A consummate diplomat, indispensable to the UN

Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed Tuesday in a truck-bomb attack on the UN compound in Baghdad.

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations envoy killed along with some 20 others in a truck-bomb attack in Baghdad on Tuesday, was Secretary-General Kofi Annan's indispensable man and possible successor.

"I can think of no one we could less afford to spare,'' Mr. Annan said Tuesday.

Mr. Vieira de Mello's unwavering commitment to the UN saw him move from one troubled region of the globe to another in a career that spanned more than three decades. The UN turned to the dapper, handsome Brazilian to deal with humanitarian catastrophes in Cambodia and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In 1999, Annan tapped him to set up the UN's mission in Kosovo after Serbian forces were forced out. And in East Timor later that year, following an independence vote and bloody Indonesian withdrawal, he took over the nearly hopeless task of steering the new nation to full independence.

Recommended: World Humanitarian Day: 5 crises and how you can help

Vieira de Mello's deft political touch and willingness to undergo hardship in the interests of peace were why Annan turned to him again this May, when the UN decided to open a full mission in Iraq.

Though he'd told friends he was looking forward to time working in Geneva as the high commissioner for human rights, he didn't hesitate to give up that job when he was asked to go to Baghdad.

"Sergio might not have wanted to go, but the secretary-general called him and said, 'I need you,'" says Colin Stewart, who was Vieira de Mello's chief political-affairs officer in East Timor. "He was the troubleshooter, he believed in duty, and he wasn't going to say no to that."

Despite the conservatism bred by the UN bureaucracy, he maintained a willingness to take risks. In November 1999, armed with the broadest mandate to run a country in UN history, Vieira de Mello arrived in a smoldering East Timor. His job was to shepherd the tiny, barren half-island of 700,000 to a democratic birth after 500 years of Portuguese and Indonesian misrule.

Within a day of arriving, he made the journey along a treacherous mountain road into the tiny nation's interior, where East Timor's independence hero and president-in-waiting, Xanana Gusmao, was holed up with his army.

Aides warned against the trip, worried of conferring political legitimacy on any group before elections, and limiting the UN's scope to act. But Vieira de Mello immediately grasped that he needed local partners, not local suspicions, if his mission was to succeed.

"We're not here to build a country,'' he told Mr. Gusmao, in the middle of a camp teeming with wild-haired guerrillas. "We're here to help you build a country." It was a moment typical of the political skills and audacity that made Vieira de Mello a legend at the organization.

"I cannot find words strong enough to express my deep regret at the loss of this courageous friend and great leader,'' Gusmao said in a statement Tuesday. "Our nation mourns the death of a unique and unforgettable friend."

His success in East Timor was a key reason he was expected by many within the UN to one day succeed his friend Annan.

His generally good relations with the US were another reason he was seen as perfect for the Baghdad job, since the Bush administration has been eager to keep most authority in Iraq for itself. People working in Iraq said he struck a balance between working with the US and making it clear that the UN was there to serve the interests of the Iraqi people. Making that distinction was one of the reasons, they say, that he turned down US offers of a bigger security presence for the UN headquarters.

Vieira de Mello was born in Rio De Janeiro in 1948. He left for France after high school, where he received two doctoral degrees at Sorbonne University in Paris. In addition to his native Portuguese, he was a fluent speaker of French, Spanish, and English. He joined the UN in 1969, and in his early years worked mostly with the High Commission for Refugees.

In the '70s he worked in Bangladesh after its independence from Pakistan, on a refugee crisis in Sudan, in Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish invasion, and in Mozambique after independence from Portugal in 1975. In the 1980s he served as a senior official for the UN force in Lebanon and occupied a number of posts for the UNHCR in Geneva. In the 1990s he did stints in Cambodia and Bosnia and coordinated the UN's emergency relief efforts, before his work in Kosovo and East Timor.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...