UN Half Mast World Humanitarian Day

World Humanitarian Day: Shifting the Focus from Aidworker Safety


On August 19th, the UN will commemorate World Humanitarian Day. The event was held for the first time in 2009, following advocacy from the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation. Over time, the day has been marked with several themes. This year, the theme is “One Humanity.” Although the day was initially created to memorialize lives lost in humanitarian aid work, this year’s theme is focused on children and young people. To understand this shift, I spoke with David Bassiouni, a spokesperson for the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation.

David Bassiouni was previously the first UN Humanitarian Coordinator appointed to Somalia (1992) and a long-time senior official with UNICEF. Bassiouni is currently Chairman and CEO of the Bassiouni Group. Aid.Works reached Bassiouni by phone.

Aid.Works:  How is the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation involved in World Humanitarian Day?

Bassiouni:  The foundation was very instrumental in advocating for the establishment of World Humanitarian Day to mark the ultimate sacrifices that humanitarian workers all over the world have been making to save lives and reach people in need in humanitarian crises.

The 19th of August was selected as the milestone because it coincided with the attack on the UN in Baghdad in which Sergio Vieira de Mello and several colleagues lost their lives. It represents not only the people who perished that day but all humanitarian workers all over the world.

Who was Sergio? What kind of person was he?

Sergio Vieira De MelloSergio is, by all considerations, a giant in the humanitarian field. A man who dedicated his life to humanitarian work. From the time he joined the UNHCR until his death, he devoted his life, attention and service to humanity. He was a very charismatic leader who is much missed by so many.

He held a number of positions in the UNHCR, as representative in several countries all over the world and he also held the position of Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. As well as the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, whom we call the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). He also held the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. And finally, he was the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Baghdad, Iraq when that fateful incident occurred and he lost his life.

Would you say that the situation in terms of the safety and challenges facing aid workers has improved or gotten worse since Sergio’s death?

I think it has gotten worse. Because in the past, even speaking for UNICEF where I served a large part of my career, you had something called “working on both sides of the crisis.” So that when you are caught up in a crisis, you can reach both sides by negotiations. You could cross from one side to the other and give assistance to everybody.

We are not able to create zones of peace, into which humanitarian workers can cross.

But today in Syria we are compromised and limited because we are not able to create zones of peace into which humanitarian workers can cross and provide assistance, reach people, relieve suffering and save lives. Also, humanitarian crises have become politicized so that things are worse than they were in the time of Sergio.

This World Humanitarian Day isn’t focused very much on the sacrifice of aid workers. This year the theme is “One Humanity” and it’s focused on the five principles that the UN is promoting to improve humanitarian aid. Why do you think the focus has shifted away from aid workers’ sacrifice in the field?

It is a great shift and I support that. Because it’s not that we will forget Sergio and great colleagues who have paid the ultimate price. They will still remain very fresh in our minds and our hearts. But I think that it’s good that the themes and focus are shifting to young people this year to new, evolving situations and demands. I think this is just a natural evolution of the nature of humanitarian crises. I don’t think we are shifting away or turning our back to the sacrifices that so many colleagues and friends and relatives have paid in the past.

Have you been following what happened in South Sudan, where some aid workers at the Hotel Terrain were raped and one aid worker was killed, point-blank? In that case, the UN Peacekeepers decided not to respond to help. Is that a situation that you’ve seen before, or is this something new?

I happen to come from South Sudan. I am South Sudanese, so I know what is happening on the ground very well. What happened is part of the sad situation that has engulfed South Sudan and certainly what has been reported is not acceptable. If, as alleged, it is true that rape and murder have been committed, then it is the responsibility of all concerned to find out who the perpetrators are and bring them to justice.

We in the UN should use this as a clarion call for action.

I do not know the facts, but I think that is, from the reporting alone, that is not something that anyone will accept and I think the government may not even be happy with that. We in the UN should use this as a clarion call for action. We must do our part, if the opportunity is there, to prevent deaths.

As you said, the situation for aid workers is getting worse since Sergio’s time and this incident in South Sudan exemplifies that. What do you think can be done to improve the safety of aid workers?

I think we have to look deeper into the root causes of the crises, which are mostly political and try to resolve the underlying factors. Also, we have to advocate for a change of mind, a change of heart in people and use people on the ground — such as traditional leaders and people who have influence — to take it upon themselves [to create change]. It is not the peacekeepers or international community who should be coming in to mind our home.

We should take it upon ourselves to ensure that we as a nation, or we as people are bound by international humanitarian norms and standards. First, respecting all human rights and upholding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of engagement. It is our duty to resolve some of these problems. Some of them may be deep-rooted, caused by inequities of society. We have to look at the root causes otherwise this is going to be a continuing saga of the tragedy of humanity. Because the respect for human life is reducing. The ability of people to wreak havoc and create heinous crimes with impunity is also increasing so we need to work towards reducing that.

Anything to add?

I think at this particular point in time, as we focus our attention on the future, we are using the younger generation as a platform. We hope this will prick our conscience to say that the duty of respecting international norms and standards and the importance of protecting the helpless civilians is a joint effort of everybody. Of governments, of citizens, of civil society, of international communities, international organizations and all of us.


Photos courtesy of the United Nations

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