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UN: World Body Wins Sakharov Prize In Memory Of Slain Iraq Envoy

  • Kathleen Moore

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his staff have been awarded the European Union's top human rights prize. The prize was awarded in memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top UN envoy in Iraq who was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad in August.

Strasbourg, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has awarded its top human rights prize to the United Nations, in memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top UN envoy for Iraq who was killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad in August.

The announcement came today from the European Parliament, which picks the winners of the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

The parliament awarded the prize collectively to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his staff "out of respect for their work, which is often performed in difficult conditions and at risk to their own lives."

Alison Suttie is a press officer for the president of the parliament, Pat Cox. "The proposal by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament won, which was to give the prize to the United Nations in special memory of Mr. Vieira de Mello and the staff of the United Nations who were killed in Baghdad, and indeed all staff that work on behalf of peace and liberty in the United Nations," Suttie said.

Vieira de Mello was among 22 people killed when a suicide bomber struck the UN's Baghdad headquarters on 19 August, one of a spate of deadly bombings in the Iraqi capital in recent months. He had been appointed UN special representative for Iraq only three months earlier.

The attack sent shock waves through the international community -- in part because the UN had been leading humanitarian efforts in Iraq.

A few weeks before the attack, Vieira de Mello himself said the UN was relying too much on its reputation for its security.

"The United Nations' presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization. Our security continues to rely, significantly, on the reputation of the United Nations, our ability to demonstrate, meaningfully, that we are in Iraq to assist its people, and our independence," Vieira de Mello said.

The choice of Vieira de Mello for the award will be seen partly as a political statement in support of the United Nations following the U.S.-led war on Iraq, which had no explicit UN authority.

During his time in Iraq, Vieira de Mello built up the UN's humanitarian efforts and managed to earn the respect of many Iraqis, as well as of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. He played a role in setting up the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council but criticized the slow pace of turning the country over to self-rule.

Vieira de Mello was a career UN diplomat with stints in world trouble spots, such as East Timor and Kosovo.

Before leaving for Iraq, he had been the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Shortly after his appointment to that job last year, he spoke to RFE/RL of the need to balance security with human rights.

"We must make sure that the fundamental human rights, values and principles that are the bedrock of democratic societies are not eroded in the process [of protecting people's security]. Measures, in other words, that are taken to fight terrorism should always be compatible with international obligatory human rights norms," he said.

Vieira de Mello actually appeared twice on the shortlist for this year's Sakharov Prize. He was also nominated along with Hans Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector, and Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency.

Also shortlisted was jailed Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji.

Other nominees did not make it to the shortlist. They include four Central Asian political prisoners -- Batyr Berdyev of Turkmenistan, Muhammad Bekjanov of Uzbekistan, Felix Kulov of Kyrgyzstan, and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov of Kazakhstan; a Kazakh scientist who leads the international campaign for victims of Soviet nuclear testing programs, Saim Balmukhanov; and Yuri Bandazhevskii, a Belarusian medical researcher who was imprisoned after writing about radioactivity in an area affected by the Chornobyl disaster.

The 15-year-old Sakharov Prize is named for Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and awarded annually to individuals or groups fighting for human rights and freedom.

Previous winners have included former South African President Nelson Mandela and Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya.

Suttie says the prize should be presented in January.

"We hope that we'll be able to give the prize to Mr. Kofi Annan when he comes to the European Parliament in Brussels on the 29th of January next year. And we all look forward very much to seeing him and giving him the prize on that day," Suttie said.

Annan and the United Nations also won the 2001 Nobel Peace prize.

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