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UN: Vieira de Mello -- More Than Three Decades Of Service In Crisis And War Zones

  • Ron Synovitz

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the senior UN official who was killed yesterday in Baghdad, spent more than 30 years working to improve living conditions for ordinary people caught up in war and crisis. RFE/RL examines Vieira de Mello's career -- including his efforts in the Balkans during the 1990s, his thoughts on post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and the focus throughout his career on the plight of war refugees.

Prague, 20 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The death of special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello in yesterday's truck-bomb attack on the UN's Baghdad headquarters has sent shock waves through the international diplomatic community.

Vieira de Mello, who was UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy in Iraq, was among at least 17 people killed in the blast. The 55-year-old veteran diplomat from Brazil had been talked about as a possible future successor to Annan.

The secretary-general paid tribute to Vieira de Mello today in remarks about the bombing. "The United Nations lost some of its most outstanding public servants, especially Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was really the most brilliant colleague -- our brightest and best. And many others have also been injured," Annan said.

In diplomatic circles, Vieira de Mello was well-respected for more than three decades of service -- work that included coordinating the UN's first wave of humanitarian efforts in war zones and crisis areas around the world. Much of his work in the 1970s and 1980s focused on helping refugees.

Annan said Vieira de Mello was dedicated to relieving the suffering of ordinary people as well as advancing the goals of the United Nations. "Sergio Vieira de Mello has really served all over the world and made a major contribution to the international community," he said.

As Annan's special envoy in Kosovo in 1999, Vieira de Mello was the first senior administrator from the UN to arrive in the Serbian province after 78 days of NATO air strikes brought an end to Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanians there.

When he arrived in Pristina in June of 1999, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) did not even have a building for its offices or a satellite communications system that would allow UNMIK uninterrupted phone and e-mail links with the outside world. Vieira de Mello quickly resolved those problems and created a beachhead for future UN operations in Kosovo so that both humanitarian agencies and UN administrators could coordinate their work.

After that crucial role in setting up UNMIK, Vieira de Mello was sent to East Timor by Annan. He spent nearly three years guiding that country to independence from Indonesia after 24 years of war.

And after May of last year, when the UN handed over control of the new country to the East Timorese, Vieira de Mello became the UN's high commissioner for human rights. At that post, he focused UN efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

During an interview with RFE/RL late last year, speaking as the UN's top human rights official, Vieira de Mello endorsed the creation of an International Criminal Court. "You know, international norms have absolutely no credibility unless they are sanctionable," Vieira de Mello said. "And there had been no jurisdiction able to sanction serious crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the recent past, with the exception of two ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.

Vieira de Mello remained the UN's top human rights official until last May, when he took a four-month leave of absence from the post to head UN humanitarian efforts in Iraq. From the start of the mission, he considered the lack of security in Iraq to be a key problem.

He told the UN Security Council in June that the UN presence in Iraq was vulnerable to anyone who would seek to target the organization. Earlier, he had also warned that security for his mission in Iraq was relying too heavily on the UN's reputation of neutrality and independence.

"The first problem is the lack of security, especially in urban centers -- beginning with Baghdad, the capital," Vieira de Mello said. "I know from experience that it's not easy to establish order when all state institutions have collapsed. Therefore, to a certain degree, I understand what is taking place and we will do everything in this context to assist the authorities in identifying the more vulnerable areas and contribute to stability and safety by restabilizing as quickly as possible because without that, nothing can be built."

In late June, Vieira de Mello indicated that he was aware of the risks his job posed for his safety by noting that Iraqis had "mixed feelings" about the role of the United Nations in their country during the past decade. Still, he tried to portray the situation positively: "I have learned that the Iraqis, despite their mixed feelings about the role of the organization in their recent history, wish the United Nations to play a strong and important role in the future, not just in the short term, but in the long term, because we are here for the long haul and we will be here long after the coalition has left."

In Baghdad today, UN spokesman Salim Lone said Vieira de Mello had become irreplaceable within the senior ranks of the United Nations. "Sergio Vieira de Mello was a man that the secretary-general [Annan] turned to whenever there was a major crisis. There was a crisis in Kosovo and the first man on the scene sent by Kofi Annan was Sergio Vieira de Mello. There was a crisis in East Timor and the first man on the scene that the secretary-general sent was Sergio Vieira de Mello. There was this enormous crisis here in Iraq and who was sent? Sergio Vieira de Mello. So from that perspective, first of all, there is no one who can fall into his footsteps here. There is no one in the world who can do the kind of job that he was capable of doing," Lone said.

Vieira de Mello joined the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1969 when he was just 21 years old and had finished studying philosophy at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. He worked with refugees in Bangladesh during its drive for independence in 1971. After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Vieira de Mello worked with refugees on that divided island. He also worked in Sudan, Mozambique, Peru, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Congo. In all of those situations, he was either in the mission country during the peak of its crisis or shortly after major combat operations.

After working on the refugee problem in Central Africa, he was appointed as the assistant to the UN's high commissioner for refugees in 1996. He became undersecretary-general in New York in 1998.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during former President Bill Clinton's administration, wrote a glowing tribute to Vieira de Mello that appeared in "The Washington Post" today. Holbrooke described the Brazilian-born diplomat as a "remarkable career official" who advanced many of America's long-term policy goals while still loyally serving the United Nations.

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