06/08/2014 13:23 BST | Updated 06/10/2014 06:59 BST

Those Who Kill UN Staff in Gaza Must Be Held Accountable

Over the past four weeks the world has watched a humanitarian tragedy unfold in Gaza. For UN staff like me it has been particularly tough. Nine of our schools have been attacked, 11 of my colleagues have been killed.

They include Ahmed Mohamed Mohamed Ahmed, a school principal, Inas Shaban Derbas, a 30 year-old teacher and the youngest, Abdallah Naser Khalil Fahajan, who at 21 was a school attendant.

UN chief, secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the most recent attack on Sunday, which took place next to a boys' prep school in Rafah and led to nine deaths including that of a colleague:

"a moral outrage and a criminal act."

UN human rights High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, went further, saying attacks on schools "may amount to a war crime."

Meanwhile, millions around the world saw UN spokesman Chris Gunness interviewed on Al Jazeera, break down in tears as he described the awful humanitarian situation.

I've had colleagues contact me to express their anger and frustration at the way the UN has been dragged into this conflict and its neutrality put at risk. It's an anger that's easy to understand.

Three times we've found caches of weapons hidden by militant groups in our empty buildings. Each time we disclosed the discovery so as to demonstrate transparency. The actions of these groups, as Ban Ki-moon has pointed out, have turned schools "into potential military targets, endangering the lives of innocent children, UN employees working in such facilities, and anyone using the UN schools as shelter."

Nine times our schools have got caught in the crossfire, leading to heavy loss of life. As Robert Turner, the director of operations at the UN Relief and Works Agency, which runs the schools and hospitals in Gaza, pointed out, "the locations of all these installations have been passed to the Israeli military multiple times. They know where these shelters are. How this continues to happen, I have no idea."


Despite this difficult environment, our colleagues in Gaza have shown time and again, this summer and before, their resolve and desire to act well beyond the call of duty.

For example, in previous years they voluntarily gave up their school holidays to organize the Summer Games, a sort of giant holiday camp for Gaza's 250,000 children, helping to bring them a sense of normality in a surreal place. The games were so popular that in 2011, 13,000 children taking part claimed the world record for the largest number of kites flown simultaneously, beating the previous record holder, China.

This year there are no summer games and no world records. My colleagues, with no concern for themselves, have instead given their time to run the schools as shelters for the over a quarter of a million local residents, including other UN staff, who have had to flee their homes.


So what can we do to better protect those who risk their lives to protect the most vulnerable?

Firstly, let's be clear. I am not sure that those fighting have deliberately set out to kill my colleagues. As UNRWA chief, commissioner-general Pierre Krähenbühl has stated, it's more likely that:

"insufficient measures of precaution and control and protection are being taken."

Nevertheless, international law is quite clear that humanitarian facilities and particularly schools and hospitals, which the UN also runs, are designated as safe havens in all conflict zones.

Given these laws aren't being respected, the solution must come from above. Those taking part in this conflict need to know that they will be held accountable for every action that leads to a violation of a UN facility and the death of a UN staff member.

There may be some hope. The UN human rights council recently set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the events in Gaza in detail. If the inquiry is both balanced and thorough it may shed light on how our schools and personnel have come to be treated as collateral damage by both sides in this conflict.

An inquiry is only the start. As human rights High Commissioner Pillay has stated:

"true justice will only be achieved by bringing cases in front of a fair and competent court."


For that reason, UN staff have written (you can read the letter here) to Ban Ki-moon, General Assembly president John Ashe and Security Council president Mark Lyall Grant, current UK ambassador to the UN, asking them:

"to take all measures necessary to ensure accountability for the actions committed by all parties to this conflict and to ensure no further colleagues are killed."

We are reinforcing that message by organizing events around the world today and over the next weeks to highlight the plight of our colleagues in Gaza and call for greater accountability.

Let's hope they're able to act on this letter. Their actions will be watched closely by UN staff around the world that are either working in or being deployed to conflict zones, including in Gaza. Staff are well aware that in the last 10 years 227 humanitarian staff have been attacked and killed. These colleagues need to know that the same member states that ask us to work in the world's most dangerous places will also do what's needed to protect our lives.


For the families of my 11 colleagues killed in Gaza (perhaps more by the time this article is published), they need to know that justice will be served and that those who did the killing will be held accountable. It's the very least that the international community can do for them.