Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 19, 2003. Amid the rubble of the U.N. office the blue flag lay torn. The head of that mission, an outstanding humanitarian leader (Sérgio Vieira de Mello) and 21 other international and national staff, NGOs and visitors, died that day. Dozens of others were hurt, many severely. I had visited Sergio the week before. Many of us lost close friends and colleagues in this most devastating attack ever against a U.N. facility. With it, a sense of innocence – the belief that being a humanitarian worker or working under the blue flag would in itself provide protection – also died.
Aug. 19 is now commemorated each year as World Humanitarian Day. It is a day when we remember those who have lost their lives or health working to help others, and highlights the important contribution of humanitarians around the world. It is also an occasion to reflect on the plight of women, children and men who are suffering from armed conflict or natural disasters, and to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian action.
Globally, there are 108 million people right now in need of humanitarian assistance. In this region, this last year has seen a dreadful increase in killing and displacement, which has severely impacted Lebanon. There are over 11 million people in need inside Syria, and almost 3 million people have sought refuge across Syria’s borders and beyond. Some 1.2 million in Lebanon alone.
Lebanon is the scene of a major humanitarian operation. The unfortunate experience that Lebanon has had to acquire from dealing with conflicts over the last four decades, coupled with extensive local talent, has given this country a unique capacity to respond. It is little known and appreciated that the main actors in our international humanitarian response are Lebanese themselves – civil society organizations and the overwhelming bulk of staff of U.N. agencies and international non-governmental organizations. These Lebanese make an indispensable contribution. And it is especially this part of the global humanitarian community that we wish to honor now.
All too many Lebanese have experienced themselves how conflict impacts the worst on the civilian noncombatant population. The acceptance of so many refugees from Syria is a credit to the country and Lebanese communities. Many ordinary Lebanese citizens are thus unconsciously part of the humanitarian effort.
Silently and selflessly helping those who have lost everything is the spirit that marks the essence of what it means to be a humanitarian. Such acts of generosity take place every day in communities across Lebanon – by volunteer workers such as the 2,600 who devote their time to the Lebanese Red Cross, by people who can give time, ideas, sometimes money, by people who share their skills and experiences.
Aug. 19 is an occasion to pay tribute to all Lebanese who have helped people in need. There is a humanitarian in all of us.
Humanitarian workers look forward to the day when their services are no longer required. But until then, they need security, respect for the impartiality of humanitarian work and our support, your support. Too many humanitarian workers continue to lose their lives. Trying to do good can unfortunately be dangerous. In 2013, 155 aid workers were killed, 171 were seriously wounded and 134 were kidnapped. So far this year, 79 aid workers have been killed, including in Gaza where UNRWA alone lost 12 staff during the latest bombardments. They epitomize the theme of this year’s WHD campaign “The World Needs More Humanitarian Heroes.”
They, as well as all those who have done – and are doing – so much in Lebanon, deserve our respect and support on this World Humanitarian Day.
Ross Mountain is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, he wrote this article on the occasion of World Humanitarian Day. To take action, sign up for the U.N.’s social media campaign at www.worldhumanitarianday.org.