GENEVA — The United Nations is marking World Humanitarian Day to honor humanitarian workers who put their lives at risk on behalf of millions of destitute, conflict-ridden people worldwide. The day, which is observed on August 19, was established by the U.N. General Assembly December, 2008 to acknowledge the selfless life-saving assistance of humanitarians.
“On August 19, 2012, it is high time we rise together. Do one thing for another human being. Nothing is too small," said internationally popular singer Beyonce. She is lending her glamour and star power to a global campaign that aims to shine a spotlight on humanitarian work and to encourage people everywhere to do something good for others.
August 19 commemorates the day in 2003 when the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was bombed, killing the U.N. secretary-general’s representative to Iraq, Sergio Vierra de Mello and 21 other staff members.
This day also memorializes the deaths of 31 people, among them 17 U.N. staff who were killed in the terrorist bombing of U.N. offices in Algiers in 2007. It pays homage to the 22 U.N. peacekeepers who lost their lives in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
This year, the United Nations says around 26 national and international humanitarian workers around the world have died. Spokeswoman for the World Food Program, Elizabeth Byrs, says 12 WFP staff and contractors have been killed while working on the front lines of hunger in Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, South Sudan and Ivory Coast.
“It is unacceptable that the humanitarian workers should face this kind of physical violence, intimidation, and attacks and even death in their daily struggle," she said. "This is something we would like to point out.”
Humanitarian workers face particular risks in Syria. Five Syrian Red Crescent staff have been killed since the start of the uprising. And, Sunday, August 19, the U.N. ends its 300-member military observer mission in Syria because of the increasing dangers.
The World Health Organization is one of a number of aid agencies involved in the humanitarian action in Syria. WHO Director of Emergency Risk Management, Richard Brennan, says WHO is playing an important role in extending health services in an environment that is difficult to access.
He says WHO also is involved in other major trouble spots around the world. In Africa, he cites North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo as an area of great concern.
“We know there has been an escalation of violence there with acute displacement of approximately 200,000 people," said Brennan. "Cholera is an issue there. WHO again is playing an important role in coordinating the response, collecting the appropriate information to allow the humanitarian agencies to prioritize and more effectively direct the response. Also, again tracking the rates of disease, bringing in equipment and supplies and technical experts to advise the local authorities and partners who are responding.”
Dr. Brennan says WHO is struggling to overcome the Sahel’s ongoing crisis of food scarcity and high rates of malnutrition. He says Somalia is another substantial challenge. But he says WHO is making good progress in improving access to services.
The United Nations says World Humanitarian Day, above all, celebrates the humanity and spirit that moves people to help others. It says people everywhere have the power within themselves to alleviate the plight of others. If they work together, the U.N. says they can make a difference for good.