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“Their fighting spirit has stayed with us”: UN Reflects on 20th Anniversary of Tragic Attack


In Geneva, Switzerland on August 18 2023 the peaceful city again became the center of global compassion and unity as the United Nations observed World Humanitarian Day (August 19th). This annual event commemorates the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad back in 2003, where 22 UN staff members lost their lives. It not honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice in humanitarian service but also highlights the tireless efforts of countless individuals and organizations from both the United Nations and Civil Society as a whole working towards alleviating suffering and upholding human dignity worldwide.

On Saturday, August 19th, 2023 people around the world come together to remember an occasion that forever changed humanitarian work. Two decades ago on this day a devastating attack in Iraq claimed the lives of 22 colleagues within the United Nations.

In order to pay tribute to this event the United Nations has designated it as World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It serves as a moment for UN personnel and others involved in humanitarian endeavors to honor their fallen comrades. These lives were tragically cut short due to conflicts escalating tensions, disregard, for international human rights and humanitarian law deliberate attacks and misinformation spreading.

Every year a special ceremony takes place at the Palais Wilson in Geneva the headquarters of UN Human Rights. It’s a time for colleagues, family members and friends to come together and honor those who have passed away. This year the attendance at the morning ceremony nearly doubled. The room was filled with people sitting in every chair and many UN staff stood well. In that room emotions ranged from grief to pride, hope and determination. They were united by their commitment to continue their work “No What,” which has become their motto for this 20th anniversary. People of religions and beliefs attended the ceremony. Christians, Muslims, Humanists, Scientologists, Buddhists. All silently offering prayers for the fallen heroes and their families.

One touching story that exemplifies the mission of carrying on the work of those who have left us is that of Mattia Sélim Kanaan. He was born three weeks before his father Jean Sélim Kanaan tragically lost his life at the age of 33 while serving as Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. Laura Dolci Kanaan, his widow has taken up the torch. Now serves as Secretary of the Universal Periodic Review, for Human Rights Council. Today Mattia Sélim Kanaan is a 20 year old student eagerly anticipating what lies ahead.

Reflecting on the two decades that have elapsed, Kanaan asserts,

“Twenty years is a long time, almost the equivalent of a new generation, a generation of new hope that can and must do its best in these uncertain times. My generation has to look up with pride to heroes like the ones of Baghdad – people that decided to put their talents and ambitions at the service of humanity… Their fighting spirit has stayed with us and is a bright and powerful light that guides and directs us in our lives.”

One individual who showed resilience during the tragedy is Dhafer Al Hussini, currently based in Geneva. He worked as part of the staff in Baghdad when the incident occurred and he vividly remembers how it had a significant impact on them. Several people had to leave their positions out of fear for their safety or due to contract non renewals. However Al Hussini remained steadfast. Determined, drawing inspiration, from the wisdom shared by someone he greatly respected, “Never be lonely on the path to truth due to its lack of paths.” This sentiment fortified his commitment to serve the cause of humanity with courage, defining it as the chosen path.

IMG 20230818 101157 1 "Their fighting spirit has stayed with us”: UN Reflects on 20th Anniversary of Tragic Attack
Survivor Shawbo Taher-Al-Talabani. Photo credit: The European Times

Shawbo Taher-Al-Talabani, now retired after years of dedicated service for the UN, takes us back to the ordinary morning of 19 August 2003. Office chatter was punctuated by laughter from Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Iraq, and his Special Political Adviser, Ghassan Salamé. Little did they know, these moments of levity would be their last in that space. The tranquility was shattered at 4:30 p.m. by a deafening blast, altering lives forever.

Taher-Al-Talabani poignantly recalled,

“Many fell down; some never got up again, others were amazed to be still in one piece; incredulous to be still breathing. Those few long hours that afternoon seemed like an eternity… Some of us returned to our modest hotels, dazed with sadness, waiting anxiously to see who would re-join the usual crowd … and waiting for those who never will, Sergio, Nadia, Jean-Selim, Rick, Saad, and 17 other colleagues we lost that day.”

World Humanitarian Day also serves as a moment to honor the memory of colleagues lost in other tragic incidents in places like Afghanistan, Haiti, and Rwanda. UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, eloquently captured the sentiment at the memorial ceremony, stating,

“It is very important that we honor their memories, that we cherish their memories, that we take from their lives, from their service to human rights, to development, to peace something that keeps within us and lives further.”

Latter in the day, at 4 pm, the heart of the event with the Commemoration Ceremony ot the Room XX of the Palais des Nations. People gathered as speeches and shared reflections filled the room with their echoes. A poignant video, created by the United Nations to conmmemorate those fallen in 2003 served as a reminder of the circumstances that led to this event.

The United Nations Secretary General, Mr. António Guterres delivered a message by video to the assembly through a video emphasizing the lasting importance of efforts. Ms. Tatiana Valovaya, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva gave a speech highlighting how solidarity is crucial in times of adversity.

A moment of silence enveloped the room as everyone paid tribute to those who lost their lives. Mr. Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights took stage to reflect on the courage and resilience that define humanitarian work.

Survivors shared moving testimonials that added a personal touch to the ceremony. Mr. Mujahed Mohammed Hasan recounted his experience as a survivor of a terrorist attack in Baghdad back in 2003—an inspiring testament to human strength, amidst difficult circumstances.

Representing the family of Jean Selim Kanaan Ms. Laura Dolci emphasized the impact of humanitarian work on those it touches, sharing the last message that she received from her husband, who said that they “can not abandon the iraki people, we must continue to help them”.

The presence of dignitaries, representatives and active members of civil society added significance to the occasion. Ambassador Abdul Karim Hashim Mostafa, Permanent Representative of Iraq expressed a message of unity and determination. Ambassador Julien Thöni, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland highlighted the efforts needed to address global challenges.

A musical interlude by the United Nations Music Club and UN Choir in Geneva brought an atmosphere to the ceremony showcasing the power of art in conveying shared human experiences.

At 5;00 PM a Wreath Laying Ceremony took place outside Room XX at Palais des Nations. Ms. Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service guided the proceedings. Ms. Tatiana Valovaya, Director General of the United Nations Office at Geneva and Mr. Volker Türk United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights paid tribute by laying wreaths—an act honoring lives dedicated, to humanitarian causes.

At 5;20 PM as the sun started to set a reception was hosted by OCHA and the Permanent Mission of Switzerland. It was a kind gesture that allowed participants to engage in conversations and foster collaboration which had been a prevalent theme throughout the days events. The area outside Room XX, in Palais des Nations turned into a hub for dialogue creating connections that will undoubtedly contribute to humanitarian efforts.

In the heart of Geneva, World Humanitarian Day 2023 brought the principles of compassion, unity and resilience to life.

As the world pauses to reflect on this somber anniversary, it is imperative that the resilience, dedication, and sacrifice of these fallen heroes continue to inspire and guide the ongoing efforts toward a more just and compassionate world. Their fighting spirit remains a beacon lighting the path for future generations to follow, ensuring that their legacy endures through the ages.

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