International Day of UN Peacekeepers: Honoring those who 'paid the ultimate price'
By Abhishek G Bhaya
The UN chief on Wednesday paid tribute to the thousands of peacekeepers who had paid "the ultimate price" with their lives as the world organization marked 20 years since the Security Council first mandated a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians.
"Today we honor more than one million men and women who have served as United Nations peacekeepers since our first mission in 1948. We remember the more than 3,800 personnel who paid the ultimate price," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a message released on the International Day of UN Peacekeepers.
"And we express our deepest gratitude to the 100,000 civilian, police and military peacekeepers deployed around the world today, and to the countries that contribute these brave and dedicated women and men," he said.
Noting that UN peacekeeping is a vital investment in global peace and security, the UN chief stressed that it requires strong international commitment. "That is why we launched the 'Action for Peacekeeping' initiative, which aims to make our missions stronger, safer and fit for the future," Guterres said.
"For millions in conflict-affected situations around the world, peacekeeping is a necessity and a hope. Let us work together to make peacekeeping more effective in protecting people and advancing peace," he added.
The International Day of UN Peacekeepers is observed as a tribute to all the men and women who have served as military, police or civilians in UN peacekeeping operations, the UN said in another press release. "We commend their professionalism, dedication and courage and honor the memory of those who have lost their lives in the cause of peace," it stated.
The theme for this year's peacekeepers day is “Protecting Civilians, Protecting Peace,” chosen to mark the 20th anniversary of the first time that the Security Council explicitly mandated a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians (UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone from 1999 until 2005).
Earlier on Friday, Guterres oversaw a somber wreath laying ceremony to honor the peacekeepers who laid their lives to protect others and “to give war-torn countries a chance for peace and hope.” Last year, 98 peacekeepers laid their lives while serving under the UN flag.
“We ask much of our peacekeepers," Guterres said on that occasion. “In return, we must continue to do all we can to ensure they are as safe as possible.”
“Today, we honor the memory” of the peacekeepers who did not return home, and “recommit ourselves to carrying forward their mission for a better future.”
Following the wreath laying, the UN chief honored 119 peacekeepers with the Dag Hammarskjold medal. "Fifty-eight years ago, Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in the Congo while trying to broker a peace agreement to end the conflict in the country,” he said, describing the former UN chief as “a tireless and fearless champion of peace” who took “robust action when needed.”
The recipients of the medal this year included military and police personnel, international civil servants, national staff and UN volunteers from 38 countries who served in 12 different UN peace operations around the world.
“Today, as we honor our fallen colleagues with the Dag Hammarskjöld medal, let us also honor them by living up to his call to never abandon the pursuit of peace,” Guterres stressed.
As part of Friday's commemorations ahead of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers, the UN chief paid special respect to the late Private Chancy Chitete of Malawi, who became only the second winner of the UN's highest peacekeeping award, the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage.
"Peacekeepers protect men, women and children from violence every day, often at great personal risk… We pay tribute to Private Chancy Chitete, a Malawian who served in the Democratic Republic of Congo and died trying to save the life of a fellow peacekeeper," Guterres said in his message on Monday.
The award is named after the late UN peacekeeper Captain Diagne – the first posthumous recipient of the award – who saved hundreds of lives in Rwanda in 1994, before being killed.
"The world does not have many true heroes,” said the UN chief, but Private Chitete, who served with the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), was “indeed one of them.”
Last November, while conducting an operation to stop armed attacks which were disrupting the Ebola response in local towns, peacekeepers came under heavy fire. As bullets were flying, Private Chitete dragged Corporal Omary back to an area “of greater safety”, Guterres recounted. “Both were evacuated for medical treatment. Corporal Omary survived. Private Chitete did not.”
"Private Chitete's selfless heroism and sacrifice helped the peacekeepers achieve their objective and dislodge the militia from its stronghold and that was vital for the Ebola response to go on,” he commended. “He personally made a difference. A profound one," the UN chief remarked.