Op-ed for World Humanitarian Day (PHOTO)

Society Materials 18 August 2017 12:10 (UTC +04:00)
There is hardly a day passing by without the news media reminding us of the humanitarian crises affecting millions of people around the world and causing massive displacement across regions and continents.
Op-ed for World Humanitarian Day (PHOTO)

By Furio De Angelis, UNHCR Representative in Azerbaijan:

There is hardly a day passing by without the news media reminding us of the humanitarian crises affecting millions of people around the world and causing massive displacement across regions and continents. The causes of humanitarian crises may be different, from wars and inter-communal violence to conflicts over land and resources, from climate change erosion of farm lands and sea shores to sudden and unpredictable natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and typhoons.

What is common in all the different scenarios of a humanitarian disaster is the suffering of the affected people, the scattering of families, the displacement of communities, and the need of women, men, boys and girls for cover, protection, water and nutrition, new homes and welcoming social structures. Normally, in support of the affected and responsible countries the international community mobilizes aid and resources to provide the much needed and life-saving assistance through either bilateral arrangements or through multilateral channels such as the United Nations and other international organizations.

At the end of this line of international assistance, at the intersection point between giving and receiving humanitarian aid, there operates the humanitarian worker. She or he can be a member of a non-governmental organization, or an official of an international organization or a volunteer of a local community or a simple citizen who is offering time, service, professionality and passion to addressing the immediate and urgent needs of the victims of humanitarian crises.

Every year, on the 19th of August, the international community celebrates the efforts of humanitarian workers across the world. The 19th of August is World Humanitarian Day, established in 2008 by a United Nations General Assembly resolution in order to “contribute to increasing public awareness about humanitarian assistance activities worldwide and…. to honour all humanitarian and United Nations and associated personnel who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause and those who have lost their lives in the cause of duty, and invites all Member States….as well as other international organizations and non-governmental organizations, to observe it annually in an appropriate manner”.

The day itself, the 19th of August, is a stark reminder of the environment in which humanitarian workers live and operate. On that day of the year 2003, in Baghdad, a car bomb destroyed the United Nations headquarters in Iraq killing the UN's Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other employees. The tragic incident had a profound and lasting impact on the UN's security practices globally.

Despite increasing awareness and more effective security measures available in humanitarian operations, in 2015, 287 aid workers were victims of major attacks: 109 were killed, 110 wounded and 68 kidnapped. The trend of casualties is increasing as we compare these figures to the 86 aid workers killed in 2011. The reasons for attacking a humanitarian worker can differ but they are all based on the rejection or at times the misunderstanding of the purely humanitarian function they fulfil. It is a strict requirement for all humanitarian operations to adhere to three basic principles governing humanitarian work: humanity, impartiality, neutrality. The observance of these principles is the trademark and the condicio sine qua non for operating in conflict areas, it should provide the ultimate protection from warring factions as it distinguishes the combatants from the civilians who try to alleviate the human consequences of conflicts.

However, and despite an overall compliance with the mentioned principles, humanitarian workers are often caught in the midst of conflicts and they are perceived biased on the basis on the faintest suspicion or they are merely targeted to send a political message to far-away quarters, or sometimes are the scapegoats of local conflicts, or commercial contracts that are not honoured, or just of the power game of local war lords and militia who impose their will on submitted populations.

What should be done to halt the increasing loss of life among the people who bring relief and assistance to areas of conflict and who sometimes are the only ones to offer a gentle hand or a listening ear, who are able to empathize with people’s years-long suffering and distress?

Primarily, states and non-state actors that are parties to conflicts, of whichever nature the conflict might be, must recognise the super-partes status of humanitarian workers, they must respect their mission and personal commitment and ensure their security at all costs and in all circumstances. It is no longer acceptable that beside the innocent victims of the conflict itself, also innocent humanitarian aid workers pay the ultimate price for their courage and their spirit of service.

Secondly and most importantly, it is time to impose on belligerent states and factions a political solution to conflicts. Public opinions must hold their governments accountable for the genuine efforts made in the search of a compromised solution, as political settlements are based on sincere and well-intentioned compromises. Influential states must use their political and economic leverages to apply the necessary pressure on the warring parties to encourage a negotiating table discussion. The lives of humanitarian workers should no longer be wasted in human-made disasters, when other humanitarian emergencies caused by the force of nature are requiring an ever increasing level of resources and efforts to deal with unpredictable and devastating nature-made disasters. The world should let humanitarian workers serve to mitigate the whims of nature and not those of unscrupulous politicians and warlords.

The 19th of August is the day we celebrate the sacrifice of humanitarian workers who lost their lives on the line of duty, and we recognise the courage and the hardship of those who continue to provide their service in the most challenging situations. Let’s all of us reflect and make an extra effort to create the conditions and the opportunities for peace, let’s think of ways and means to show a genuine quest for peace and let’s inspire others to do the same.

This year, 2017, is also the 25th anniversary of the relations between Azerbaijan and the United Nations, an important milestone in a partnership that has the objective of promoting peace and security, development and human rights in the country. This relationship started during the still unresolved conflict with Armenia, which saw humanitarian workers from Azerbaijan and from abroad working hand in hand for the protection and assistance of the civilian victims of the conflict. It is important to recognise today the past and present efforts of these valorous humanitarian workers, as well as the contribution of all the Azerbaijani humanitarian workers presently active around the world in the exercise of their humanitarian mission.

May World Humanitarian Day give us the urge to become part of the solution, to join, in spirit and actions, based on our capacity and means, the humanitarian workers' efforts to make this world a more peaceful and tolerant place to live.