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.


having coffee with Darfur refugee camp, thanks to Google Earth

April 15, 2008 at 1:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A huge tent camp all around the city of Zalingei, (West Darfur) Sudan.

Google Earth certainly allows this blog to reach a whole new level. If I am interested in a certain spot, I can just check it out. As far as usability goes, as a person sitting in a Manhattan apartment using a one-year-old Mac, I had no problem. I felt like Superwoman as I pressed the + and – keys to zoom in and out. And even though I do know where Darfur is on the world map, it is still a big place to find a refugee camp, so the search worked well to get me there. However, one does need a bit of a virtual tour guide in order to tell what is going on. This is what google provides:

“The current open conflict in Darfur began in 2003. This conflict, with its associated destruction of villages and livelihoods, led to widespread displacement, significantly exacerbating existing problems caused by a lack of development and minimal access to basic services. It is currently estimated that more than 2 million people have been displaced, with a total over 3.6 million people in need of assistance.”

So, the release of this application was picked up in a lot of the media, the headlines read, “Google, UN put Refugees on the Map”. I hope this application will give more people means to learn about crisis; the new capabilities of the application allow for UN and NGO staff to upload images and stories about the camp. But at this point the application does not allow you to watch in real time a village being raided or a woman being raped or a child dying of starvation…. and I am thinking about the right to be on the map as a human right we take for granted…

I spoke with a chief UN human rights official yesterday and he said there is widespread awareness about genocide in Darfur in the U.S., but what is still needed is a sophisticated analysis. The solution is not to run in with guns blazing, and the conflict it is not about Arabs killing black Africans, but about water, land, tribe and incredible brutality and cunning from Khartoum government. He said that while there is a lot of diplomatic pressure going on from the UN, people to people diplomacy is still very much needed.

By people to people diplomacy, I think he means using specific connections, like the Anglican church in the US connecting with their Bishops in Sudan and then coming home to tell the US congressmen — as well as engage with their pension funds, companies listed by the Sudan Divestment Taskforce which are profiting from China oil revenues… But at this point stopping this war is really about political will of nations. Google seems to be able to do anything they put their minds to…. I hope this helps.

Empowering women with technology, not UN negotiations

March 4, 2008 at 1:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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This week 3,000 women are in town in New York for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.   They come from all ends of the earth, Liberia, Mauritius, India, Poland.  They cram into conference rooms and scramble to lobby their government representatives about negotiated documents about gender equality.  It is one of the few times every year that the world shows up on the UN doorstep to remind it what it is here for.  It is a beautiful, if not frustrating, chaos.  

This year I find myself wanting to pull these women out into a quiet office and show them just what the internet has to offer.  Instead of hosting a workshop on preparing for the Doha development round I feel like hosting a meeting on how to use WordPress.   I could call it “how to build a free website in thirty minutes.”  I think it would be a huge hit.  You can check out a professional looking website I did using a wordpress template for the Ecumenical Women coalition.  

 As a recent student of digital communications, I am discovering an entirely new internet.   You can learn anything on free webinars and blogs, you just know how to look.   At Eslgold you can take free web tutorials to learn english,  at Shuffweb you can teach yourself photoshop and simple design.   Need to get some people power?  How about having an international meeting over MSN chat, or learn how to organize people with SMS text messages using MobileActiv.   A woman’s peace group could watch the Security Council debate Sudan on a UN webcast, or I could listen to an entire plenary of conferences I could not attend, such as AWID’s conference on money and movements last year in Mexico.   Through the Global Youth Coalition on AIDS, I could take an online course on fundraising for youth projects.  

When I realize how much self-teaching is possible on the internet, I feel even more urgently concerned that only 20% of the world has access.   It makes me want to design a sort of development toolbox browser.   Many websites might think they are doing that, but I argue they are bogged down with information, and that the people who need them the most don’t know they exist.    

 Half the battle is changing attitudes and promoting web literacy.  Many people use the web in the same way every day; they are not going to pick up their free Skype phone until they see someone else doing it.  But even if my dream toolbox existed, it would still be a struggle to get the word out.  When analysts track reasons people in Global South use the web, they find that they go to websites to read about celebrities, send messages to their friends, or play games.   

But the UN CSW would be a good place to start.  We have to take the webtools to where the women are.  They are not going to come to a technology conference.  But they will come to a women’s rights conference, and we should meet them there.  

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