Bruno Donat: One man takes a stand

Lina AbiRafeh
6 min readMar 24, 2024


Bruno Donat with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in an earlier assignment in the DRC, in 2019. UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Bruno Donat is one man taking a courageous and risky stance.

Bruno is a 54-year-old senior United Nations leader originally from the Republic of Mauritius. He serves as the Head of the UN Mine Action Service in Geneva, Switzerland, the entity charged with reducing the threat posed by mines and explosive remnants of war.

Bruno has a long history with the Department of Peace Operations and has played challenging roles such as disarming local and foreign armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and leading a team of civilians and military working on political matters across West Africa and the Sahel.

Both a seasoned peacekeeper and humanitarian, Bruno has served the UN for decades and is one of the most committed individuals I know. I personally met Bruno in 1992. We have been colleagues, allies, and close friends ever since.

Bruno was moved and disturbed by the situation in Palestine and by the inability of the international community and other actors to stop the genocide. On 1 March, after months of active advocacy online, Bruno launched a hunger strike. This was done in his personal capacity, and was, in his words, “unofficial, symbolic, quasi-silent, and no-frills.”

Bruno has always taken on courageous roles. As a result, he is no stranger to personal threats. Prior to launching his peaceful action, he coordinated with the UN Safety and Security Services. And, given that he was planning a hunger strike, he also coordinated with UN Medical who proposed a daily medical check-in to monitor his health. As a senior official with diplomatic status, the Swiss Police Geneva Diplomatic Protection branch monitored his safety and security.

This is an unusual act of public advocacy — especially by someone well-known and respected in the UN community. Needless to say, the act caught the attention of those at the highest levels.

Bruno’s focus is children — the many innocent Palestinian children who have been killed or injured as a result of this massacre across the whole of Palestine, most of whom have been in Gaza. His concern also extends to the innocent children of Israel who were killed and injured on 7 October 2023.

The strike began in Geneva. There, he met Motaz Azaiza, the young Palestinian photographer who has been bringing the reality of Gaza to the world, now with more than 20 million followers online. Many others were attracted to his efforts and his commitment to peaceful action, including ambassadors who visited him “in their private capacity.”

Bruno used music and song to advocate for peace on the Place des Nations, the public square in the center of the city and in front of the UN that provides a platform for all citizens of the world.

Rather atypical of a senior official, Bruno is known to have traveled to many war zones, guitar in hand, performing for children. In previous trips to Palestine, he sang with children in Gaza. This included deaf children who, as he recalls fondly, would take turns putting their hands on the guitar to feel the vibrations of the music. “Despite their dire situations,” Bruno recounted, “their faces would light up with out-of-this-world memorable smiles. It was at least some temporary respite.”

Bruno’s hunger strike led him to New York to amplify his efforts. Upon arrival at the UN on 18 March, UN Security informed him that he would not be able to undertake his silent hunger strike on UN premises and to instead try to get a permit from the City of New York Police. He complied and left.

Later that same day, Bruno was scheduled to meet with a UN colleague. To his surprise, was denied access. Despite his official reason for being there and his UN identification, UN Security continued to deny his access without explanation. Meanwhile, streams of visitors were being let in without the same scrutiny. One guard went so far as to demand to see a private email that the Secretary-General had sent to Bruno to legitimize his presence at the UN Secretariat.

Despite these demands and obstacles, Bruno remained calm. The situation escalated. One security guard firmly asked him to step back. Another threatened arrest by the NYPD. Bruno documented the escalation on two chronological videos (here and here). The second video ends just seconds before the guards grab him by force. Bruno was then dragged out and forcefully thrown to the ground. He recalls that his head hit the sidewalk, causing bleeding and pain. The United Nations rejects all these claims.

First responders were rapidly on the scene, and Bruno was taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital for care. He is currently looking into getting the street camera footage from the UN or anyone else who might have captured the incident. A request has been made to the UN to save the footage for potential future use.

This incident made world news via Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and several others.

On 19 March, Bruno issued a statement saying that he would cease his hunger strike due to major safety and security concerns. He vows to continue his advocacy campaign in other ways.

And only one day after being discharged from hospital, on 21 March, Bruno was back on the streets of New York, in pain and walking slowly, singing “We Shall Overcome” and other civil rights songs. He also sang his signature Mauritius lullaby for Palestinian children to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Earlier that week, during a UN meeting to address anti-racism and the need for allyship in combating racism, Bruno raised the issue of Palestine: “I understand allyship as active support for the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it. At the moment, we are witnessing more than racism towards our Palestinian colleagues. Why the deafening silence?”

Indeed. Why the deafening silence?

Bruno says that his private actions, although atypical, do not negate his official duties, but rather reinforce them. His commitment to social justice inspired him to serve as an international civil servant in the first place.

In an era where diplomats choose career over conviction, it is unfortunate that we do not see more displays of courage like this. After all, the UN exists to promote peace and human dignity, and it is only as strong as those who serve it. Yes, there are risks in being outspoken, but the costs are far greater. If we have to choose between principles and politics, the system is broken.

Unsurprisingly, there have been some UN actors who resent Bruno’s actions. As a man of both principles and action, Bruno has even offered to resign rather than compromise his values.

“I have been calling for the same messages by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a brave and inspiring man, especially in the face of countries trying to bully him,” Bruno adds. While focusing on children, Bruno’s key advocacy points have been for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire; unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to Gaza at the scale needed; an unconditional release of all hostages; and immediate measures for the protection of civilians recalling that targeting of civilians and civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

“It is the fault of my DNA,” he told me, laughing. “It runs in the Donat family. We’re all peace activists!” I can confirm that this is true. Bruno’s father, 88-year-old retired Anglican Bishop Rex Donat was a colleague of late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He supported Bruno with his own advocacy video for Palestinian and Israeli children. Bruno’s son Luca did the same, inviting children of the West Bank and Gaza to play basketball.

A senior UN official who works directly with Secretary-General António Guterres had this to say to Bruno: “My guiding policy on matters such as those relating to the suffering in Gaza is that I am a person first before I am a UN employee. That policy guides my response on all matters. I have to live with myself, my conscience, each and every day. I hope this helps you just a bit as you continue on your brave journey.”

Despite the words of support, Bruno’s actions stand out among senior officials and diplomats. Private praise is insufficient when faced with public inaction.

Bruno continues, regardless.

As his friend, I worry. The attacks are not just physical. Online, someone responded to his posts with pleas of peace with this: “I’m sure they will listen patiently before they will cut your head off.”

Still, as was said above, we all have to live with ourselves, and our conscience, each and every day.

And that is why we must speak out.



Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights activist, author, speaker, aid worker with 3 decades of global experience - and lots to say! More on my website: