the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello

January 19, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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You can’t wait so long between blog posts! I know, I’m sorry.


Over Christmas I read the recent biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Chasing the Flame by Samantha Power. A life-long UN staffer, Sergio was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights when he was killed in a bombing of the UN in Baghdad in August 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq.  Born in 1942 and working for the UN since 1969, he lived through the peacekeeping milestones that have created the UN today.   His first major post was spent in Cambodia repatriating refugees, where he began his trademark of negotiating with all sides, including heading off into the jungle to negotiate with the  Khmer Rouge.  Jobs took him to Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Kosovo and Sarajevo.  His biggest achievement was as the UN Special Representative for East Timor, literally charged with rebuilding the country.   Much of his life is harrowing, you read the book with your teeth clenched – hoping the international community will be able to help the people in this war-torn countries, and they make so many mistakes. By the end of the book, the weight of the UN’s bureaucracy — a place no greater than the member states themselves, crushes you.

Sergio is not a saint, he neglects his family and as a diplomat, there are times when he puts too much faith in the UN Security Council and not enough in the local country.   He values personal relationships highly; he was known for writing thank you notes to encourage his staff, or make up medals to give to peacekeepers when there is no other encouragement for their work.   Power sums up one of his life lessons as “Dignity is the corner stone of order”.

If you are interested in peace and conflict, security, humanitarianism, refugees, the United Nations, development — this book ties fifty years together, marking the progress and follies of a world that intervenes in state and regional conflicts.  For the world, the loss of Sergio is tremendous, and the very reasons he was sent to Iraq attest to this.  No one else but him had the expertise as a diplomat in peacekeeping, restoring services, setting up elections.  He was slated to be next Secretary General of the UN, and the world lost a leader many years in the making.  He died because while the US brought an army of 250,000 to invade Iraq, they did not bring emergency equipment to deal with collapsed buildings . The U.S. had no plans anticipating any insurgency, and when Iraq was looted the lifesaving equipment was stolen from the fire trucks.   Sergio’s life ended crushed between two floors, slowly bleeding to death, as the U.S. military scurried around incompetently.

With over 400 interviews and access to classified and personal documents, Power has created a masterpiece.  It is a gift to our world leaders and citizens, I hope they will read it.


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