United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid tribute to the growing number of aid workers who are being killed each year, as he inaugurated the first observance of World Humanitarian Day.
Mr. Ban placed a floral wreath before a memorial plaque in the U.N. lobby and then observed a minute of silence to honor those killed in the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad six years ago. That attack on the Canal Hotel in 2003 killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and led the U.N. to substantially reduce its mission in Iraq.
But Mr. Ban said 2003 was not the deadliest year for humanitarian workers.
"Last year, more humanitarian workers were kidnapped, seriously injured or killed during violent attacks than ever before. This is unacceptable," he said.
The United Nations says 260 humanitarian aid workers were killed, abducted or harmed in attacks in 2008. In fact, the U.N. says the fatality rate for international aid workers last year exceeded that of U.N. peacekeeping troops.
Mr. Ban highlighted humanitarian workers' efforts - and the perils they face - as he commemorated the first World Humanitarian Day. Mr. Ban praised their commitment by calling to mind the vulnerable people who rely on humanitarian efforts.
"The one billion afflicted by hunger," he said. "The tens of millions forced to flee their homes because of disaster and conflict. The children who die from diseases we know how to cure. The women and girls who are brutalized by sexual violence."
Trends show that field work has gotten more dangerous in the past decade. According to figures cited by the U.N., the number of humanitarian workers who have been victims of attacks has increased by about 50 percent since 1998, for international and national staff members alike. (for every 10,000 staff members: 1998 14 international and 4 national victims; 2008 - 23 int'l and 9 nat'l victims).
The secretary-general said he is saddened that such violence continues. Mr. Ban mourned the two Afghan U.N. staff members and others killed Tuesday in a suicide attack in Kabul. And he called Wednesday's string of bomb attacks in Baghdad "appalling."
But the U.N. chief looked forward. "Each year on August 19th, we will honor the memory of fallen humanitarians," said Mr. Ban. "We will pay tribute to the dedicated men and women who are out there among the vulnerable, providing hope and help. And we will draw the world's attention to the great magnitude of suffering in our world that needs our urgent attention."
After his speech, Mr. Ban viewed a photo exhibit of humanitarian workers that is on display in the U.N. lobby. The images span decades, showing wide-eyed Palestinian children getting hot food at a relief camp in 1966 to more recent photos, including one of a small baby being spoon-fed by relief workers in Sudan. Mr. Ban also signed a guest book, writing that he pledges to do more to protect vulnerable people as well as "the brave and selfless" humanitarian workers who help them.