By John Gittings
Cynical observers, of the kind who always scoff at the UN and its aims, may regard World Humanitarian Day (19 August) as just another high-minded but meaningless annual event. Yet the day has a very specific origin, which should remind us that humanitarianism is not just a fine principle but a hard struggle against the opposing forces of violence and war.
The event was established by the UN General Assembly in December 2008, after several years of diplomatic effort, as a tribute to all those who have risked and sometimes lost their lives to help the victims of inequality and conflict, and as an encouragement for those out in the field who continue to work for this cause.
The actual day commemorates the death of the senior official Sérgio Vieira de Mello and 20 other UN colleagues who were killed when the UN office in Baghdad was blown up by a terrorist bomb. At one level we may deplore the extremist violence targeted against humanitarian workers who were trying to help restore Iraqi civilian society. Yet the real lesson to be drawn goes much deeper.
The Iraq War of March 2003 was, in the simple but accurate description by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, an “illegal war.” Annan had warned the US and its allies a week before the invasion began that it would be a breach of the charter. It was also a war which, as its critics also warned in advance, was likely to increase rather than decrease instability in the region and of course within Iraq itself.
It quickly became apparent that the invasion, while successful in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, had stirred up an internal storm of protest and violence. Not for the first time, the UN was then called in to tackle the problems created or exacerbated by the unilateral action of some of its member states. De Mello, who had been in Iraq since May, listened to scores of complaints from Iraqis who lamented that their country had lost control of its own sovereignty, that living conditions were getting worse, not better, and that the security situation was becoming “precarious… particularly in Baghdad.”
The UN had already been struggling for more than ten years, since the Gulf War of 1991, to tackle an on-going humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Their workers were frustrated not only by Saddam Hussein, but also by the harsh sanctions on which the US and its allies had insisted and which hit the innocent Iraqi civilians rather than the regime. In summer 2003, though with many misgivings, Kofi Annan and his officials decided to re-commit the UN to Iraq. The resolution authorising the UN Assistance Mission (UNAMI) was passed on 14 August, just five days before the fatal bomb.
The story of Iraq illustrates a wider problem with international humanitarian action which often finds itself invoked by forces which at the same time are undermining it. Afghanistan is another current example, where the amount of non-military aid given from 2001 to 2010 has been only one-twelfth of the total of military aid.
It is a truism that we live in a globalised world, but world leaders need to understand that this also means sharing a global responsibility to tackle poverty and inequality. Development and aid should not merely be used to patch up the wounds left by conflict and war: they should move to the top of policy priorities to prevent those wounds being created.
As long ago as 1919, when the International Labour Organisation was set up by the League of Nations, it was explicitly recognised that — as in the opening words of its constitution — “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based on social justice.” The same spirit inspired the establishment of the United Nations whose agencies have been seen for decades as bearing primary responsibility for addressing poverty and inequality, and tackling disasters whether natural or man-made. The UN system, as its passionate advocate the late Erskine Childers argued (in his Challenges to the United Nations, 1994), “has accomplished vastly more than (we) have ever been told about” and we should give it the means to do even more.
John Gittings worked at The Guardian (UK) for twenty years as assistant foreign editor and chief foreign leader-writer. He is on the editorial team of the new Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace (2010) and is author of The Glorious Art of Peace: from the Iliad to Iraq (2012). Read Gittings on the real lessons of the Cuban Cold War crisis.
World Humanitarian Day pin image via WHD