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Iraq: Special Envoy Raises Postwar UN Profile

  • Robert McMahon

United Nations Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello has taken a somewhat ambiguous Security Council mandate and used it to raise the profile of the UN in the political transition underway in Iraq. Vieira de Mello has moved quickly to forge a productive relationship with the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and is seen as one of the catalysts in the formation of Iraq's first postwar self-governing body. Days ahead of Vieira de Mello's initial progress report to the Security Council on Iraq, RFE/RL's Robert McMahon looks at the importance of his role.

United Nations, 18 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Security Council resolution that legitimized the U.S.-led administration in Iraq granted the United Nations a central humanitarian role but only loosely defined political tasks.

Some critics saw the measure's calls for the UN to facilitate various reconstruction and political efforts as confirmation that the world body would have a limited role.

But the choice of veteran UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello to serve as special envoy -- backed by the United States -- was a sign that the UN would not be a silent partner to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat, has worked on some of the UN's toughest missions during a 34-year career. Six weeks into his assignment in Iraq, UN observers say, he has demonstrated political skill in raising the profile of the UN and its influence is likely to grow.

On 15 July, Vieira de Mello is due to give his first progress report to the Security Council. That meeting also marks the first international appearance of representatives of the newly formed Iraqi Governing Council.

The UN envoy is reported to have advised the U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, to give the council a set of real powers to affirm its standing as a sovereign representative body. A UN electoral team will visit Baghdad early next month to consult members of the council as they take steps toward drafting a constitution and organizing elections.

Simon Chesterman studies transitional administrations for the International Peace Academy, an independent research institute based in New York. He tells RFE/RL that Vieira de Mello's actions have impressed Washington while enhancing the UN's stature.

"What Sergio, I think, is trying to do is to act as an honest broker and really that's what the United States needs in Iraq right now and I think that's why what he's doing is acceptable [to Washington] because every step that the UN takes towards blessing the political process that is going on in Iraq will make it more acceptable internationally and potentially more acceptable locally."

Vieira de Mello is temporarily on leave from his post as UN high commissioner for human rights. Previously, as UN special representative, he helped guide the former Indonesian province of East Timor to independence last year. He also served as the first UN administrator in Kosovo in 1999.

Chesterman says these postconflict experiences have given Vieira de Mello a keen understanding of the importance of acting decisively when transferring power.

"The lessons that Sergio Vieira de Mello has learned from a brief period in Kosovo and a much longer period in East Timor I think are that the first thing you need in a situation like this is political clarity. The most disastrous situation in any of these postconflict operations has usually been political ambiguity."

Vieira de Mello has moved regularly around the country, meeting Iraq's numerous factional and religious leaders to sample the range of opinions. He has spent this week meeting with leaders in the neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran.

In some cases, the UN envoy has access to key figures unavailable to U.S. administrator Bremer, says William Luers, a former diplomat and president of the UN Association think tank. He says Vieira de Mello is "a master at this," and suspects he will "play down his role vis-a-vis [Bremer] but be much more in touch with the new [Iraqi] national council [and] with other governments who are interested." Luers says Vieira de Mello "can do that in ways that Bremer cannot because Bremer doesn't know these players. He doesn't know how to work it."

If the new governing council gains broad legitimacy internationally, that could boost the success of a crucial donor conference for Iraq planned for October. In addition to reconstruction assistance, U.S. officials have made it clear they are seeking more international support for peacekeeping in Iraq.

India, France, and Germany -- countries that opposed the war in Iraq -- say they cannot contribute troops without a broader UN mandate. U.S. officials have said Security Council Resolution 1483, adopted in May, gives UN members the legitimacy they need to support coalition efforts. But U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also said Washington was holding talks with other governments on a possible new UN resolution on Iraq.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said during a visit to Cairo yesterday that he favored expanding the UN's role.

"We believe it is necessary to speed up the process of handing over the power to legitimate representatives of the Iraqi people, and for that purpose it is necessary to increase the role of the United Nations in the Iraqi settlement process."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said after talks with Vieira de Mello yesterday that the new Iraqi council should not be used to justify the continued occupation of Iraq by United States and British forces. He said Iran was "ready to cooperate with UN plans in the region" and called for a transfer of power under UN leadership to an Iraqi democratic national regime.