My boss died in a Baghdad bombing that changed humanitarian work forever

Twenty years after Sergio de Mello and 22 others were killed, humanitarianism continues to face daunting challenges

Sergio Viera de Mello, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, right, with members of his mission in Aleksinac, south-west of Belgrade, on May 19, 1999.  AFP
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“Work with me in Baghdad,” invited Sergio Vieira de Mello, my boss as UN high commissioner for human rights in Geneva. It was early 2003 and he was becoming the UN special representative for Iraq. But the late secretary general Kofi Annan had also just appointed me to head the UN mission in Sudan. And thus, our fates diverged – I was spared but he was killed in the suicide truck bombing of the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad.

I lost four other friends – among the 22 who perished on August 19, 2003, and another 150 wounded, many with life-changing injuries. That day is commemorated as World Humanitarian Day. The incident had a profound impact on wider humanitarian doctrine and practice. Twenty years later, where are we?

Humanitarians are still being targetted. Halfway through this year, there have been 113 major attacks with 180 workers killed, wounded and kidnapped. That is in line with trends that see an average of about 200 major incidents a year – a four-fold increase since Sergio’s fateful tryst with destiny.

Each year, about 400 humanitarians fall victims to deliberate violence – a third killed, and the rest injured or kidnapped. It is worth emphasising that these are under-estimates. Many smaller incidents and attendant trickles of casualties are not reported, particularly for local staff. Meanwhile, impunity is generalised as hardly anyone is punished for targetting humanitarians.

Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria and Sudan are the world’s most dangerous humanitarian settings. But Somalia, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Mali and Yemen are not far behind.

Sergio and his colleagues were killed in an explosion. While this still happens, gruesome analysis from the Aid Workers Security indicates that bodily assaults, shootings and kidnappings are today’s most common tactics. This indicates that humanitarians are not collateral damage in war but deliberate targets. Why?

The answer lies partly in the changed nature of armed conflicts, raging in a record 56 states today. And everywhere, from Afghanistan to Sudan, Myanmar to Ukraine, civilians are at the frontline bearing the brunt because violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes are almost normalised tactics. Humanitarians are not rendered immune simply by their moral status; they get in the way of fighters who use any means to pursue their aims.

Humanitarians are not rendered immune simply by their moral status; they get in the way of fighters

Concurrently, societal expectations have changed from earlier when humanitarian rescue and succour followed the end of wars or were provided in pauses between fighting or in special safe zones for civilians. Today, as gruesome images of war flash around the world, publics everywhere demand immediate help for victims. Today’s humanitarians must, therefore, tread where previous angels of mercy would not. Casualties are inevitable but do not justify the deliberate targetting of aid workers.

To explain some of that, we must turn to the humanitarian enterprise itself. Since Sergio’s time, this has mushroomed. It spans about 700 major funders including private philanthropies and governments. The donors’ own code of conduct insists that aid be provided wherever required according to objectively determined needs. But with only eight countries providing three quarters of global humanitarian funding, humanitarianism is hardly a universal commitment. In practice, donors have their favourite clients and those left behind are understandably disgruntled. Why should they respect humanitarians when they may be seen as tools for partisan foreign policies?

Further, donors give to about 1,000 major recipient agencies that employ a workforce of approximately 650,000 worldwide. The overwhelming majority are decent and dedicated professionals but the small numbers who abuse or exploit desperate and vulnerable beneficiaries – as in Haiti or Central and West Africa – tarnish the image of all.

The anger is felt when agencies are not open about such wrongs, do not do enough to discipline errant workers, and do not provide sufficient restitution for victims. When mutual confidence is eroded in such ways, so is the social contract between helpers and clients. Humanitarians become targets.

Before we teamed up in Geneva, the world’s humanitarian capital, I had also worked with Sergio in Kosovo and East Timor during the terrible conflicts there. The hallmark of his approach was closeness to the people he was helping. His security people remonstrated, and he knew the potential risks. But he instructed that his door must always to be kept open because he saw humanitarianism as a heart-led mission.

Sadly, Sergio’s trust in humanity was to be his tragic undoing in Baghdad. But, as a consequence, have the UN and international humanitarian agencies learnt the wrong lessons?

The reality today is that the modern humanitarian enterprise has become more distant from its clients and the structures and systems of formal humanitarianism appear more heartless. That is understandable because we have transformed the previous spontaneous expression of kindness into an organised and fast-growing business.

That has become necessary because suffering is at a record level. Today, a record 339 million people need humanitarian help: one in every 23 people on the planet. About $52 billion annually is needed for that. But halfway through this year, less than a third of funding needs have been fulfilled.

Therefore, organisations appear increasingly heartless in defining who is more worthy depending on the level of their suffering. That means deploying more technocratic, metric-driven approaches, and scrupulous – even mechanical – objectivity, increasingly using artificial intelligence. When that is combined with personal risk-reduction techniques that humanitarians must follow in a more hostile world, distancing from the suffering person is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the current humanitarian model that comes from an increasingly distant age faces unprecedented challenges ahead as geopolitical co-operation collapses and conflicts intensify; and disasters magnify with the climate crisis biting deeper.

What would Sergio advise now? He would, as always, lead from his heart. Our saving grace is that Sergio’s heart still beats strong in the chests of countless instinctive humanitarians around all the world’s cultures.

That is why World Humanitarian Day is not a lamentation for the brave humanitarians who sacrifice themselves every year, but a moment to redouble our efforts for humanity. No matter what.

Published: August 18, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: August 19, 2023, 5:50 AM