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20 Years Since the Canal Hotel Bombing: Protecting the People who Protect the World

A partial view of the exterior of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that was destroyed by a truck bomb on 19 August 2003. Credit: UN Photo/Timothy Sopp

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 21 2023 (IPS) - This World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, we marked 20 years since 22 of our colleagues were killed and more than 100 injured when a suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives outside the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, the United Nations headquarters in Iraq. This devastating blow to the UN sent shockwaves across the humanitarian community.

Along with the suicide car bombing near the UN headquarters in Baghdad just three days later, the attack marked a turning point in how the UN perceived security and threats, and how we approached humanitarian operations in dangerous settings.

It triggered an urgent review of the UN’s security arrangements, with the Ahtisaari Panel recognizing the need for new UN security approaches that ensured an acceptable balance between operational objectives and staff security in high-risk environments.

The Panel recommended investment in a new, adequately financed UN security management system with the highest levels of professionalism, expertise, and accountability at its core. As a result, in 2005, the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, or UNDSS, was created, mandated to lead a collective approach to UN security.

In the 20 years since the attack, the number of people who need humanitarian assistance has grown at a near-exponential rate, from around 50 million in 2003 to 339 million today. In response, humanitarian assistance has never reached as many people as it does today and there have never been as many humanitarian workers deployed globally.

In many ways, we have become more flexible and dynamic, changing direction more rapidly when either needs or security risks change. We have incrementally improved our policies, support, and guidance to make right and justifiable decisions.

But the risks to aid workers remain very real. In 2022 alone, 444 aid workers fell victim to violence in 235 separate attacks, with 116 killed, 143 injured and 185 kidnapped. Many of those workers affected were national staff, and the majority were from non-governmental organizations.

The threats to humanitarian workers, already manifold, are now exacerbated by rampant misinformation and disinformation about their intent and goals, and by unabashed disregard for humanitarian law by many parties to conflict.

For us to be able to meet our commitment to affected populations and our obligations to our staff, the humanitarian and security communities must remain committed to moving our partnerships, policies and practices beyond the “gates and guards” approach that predominated immediately following the Canal Hotel bombing, towards one that enables humanitarians to get closer to the people we serve.

We must continuously look for ways to gain access to, and the acceptance of, communities in need. To that end, security approaches must listen to and be attuned to local dynamics and sensitivities.

These efforts to reach communities in need and to stay and deliver even in the most challenging circumstances must receive greater global support. At all levels, we must advocate, jointly and relentlessly, on behalf of our humanitarian workers and principles, and on behalf of the people we serve.

This includes educating parties to conflict on their obligations to respect, protect and provide support to relief personnel. It means demanding, clearly and unequivocally, an end to direct or indiscriminate attacks on civilians, non-combatants, and humanitarian workers during conflicts in breach of international humanitarian law.

And it requires us to challenge the disinformation and misinformation that are increasingly putting them at risk of attack and undermining humanitarian operations.

Finally, we need to continue high-level diplomacy in support of humanitarian operations and humanitarian access, especially in the context of heavy conflict. Recent experience shows that genuine agreements are possible, even when peace seems a distant possibility.

Take for example the evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol, Ukraine in 2022, when we negotiated a pause in fighting to create a humanitarian corridor for a joint mission with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN.

Or look at northern Ethiopia where, after months of blockade, the first humanitarian mission reached conflict-affected communities on 31 March 2022. And take the Declaration of Commitment signed by the parties to the conflict in Sudan in which they agreed to protect the civilians of Sudan and recognized their obligations to facilitate humanitarian action.

Despite repeated breaches of the agreement, it has been pivotal in facilitating the re-establishment of humanitarian operations in many parts of the country.

As we reflect on the gains of the past 20 years and how we can build on them to address the challenges of the next 20, we remain resolute in our determination to protect the communities we serve, while also protecting our staff.

This is how we can best honour the memory of those who lost their lives in the Canal Hotel bombing and reaffirm our joint commitment to the noble cause they served.

Martin Griffiths is Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Gilles Michaud, Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security.

IPS UN Bureau


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