To many of us, August 19th is just another day on the calendar – but to those who closely follow the United Nations, World Humanitarian Day (WHD) is a day of special remembrance for the loyal U.N. aid workers who travel to the world’s most dangerous hotspots assisting civilians caught in the crosshairs of conflict and global health emergencies.
In May 2016, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened the first global humanitarian summit in Istanbul, Turkey. The purpose was to develop ways to confront the burgeoning problem of providing humanitarian assistance to those in need in a constantly changing world. Ban Ki-moon’s Agenda for Humanity and its five-point plan outlined steps needed to help ease the suffering of those living in conflict zones, chief among them was finding ways to prevent and end conflict.
The U.N. General Assembly designated August 19th as the day to commemorate humanitarian workers coinciding with that fateful day in 2003 in Iraq when 22 humanitarian aid workers were killed in a bombing, including the special representative for the U.N. Secretary-General, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The Brazilian diplomat sought to bring his talent and skills to bear in some of the most challenging places on earth. From Bangladesh to Sudan, Mozambique to Cyprus, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and post-genocide Rwanda, he worked tirelessly to bring peace to countries that only knew conflict. In her 2008 book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, wrote that given the current crises we face today “there is no better time to turn for guidance to a man whose long journey under fire helps to reveal the roots of our current predicament – and perhaps the remedies.”
This day takes on added meaning as the world body seeks to broaden it by including civilians affected by humanitarian crises through the mobilization of its Member States and civil society to support and recognize peoples of the world affected by humanitarian nightmares.
The launch of last year’s #NotATarget campaign saw close to two million people act through social media urging global leaders to protect civilians and aid workers in conflict zones. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and its partners have created an innovative approach through the use of a “global digital campaign” to muster support from citizens, decision makers and celebrities acting together under the guise of the #NotATarget message to sign the “first ever ‘living petition” to protect civilians.
Rather than having an actual signed document, the “living petition’ will project people’s faces, names, locations onto screens and onto a socially-powered sculpture” designed by an artist commissioned by the U.N. The facial image of the sculpture will “address ordinary citizens and world leaders at the General Assembly, and speak up for civilians caught up in conflict with the use of a voice-over.”
This campaign, including all the key stakeholders, coincides with the annual report issued by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres regarding the protection of civilians in armed conflict. In May of this year, Guterres remarked before the Security Council that “the most effective way to protect civilians is to prevent conflicts and to end them.” “Conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding” will continue to remain a top priority for the global body. Moreover, he added, there are 128 million people globally in need of humanitarian assistance due to conflict.
The Secretary-General stated that “more than 26,000 civilian women, girls, men, and boys” died or were injured because of conflict. This figure encompasses just 6 countries: Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. Many of the injuries and deaths occurred in Afghanistan.
A prime example of the importance of raising our collective voice in support of aid workers and the plight of civilians in Yemen. In recent days, we witnessed the horror of the Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a school bus carrying innocent Yemeni children. Scenes of such tragedy should galvanize the world towards greater action to prevent and end such conflicts. The U.N. deems Yemen one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
The heinous nature of targeting humanitarian aid workers and civilians, especially children, has become the new dynamic of war. Wars today are relegated to urban centers where the percentage of civilian and aid worker casualties are very high. This, of course, does not justify or make the images of human suffering any easier to view. The power of social media can be used as a force for good evidenced by the U.N.’s #NotATarget campaign. It is incumbent upon civilized society to act together to pressure global elites to put an end to these conflicts in the name of diplomats like Sergio Vieira de Mello who worked his entire life in the name of peace.
Michael Curtin serves as the Editorial Chair of Northern New Jersey Chapter, United Nations Association of the United States of America.