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U.N. Commemorates World Humanitarian Day Paying Tribute to Aid Workers

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 20 2014 (IPS) - The United Nations Tuesday commemorated World Humanitarian Day paying tribute to aid workers who risk their lives to bring relief to those in need.

In 2013 alone, 460 aid workers suffered violence or attacks, and 155 were killed, according to a new report by the U.N. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA

 To highlight the plight of those working in the field, OCHA convened a panel discussion hosted by The Huffington Post.

The participants included former New York Police Department officer turned Peacekeeper, Ken Payumo, Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh, former child soldier and now activist and actor, Emmanuel Jal, and Pernille Ironside , currently working in Gaza.

The panellists not only discussed what it meant to be a humanitarian worker, but also to recount personal experiences of working in the field.

Asked to define the duties of a humanitarian worker, Ironside, an aid worker with UNICEF equated it to “selflessness” and added that, “advocating for the protection of civilians at all times,” was a major characteristic of the job.

Payumo, a peacekeeper who was working in South Sudan at the brink of the conflict in 2013 recounted a harrowing verbal altercation with local forces when thousands of civilians sought refuge at the UNMISS compound he was working on.

“Impartiality is central to us,” Payumo added, emphasizing the need for aid workers to neither judge, nor condemn civilians who sought protection during times of unrest.

Jal, a rapper and peace activists offered his perspective on the recent crisis in South Sudan pointing out there was “no coup, it was something the government created.”

Asked what people could do to help the situation in his former country, Jal said lobbying, awareness and discussion were integral to addressing any kind of political, or social crisis.

By putting a spotlight on a “dark” place, local and national issues were brought to the forefront and governments would feel the pressure to handle them.

In a statement released here, the President of the General Assembly John Ashe said a people-centred approach to dealing with conflict seemed to be the important message for World Humanitarian Day.

“As we look to implement a new sustainable development agenda, eradicating poverty while maintaining peaceful societies based on an inclusive, people-centered approach will be essential components if we are to achieve success and build a just and prosperous future for all the world’s citizens.”

Ashe’s sentiments were echoed by all panelists when they were asked what citizens all over the world could do to be more of a humanitarian.

“Start at home,” Payumo asserted, implying that not all humanitarian workers needed to travel abroad to work in conflict zones to help others.

Ironside asked the audience to consider, “giving a voice to the voiceless or for those who feared to speak out.”

In the light of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where violence has escalated after an 18 year old unarmed Mike Brown was fatally shot by police, and in Gaza where tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis continues to claim the lives of men, women and children, World Humanitarian Day put a spotlight on the work that many undertake selflessly in hot spots.

As Ashe said in his statement: “World Humanitarian Day is not only an opportunity for our international community to celebrate the spirit of humanitarian work, but also to underscore the need to do more, as growing humanitarian crises continue to threaten millions of the most vulnerable communities where lives have been torn apart by war and other natural disasters.”

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