The sad news of the World Health Organization’s Glenn Thomas being one of the 298 victims killed in the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 has once again brought it home how embedded the international community in Switzerland is in world affairs. Glenn, a former BBC producer who represented WHO as a press spokesman, and hence a friend and colleague, had left Geneva via Amsterdam to attend the World AIDS Conference in Melbourne. He was one of at least 10 AIDS-related specialists, primarily researchers, heading to Australia on board MH17 for the global gathering.
Given the Lake Geneva region’s position as a planetary hub, many of us, whether involved with international aid, media, business, science or academia, regularly fly out from Cointrin to somewhere else. We head to international conferences, business meetings, schools and universities, or on humanitarian and diplomatic missions. We leave our families, colleagues and pets behind, and our bills on the kitchen table to be paid, dry-cleaning to be picked up, or dinners to be attended once we get back. And we don’t think twice about it.
When Glenn left for Melbourne via Schiphol Airport, he was travelling to attend a crucial conference focusing on the current state of HIV/AIDS. That was part of his job and he probably assumed that he would be back soon. We, too, assumed that we would see his usual smiling face around WHO and the Palais. Ironically, only a day earlier, UNAIDS – another Geneva-based organization – had launched “The Gap Report” designed to furnish critical information and analysis aimed at bridging the remaining gaps among people affected by AIDS. Some of those killed in MH17 were involved in this project. Glenn’s job would have been to help journalists better understand what still needs to be done in order to bring an end to the AIDS epidemic.
MH17 was cold-blooded murder, not unlike 9/11. Despite intense counter-propaganda put out by Moscow, evidence now firmly points to the mafia-style Russian rebels supported by President Vladimir Putin, who obviously has not forgotten his KGB past, for firing the surface-to-air missile. Ironically, both Switzerland – as head of the OSCE – and Geneva – the world’s humanitarian, human rights and mediation capital – are indirectly involved with the Ukraine. But how many of us, including Glenn, could have imagined that a civilian airliner flying at 35,000 feet would fall victim to this out-of-control conflict? This is why we need to ensure that those responsible for this massacre not be allowed to get away with it.