Memorial Ceremony at OHCHR in remembrance of those killed in service of human rights


19 years ago, 22 staff members were killed in the Baghdad bombing. 2 died in the Haiti earthquake in 2010; 5 were killed in an attack in Rwanda in 2011; and 2 were gunned down in separate attacks in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2015.

Today, we come together to remember these 31 brave colleagues who have been killed while in the service of human rights.

Today we honour their courage and that of the many human rights and humanitarian workers whose lives were taken in their quest for a safer and more equal world.

Each of them had braved hardships and spent time separated from loved ones, because they believed in the work of helping others and in building more fair societies.

We also pay tribute to the survivors of these tragedies, and the ones left behind – the family members, the colleagues, the friends, the loved ones – some of whom are with us today. I wish to extend a heartfelt welcome to Mattia-Selim Kanaan.

Your strength in continuing to honour the memory of your loved ones, amid the pain and the grief, is a testament of the human spirit and will remain with me.

Today, we stand together, hand in hand, in support of the children, parents, siblings, colleagues and communities of the fallen.

And we remember.

We remember the energy, and commitment to human rights and to dialogue of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his team. We pay tribute to the tireless work of our colleagues in Rwanda and Haiti. We honour the dedication and sacrifice of our colleagues in Afghanistan.

These colleagues continue to be part of each of us, as part of the fabric of our human rights community. Their memory continues to live on in each of us, in our approach to our work and life.

Their commitment – and ultimate sacrifice – are an indelible part of our history, present and future.

In tribute to them, we continue to stand up to protect the rights of all people, everywhere.

We amplify the voices of the excluded, the marginalised, and raise our own voice to denounce wrongdoing and to demand change.

We persevere because we know that to do the opposite would lead to unimaginable horrors.

For many of us, this is our life’s work, “a calling” as eloquently stated by the late Kofi Annan. The United Nations asks that each of us give the best of ourselves to our jobs. I have been a direct witness of this, through my four years as High Commissioner, having met so many of you inspirational and committed colleagues in the field and headquarters.

But we are all acutely aware that with human rights work, comes a unique exposure and vulnerability to human suffering.

And unfortunately, tragedies will continue to occur in many of the difficult zones around the world where we work.

I have also seen how our awareness to take better care of each other and ourselves has grown. I am pleased that OHCHR is able to offer counselling to many of you, to help with recovery and resolution of trauma, and to support your well-being.

But we can commit to do better to protect each other and to react quicker in the face certain signs and risks.

And I urge us all to support each other along the way.

Over the course of my four years as High Commissioner, I have been dismayed by the growing polarisation and divisive rhetoric and behaviour. This has played out not only on the world stage, but also in the media and on our screens.

But – I have also been encouraged by the human rights defenders, humanitarian workers and community members I have met. They, despite many obstacles, have realised that by joining forces together they can make a difference. They consistently remind me that solidarity is the very essence of our humanity.

Because we are stronger together, whether in times of triumph or tragedy.

Today, we pay tribute to the legacy of our fallen colleagues by living up to their example.

By continuing to work, bravely and with humility, equipped with the principles and values that lie at the heart of human rights work – justice, fairness, inclusion, accountability.

By continuing to work to tackle discrimination, hate and violence.

By pushing for accountability, for justice, for changes in laws and social behaviour- this is crucial work to create safer, more equal and more peaceful societies.

Let’s remain steadfast in our own commitment to continue this important work, knowing that we do it while facing risks.

When our courage falters, let the memory and courage of those we honour today help us persevere.

And let’s commit to supporting each other – as one community – on this journey.

As we stand in memory of our fallen colleagues, I thank all of you for your service.

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