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World Humanitarian Day 19th August 2014– “More significant than ever before.”

By Khalil Charles

On the anniversary when 22 people killed in a bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, the 19th of August has been designated: “World Humanitarian Day”. Given the tragic theatres of war that are playing out in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, this day has perhaps become more significant than ever before.

Last year a record number of aid workers were killed. 155 deaths and 134 kidnappings were recorded and so far this year a further 79 aid workers have lost their lives in the service of humanity. The majority of the deaths have taken place in Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Pakistan. The day is intended to highlight the plight of aid workers and reflects the sacrifices they make.

Mahmoud Deeb Daher, head of the World Health Organisation’s Gaza office, said: “We need more humanity, and today is a day that reminds me of why I do what I do: to alleviate suffering, and allow people to live in peace.” The work in Gaza has been hampered by what have been described as ‘deliberate’ attempts to single out civilians and civilian targets. On two occasions in the recent strikes on Gaza, Israeli missiles have been dropped on UN Schools.

The strikes were contrary to international law and contrary to the ethos of humanitarian work, which is based on principles, which include humanity, impartially, neutrality and independence. There are growing calls for Israel to be prosecuted for war crimes.

The United Nations called for human aid workers to be given access to those in need. In a statement to mark the day, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon says, “Attacks on humanitarian workers hinder the ability of people in desperate need to receive lifesaving assistance”.

The lack of cooperation with aid-agencies has been a feature of the Syrian conflict where access on some occasions has been flatly denied. The Assad regime repeated refused to allow the UN to gain access to besieged towns. Recent reports in April suggests that 9.5 million people need urgent help – 6 million of those displaced and 3.5 million Syrians are desperately in need of aid in areas that are inaccessible.  The UN World Food programme claims to have reached just 34 of the 262 locations identified as difficult to reach and facing a humanitarian crisis. Some western governments have been persecuting aid workers who have been delivering relief to Syria, under the claim of supporting terrorism, which adds more pressure on humanitarian workers to that region.

Today, the UN agency has launched a major aid operation to reach more than half a million people displaced in the fighting in northern Iraq. An estimated 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced so far in 2014, according to the UN agency - more than 500,000 from fighting in the Anbar region, and another 600,000 displaced from conflicts around Mosul.

In the just over a decade, the UN itself has itself become a target. As previously mentioned the Baghdad strike in 2003 was the start of these commemorative events; UN office in Algiers was hit in 2007, Kabul in 2009 and in 2011 Boko Haram hit a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria.

Despite the conflicts occurring in Muslim lands, commitment to saving and protecting life is of course embedded and strongly endorsed in the religion of Islam. Quranic texts and hadiths encouraging charity works are plentiful and the presence of Muslim charities undertaking humanitarian relief work is on the rise.

Recent studies show that Muslims topped the poll of religious groups that give to charity.  On average, Muslims give £371 per person per year, some £100 per year more than other groups.

Overall, there is a growing respect for the work being done to reach aid to those in need. The Secretary General of the UN summed up the gratitude we owe to those who risk their lives to help and provide for others. “Humanitarian aid workers strive to provide life-saving assistance and long term rehabilitation to disaster-affected communities, regardless of where they are in the world and without discrimination based on nationality, social group, religion, sex, race or any other factor.”

It is clear that the risk of aid work are increasing year by year, but it’s also apparent that aid workers are owed respect and gratitude, and that is essentially what this day is about.