"We call these fallen colleagues heroes"

Setting the Agenda, 19 August 2010

© UNHCR/S.Hopper
Deputy High Commissioner T. Alexander Aleinikoff looks on as Staff Council Chairman Bayisa Wak-Woya lays flowers at UNHCR's Geneva headquarters Memorial to humanitarian workers hurt or killed in the line of duty.

"We live in dangerous times and work in dangerous places. The days when the UN flag and logo protected us in our humanitarian work are now gone. Last year 102 humanitarian workers lost their lives in service to others.

"Humanitarian Day, launched by the UN General Assembly last year, honours our fallen colleagues. It commemorates a date well-known to UNHCR: the day seven years ago of the tragic destruction of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 UN staff.

"The pain of our colleagues' families, the loss to humanitarian organizations is great. But the harm goes much, much further. Every time a humanitarian worker is detained, kidnapped or killed, the crucial work that we do for others is diminished. Every blow struck against a UNHCR staff member is an attack on the idea that the world community has a moral duty to care of the least fortunate among us.

"We call these fallen colleagues heroes. My guess is that many would resist this label. They would say, I believe, that they were just doing their job, just trying to make the lives of the homeless, the hungry, the vulnerable, the sick a bit better, just trying to bring to others the security and well-being that so many of us take for granted.

"Humanitarian work is not a job, an occupation. It is a calling. Some who answered that call are no longer with us, and we remember them today, in solidarity with their families and those they served. For those of us who remain who are here today and around the world let us take from the sacrifice of others renewed dedication to the enormous tasks we face in this troubled world. Let us proceed with pride in the work we do and humility in respect for the burdens others bear, with a seriousness of purpose and a sense of humour, with a recognition that all people are connected by a common humanity that infuses our work with purpose. I thank all of you for the efforts you make every day so that others might lead lives that all human beings desire lives of dignity, of joy, and of peace."