Today marks the tenth anniversary of the tragic bombing of the United Nations building in Baghdad in which 22 people died, among them 15 UN staff members. The Baghdad attack is seen as a turning point for the UN, which had not realised until then that its workers could become targets.In his Inquiry Report into the UN's failure to protect its staff at Baghdad, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari said:
"the current security management system is dysfunctional."
It is a sad truth that I and many of my UN staff colleagues feel that ten years after Baghdad the risks faced by us, the staff, are greater than ever before, and we're losing colleagues in larger numbers.
Let me share a statistic. Over the last ten years the Aid Worker Security Database has tracked attacks on 555 UN staff and contractors, of whom 220 were killed. Our staff in Abuja, Algiers, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul and Mogadishu, among others, have come under fire. A further 102 colleagues were lost in the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Together that's a huge number for a civil service. Does any other civil service lose 300 staff in ten years?
In our mission to increase peace and security around the world, we have become a target. As our role has changed and we have stepped up our operations in conflict zones and areas where we are not always welcome, the dangers posed to us, as well as to the peacekeeping personnel of troop contributing countries, have increased.
Picture the scene two months ago at the UN office in Mogadishu, Somalia. Terrorists are roaming around the compound over several hours. Terrified colleagues are hiding behind their desks. Many can't get to the safe room because they don't know where the terrorists are and they don't know what's going on. Some call their families back home, tell them they love them and say goodbye. They thought they were living their last moments. For eight UN staff and contractors, that was indeed the case.
In New York today I am speaking on behalf of UN staff at the 10th Anniversary Memorial Service for our colleagues who died in Baghdad.
I hope that another speaker, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will not be offended when I hand him a letter from the staff unions demanding urgent improvements for our safety and security. It has been signed by UN staff representatives in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and other frontline field stations, as you can see here.
We are also calling for the restoration of the unions' negotiating rights, which were unilaterally withdrawn by the Secretary-General in June just days before the Mogadishu attack. By refusing to meet with union leaders to discuss security and other concerns, UN managers are ultimately failing to assure our safety and protect us in some of the most dangerous places in the world.
After every attack or disaster we say that the terrorists won't deter us and we'll continue our mission.
Maybe. But we're no longer the same UN. We're more and more in conflict zones. And we've taken certain decisions that mean we're no longer seen as neutral. The UN flag is now a target instead of a shield. That means we have to change how we go about things, because right now our colleagues and their families are paying too high a price.
For example, for colleagues who survive an attack, it's normal that they want to move to a safer duty station. But there's no policy to help them do that.
That has to change, and the UN unions want to work with Ban Ki-moon to protect staff and address the following issues together in a constructive framework:
- It is essential that safety and security services should not be motivated by profit; security chiefs in the field deserve to be supported by professional UN security officers, not unscreened private security companies.
Families of our deceased colleagues should not be left behind. Surviving family members need a better defined package of care. Children should receive medical and educational support as an official entitlement, not as an act of charity.
The UN needs an independent judicial coroner to get a fair and honest answer for bereaved relatives about why a spouse, parent, son or daughter dies in the field.
More must be done to protect colleagues whose mental health has suffered as a result of witnessing or being the victim of malicious attacks. Sick leave, disability and selection policies need to be reviewed so that staff don't lose their jobs unfairly or find that their contracts aren't renewed on health grounds. Training is also required to ensure we can understand these challenges and do our best to reintegrate affected colleagues.
There should an annual, internationally recognised UN Memorial Day for fallen staff. A permanent memorial should be established and a list kept of all colleagues who have died or been affected by malicious acts against them whilst working for the United Nations.Strict criteria must be developed for situations where we may be deployed to the 103 member states that have not ratified the 1994 Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, or the 165 countries that have not signed the 2005 Optional Protocol to the Convention.
We believe that union rights save UN lives. In order to help ensure the safety of colleagues who serve in the field, a credible negotiating framework between representatives of staff and management is essential. Without the ability to challenge decisions that may prove to be harmful to them, or even to speak up for themselves, our colleagues are helpless.
The United Nations is inevitably asked to work in the most dangerous places in the world. But if it wants to succeed, it must take care of its staff, keep them safe, look after survivors and never forget the families who will forever carry the memories of loved ones who paid the ultimate price.
If we are not going lose another 300 colleagues over the next ten years, and be having this same debate in 2023, the UN must commit itself to bring staff deaths to zero. Never again should colleagues have to hide in their offices, in fear of their lives, as terrorists roam the grounds. And never again should UN staff have to suffer what they did in Baghdad.
• Today's Memorial Service including speeches by Ban Ki-moon and Ian Richards will be live streamed from 09.45 EDT here: http://webtv.un.org/
Follow Ian Richards on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IanRep