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Arthur C Helton: a tribute

David Hayes Caspar Henderson
15 August 2009

The bomb attack on the headquarters of the United Nations operation in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 which killed the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, injured more than 100 and killed at least eighteen other people. Among the dead was Arthur Helton, the co-columnist of openDemocracy’s humanitarian monitor.

The other half of this openDemocracy partnership, Gil Loescher, was critically injured in the blast, and has been transferred to hospital in Germany; at the time of writing he is in a critical condition.

Arthur’s death is a dreadful loss to his family, friends and colleagues. Our thoughts and condolences are with them. We are with Gil and his family in spirit too.

This tragedy impacts heavily on openDemocracy. Arthur was a good friend of this enterprise and one of the people who made it what it is. He and Gil first approached us with a project and a vision that chimed with what we wanted to do: to facilitate serious, constructive global conversation on key issues of our time. We built up a strong working relationship from which we never ceased to learn new things.

Arthur was a serious, indefatigable scholar with extraordinary range. He was warm and humorous too. I (Caspar Henderson) will not forget his kindness when I visited him in the grand premises of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York earlier this year, and the touch of irony with which he showed me a photographic tribute to his work in the hallway of the Pratt house. In contrast to the pictures associated with many of his colleagues, which mainly showed important guys in suits and ties shaking hands or dramatic shots of military situations, Arthur’s picture showed a refugee mother and child. “The token soft-power guy around here”, he joked.

Arthur and Gil’s humanitarian monitor combined expert understanding of the many dimensions of humanitarian crises – legal, political, logistical, military, historical – with a willingness to think beyond current models. This search for complex and changing truths led them to interview many of the key figures in the field – from government ministers and UN administrators to refugees and asylum-seekers at the sharpest end of policy.

Because of their true seriousness and refusal to posture, their column reached out to and was read by influential actors and thinkers across a range of bodies and ways of looking at the world, including the military and academic communities, international institutions and activists. Sergio Vieira de Mello was an enthusiastic reader of their work on openDemocracy, recommending it warmly to others (according to reports, Sergio and Arthur were meeting together when the bomb went off).

Arthur and Gil’s columns for openDemocracy on Iraq were only part of their concern with crises of human displacement, food insecurity, health and shelter deprivation – and how these problems are dealt with (usually inadequately, and often without taking to heart the lessons of the past) by state, humanitarian and other organisations. There was huge and important work to be done here, and for openDemocracy’s global membership to engage with. We had hardly begun.

We salute Arthur Helton. We will miss him very much. We commit ourselves to building on his work and helping to make real the better world to which he dedicated his life. There is much to do.

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