19th August marked for the first time the World Humanitarian Day. Its promoters hope to raise awareness of the valiant work undertaken by humanitarian staff and the dangers they face, to challenge growing trends of violence.
There is a lot to be desired in the work of major humanitarian organisations, the history of UN peacekeeping is evidence enough, but this day reminds us not to confuse policies with people.
For every botched mandate and inadequate response, there is selfless heroism.
Humanitarian organisations are more frequently being targeted, most commonly the UN, in which the humanitarian departments are encompassed in the politics of the organisation.
This day however reminds us not to confuse policies with people and the man whose death the day commemorates provides the most insightful perspective, Sergio Vieira de Mello, former UN head of Human Rights.
His life was a jump from one tragedy to another, in the 1990’s alone he worked in Bosnia, the Great Lakes region, East Timor and Kosovo; he took positions within the commissions for human rights and refugees, with a formidable intellect he combined statesmanship with humanity.
The context of his death provides a haunting perspective of the confusion between frustrations with foreign policy and earnest humanitarianism; Sergio was acting as UN special envoy in Iraq and died as a perceived face of Western interventionism - from a suicide bomb in Baghdad.
Sergio was not the face of Western foreign policy but a diplomat who combined ardent anti-American sentiments with pragmatism, and a determination to save lives.
His death in 2003 is part of a systematic trend of growing violence against humanitarian workers, in all organisations, as a legitimate target for a population’s disquiet.
Aid work is non-political and it is driven in most cases by a sense of responsibility and humanity – to alleviate the suffering for the most vulnerable. The day is a celebration; however it is also a call to do more.
The ‘Sergio Vieira de Mello foundation’ was a major advocate of forming the day, a spokesperson however had a stern and sombre message, ‘the world can no longer avoid action by putting its conscience at rest by sending humanitarian actors into the killing fields’.
The role of humanitarian workers is imperative, but it is not a substitute to the role of government and well supplied and trained peacekeepers in providing security for vulnerable people.
The current situation in Darfur and Somalia are concerns for both local and international humanitarian workers; especially targeted have been WHO truck-drivers and health officials providing resources and attention to the displaced.
Indeed, the growth of humanitarian workers as an extension of aggressive foreign policy was shown in Omar al Bashir’s eviction of organisations in Darfur after his indictment announcement.
The dangers of humanitarian work are being raised; the people from their communities and international workers are targeted as they work for people.
On the World Humanity Day they deserve our respects.
The author is a collumnist, The New Times