sergio’s passion was grounded in a devotion to the UN Charter, a copy of which he always carried. He had a strength of world view that made his advocacy, and indeed his oratory, all the more effective. We also became close personally, and I am still proud that my daughter was his godchild. It was this synthesis of personal trust and professional partnership with Sergio that made his passing so traumatic but also so formative for me, as for so many others. His example inspires me as I now carry out the role he held all those years ago.

The suddenness and finality of Sergio’s loss shocked me deeply. It brought me abruptly face-to-face with our mortality, despite my many years of working in war zones. I grieve him to this day.

In total, 22 people were killed that day and more than 100 injured. A good number of them were UN personnel. Many of them were Iraqis. But what united them all was a mission to assist Iraq to recover and rebuild as a country.

I know what this commemoration must mean to the families, friends and colleagues of the people affected that day, and of all those people killed, injured or kidnapped in pursuit of the humanitarian cause since then. And I know what it means to the humanitarian community and the wider UN community – the loss of one of us is a loss to us all. I feel your grief and pain.

I also feel anger. Anger that those responsible for the Canal Hotel bombing, and for the majority of attacks on humanitarian workers since then – and indeed for attacks on health workers and civilians in conflict – have never been held accountable. Anger that year after year, humanitarian workers continue to be the target of intentional attacks and are being killed, injured and kidnapped in the course of their work; there were more than 400 aid worker victims last year, the majority of whom were national staff. Impunity for these crimes is a terrible scar on our collective conscience. Pious words do not make a difference, actions make a difference. It is time we walk the talk on upholding international humanitarian law and tackling impunity for violations.

But my overwhelming feeling this and every World Humanitarian Day is a deep sense of pride. Pride to have worked with people like Sergio. And pride to be part of an organization and a community that continue to dedicate their lives to helping more people than ever around the world in their time of need, despite the risks and dangers.

This World Humanitarian Day, I pay tribute to Sergio and to all those who lost their lives and were injured in the Canal Hotel bombing 20 years ago. I pay tribute to all those who have been killed, injured and kidnapped in the course of their service to the humanitarian cause. And I pay tribute to all those who continue to serve the hundreds of millions of people in need around the world, no matter who, no matter where and no matter what.   

As Emergency Relief Coordinator and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, my pledge to humanitarians on World Humanitarian Day is this: We will continue to advocate for your safety and security as you continue your vital work; we will provide systematic and predictable leadership on safe humanitarian access; we will continue to call for accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law; and we will do our best to take care of you when you need support.

We cannot bring back those taken from us. But we can honour their memories by doing everything possible to support those continuing their work.