It was a night of glowing tributes, fond memories and outpouring of emotion as the whole UN family and the world at large gathered on Friday at a valedictory for Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), who died on June 4 in his home in New York at the age of 68.
The valedictory night was attended by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, his Deputy, Amina Mohammed, President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson, Heads of UN agencies, and Permanent Representatives, among others.
Guterres, in his remarks, said “the news of Dr Babatunde’s sudden death last week devastated our UN family; today we mourn this heartbreaking loss and we remember his inspiring life.
“Babatunde was completely devoted to the cause of women and girls – especially those who are most marginalized.
“He was driven by the conviction that every single family on earth should be free to decide on the timing and spacing of their children.
“That no one would suffer from harmful traditional practices; that there would be no more female genital mutilation; no more prenatal sex selection; no more child brides and no more maternal deaths.”
According to him, Osotimehin worked day and night to achieve this just future, recalling an instance of the dedication of his former colleague.
“When he was appointed Executive Director of UNFPA, he was due to start at the beginning of 2011. January 1 was a Saturday.
“So his staff suggested that they put out a press release saying he would be in the office as of January 3. But he completely dismissed the idea.
“He was ready to start on January 1. And he did go into the office that day and stayed through the holiday weekend.
“Babatunde embodied that ethic of service throughout his term – working every day to help people who were suffering.”
Guterres affirmed that Osotimehin continually made UNFPA an even more effective organization that stood as a respected international authority on sexual and reproductive rights.
“His loss is felt most deeply by his family and by the staff of UNFPA. But his passing is also a loss for the world.
“The name ‘Babatunde’ means ‘father comes back.’ Though he is now gone, I have no doubt this father will come back every time we speak out – as he did – for women and girls.
“Babatunde will be with us every time we champion the rights of individuals and families of all kinds. He will live in our hearts as long as we carry on his fight for justice – for a better world for all people.
“Let us honour his memory with the actions Babatunde would have wanted us to take – actions for the sake of others and especially women and girls,” Guterres said.
Thomson, in his tribute delivered by Amb. Dessima Williams, Special Adviser to President of the General Assembly, said Osotimehin impacted millions of people around the world.
“As a professor, he cultivated the next generation of top-class doctors; as the Minister of Health, he served Nigeria with dedication; and as the Executive Director of UNFPA, he was a steadfast champion of the rights of all.
“Every person he knew, he respected. Everyone he did not know, he fought for their rights. Thus was that human being we have just lost.
“Here at the United Nations, we will never forget how fearlessly, how forcefully, and how tirelessly he fought for the dignity of women and girls all around the world.”
The Acting Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr Natalia Kanem, in her tribute, described Osotimehin as “a super-doctor, a mentor and a teacher who taught all those who worked with him to persevere and to persist even on the face of adversity”.
According to her, he championed the defence of the rights against harmful practices and dignity of the adolescent girls and told them to champion the same.
“So Prof., we thank you for inspiring us, for guiding us, for teaching us. We’re missing you already. We miss your counsel, we miss your humour and your profound love for humanity.”
Kanem pledged that the UNFPA would continue to carry forward the torch lit by Osotimehin’s vision and example in his determination to be the voice for the most vulnerable all over the world.