Today is World Humanitarian Day, a time to honour aid workers killed in the course of duty and those who work in promoting the humanitarian cause.
THE year 2003 will not be one I will easily forget. On April 12 at around 1.30pm, the Mercy Malaysia team in Baghdad, which I led on a humanitarian mission, was caught in a crossfire. We lost two staff – a driver and a local pharmacist. Several team members were injured and for those of us caught in the few minutes of shooting, it will be a memory hard to erase.
My first reaction thereafter was that the humanitarian community was no longer sacrosanct and this would be the beginning of the end of an era where humanitarian workers were recognised for their neutrality, impartiality and sacrifices to do good.
The red crosses, red crescents, ambulance markings, blue and white flags and any other insignia we display to reflect our neutrality meant little to belligerents and the affected population who themselves felt they were under siege.
Not long after, Margaret Hassan, the wonderful “mother” to many Iraqi street children, an aid worker herself with CARE International and our partner in a health rehabilitation programme at the Ibn Al Quff Spinal hospital, was abducted, never to be seen again. I still remember her kind note to me after my injury encouraging me to remain strong and committed to the cause.
The International Committee of the Red Cross office was also shelled that year, further proving the fragile and precarious conditions we faced.
On Aug 19, 2003, exactly six years to the day, the United Nations office in Iraq was bombed and 22 people lost their lives. Among them was Sergio Vieira de Mello, at that time the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Iraq. The world stood in shock and confused disbelief that the UN office and the life of its shining star were destroyed in one swift blow.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, de Mello’s family worked tirelessly to having the day recognised and in 2004, his widow Annie Vieira initiated discussions with key personalities in the UN and a number of governments.
At its plenary session on Dec 11, 2008, the UN General Assembly adopted the Swedish-sponsored Omnibus Resolution on “Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Humanitarian Assistance of the United Nations”, that carried the historic decision by the world body to designate Aug 19 as World Humanitarian Day to honour all humanitarians and the UN and associated personnel who had lost their lives in the course of duty and those who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause.
In recent years, attacks on aid workers have increased dramatically, forcing international organisations to routinely withdraw staff due to security concerns or in some instances, to close operations.
There can be no justification for attacks on humanitarian workers dedicated to the protection and care of the world’s most vulnerable, and World Humanitarian Day is an important occasion to remember the sacrifices that they have made.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2008, 216 humanitarian workers were victims of security incidents, 122 of them fatal.
Attacks on humanitarian workers equal a diminishing space for humanitarian work, which in turn poses perhaps the single biggest challenge faced by humanitarian workers.
Concerned with this increasing lack of humanitarian space, in April this year, ahead of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) Summit, the International Refugee Committee along with 16 major international NGOs operating in Afghanistan sent a letter to delegates urging that Nato troops clearly identify themselves and distinguish military actions from humanitarian activities, as a means of protecting civilians and aid workers.
According to the aid agencies, civilians in Afghanistan are increasingly at risk. In 2008, civilian casualties rose by as much as 40% compared to 2007 and aid worker fatalities doubled to 31 killings. The letter also notes that access to people in need of assistance and protection is consistently deteriorating.
The aid groups stress that military forces, including Nato, endanger the civilians they aim to protect and contravene international law when they do not clearly identify themselves and inadvertently or deliberately blur the lines between military and humanitarian activities.
Several recommendations included the need for military personnel to clearly distinguish themselves and their assets from civilian assets in order to reduce civilian casualties resulting from mistaken identity.
Military forces should not use relief or development activities in an attempt to win people’s hearts and minds for tactical, counter-insurgency or other military objectives. At the very least, international military forces and their contractors should refrain from relief activities when there are civilians capable of delivering assistance.
The provision of basic services by the military where civilian and humanitarian organisations are operating is unnecessary and compromises the security of aid workers.
Alan Vernon, Representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia commented: “The staff members of humanitarian organisations working in the front line, including the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins Sans Frontières and Mercy Malaysia, work day in and day out in the most dangerous places in the world risking their own lives in the effort to help vulnerable populations to preserve theirs. Many of these workers are Malaysians. Ensuring staff safety must be a top priority of every humanitarian organisation and the United Nations as a whole.” Aug 19 is a day to remember not only those humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in the line of duty, but also those who continue to do humanitarian work around the world.
Over the past 10 years working in disasters and conflict, my personal reflection of the changing landscape has led me to believe that we need to find new ways to work in crises.
The face of humanitarianism needs to be diversified and less focused around what is an essentially western construct. Mercy Malaysia, and other so-called “southern NGOs” have an important role to play.
This has been obvious in the several disasters where international NGOs have not been able to gain much access to affected populations whilst Mercy Malaysia staff and volunteers have managed to do so.
In retrospect, the single most important factor was our ability to build trust with communities. This cannot be underestimated and several of our programmes in difficult areas like Afghanistan since 2001 are testimony to this.
Partnership is the cornerstone of success and in many cases, survival. UN agencies and the humanitarian reform process have clearly identified partnership as the base for a more predictable and sustainable humanitarian effort.
“For example, Unicef has for more than 60 years, worked with its partners to protect and respect the dignity and rights of children and women, particularly the most vulnerable who are in need of humanitarian assistance.
“Grounded in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, as well the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, Unicef’s humanitarian response is based upon internationally recognised frameworks including the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and humanity,” said Youssouf Oomar, Unicef’s Representative to Malaysia.
“At times, however, humanitarian access to civilian populations has been denied by authorities for political or security reasons. Regardless, Unicef, together with its UN partners and other humanitarian agencies such as Mercy Malaysia, work tirelessly to obtain and sustain access to all vulnerable populations and to negotiate such access with all parties of conflict,” he added.
“Days of Peace” is such an example that illustrates Unicef’s work to allow safe passage to areas not normally accessible due to armed conflict. During these “days”, Unicef and its partners work to deliver essential services like immunisations, micronutrient supplementation, de-worming medicine, and breastfeeding counselling.
“We do this because we strongly believe that human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found.
“Unicef involves everyone in creating protective environments for children. We are present to relieve suffering during emergencies and wherever children are threatened, because no child should be exposed to violence, abuse or exploitation,” said Youssouf.
I never knew or worked with Sergio Vieira de Mello but I know many who have. While humanitarianism is not about the man alone and this designated World Humanitarian Day is not only to honour him, I cannot help but admire him for the more than three decades he dedicated his life to save and improve other lives at risk.
His untimely death makes us re-examine the world order and how the pursuit of peace leads us to many compromises, and how passive most of the world remains in the face of many humanitarian crises and horrors.
De Mello believed and chased the flame of humanity. And even if his flame was extinguished at the peak of his career, he can rest knowing he has ignited it in the thousands of humanitarian workers who continue to strive in pursuit of the right of all humans to peace and basic comfort. To all fellow humanitarian workers past and present, I salute you.
Dr Jemilah Mahmood is the founder and former president of Mercy Malaysia. She is currently the chief of the Humanitarian Response Branch of the United Nations Population Fund Headquarters, based in New York.