Courtesy Vieira de Mello Family
An early passport issued by the United Nations for the man who transformed hopeless situations into hopeful ones.
n Aug. 19, a truck bomb loaded with more than 1,500 pounds of explosives detonated next to the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, right under the offices of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special envoy of the United Nations to Iraq, killing Vieira de Mello and 21 others. For the United Nations, the attack, and specifically the death of Vieira de Mello, was a crippling blow, comparable in its effect on the U.N.'s sense of its own possibility to the impact President Kennedy's murder had on the self-confidence of the United States.
The stature of the United Nations had already been badly damaged by the decision of the United States and its allies to go to war in Iraq in the spring of 2003 without U.N. authorization. Outside the world body, many had questioned the U.N.'s relevance, and some wondered whether it had any future at all. By sending Vieira de Mello to Iraq after the fall of Baghdad, Secretary General Kofi Annan was trying to reassert the U.N.'s centrality. For if anyone could make it relevant again, it was Vieira de Mello.
Vieira de Mello was the man his colleagues believed could transform hopeless situations into hopeful ones and negotiate cease-fires at the height of genocidal wars. He was the United Nations' chief civilian representative in Bosnia in 1993 and its humanitarian coordinator in the Great Lakes region of Africa after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. When NATO expelled Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999, it was Vieira de Mello who was given the task of organizing the first transitional structures in what would prove to be an open-ended U.N./NATO protectorate in the breakaway Yugoslav province. And after the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor in 1999, Vieira de Mello was named head of the U.N.'s transitional authority there. He had a seemingly miraculous knack for sitting down with mortal enemies and reconciling their seemingly irreconcilable positions. As one European diplomat put it after his murder, ''Sergio was a man who could go into the foulest situation and come out smelling like a rose.''
When people tried to account for his success, they tended to talk of his charm, his erudition (he earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne, spoke four languages fluently and read prodigiously) and even of his quite unforgettable good looks. But those who knew him best discerned the steel beneath the charisma, the born diplomat with a daunting work ethic.
Vieira de Mello apparently believed in the United Nations as it saw itself, the U.N. at its best -- poor in resources but rich in dedication; badly served by its member states, above all the most powerful among them, but nonetheless able, against all the odds, to bring savage wars to a speedier end while alleviating the suffering of the innocent victims of these conflicts; and offering hope and a bedrock of humanitarian principle in a world of power politics, ethnic conflict and Realpolitik.
When Vieira de Mello was criticized, though, it was for being too much a devotee of Realpolitik. There was the charge that his quasi-religious commitment to the U.N.'s institutional survival made him a servant of the great powers despite himself, since the U.N. is powerless without them. If the U.N.'s viability would be aided by obliging the United States in Congo, NATO in Kosovo or the coalition in postwar Iraq, Vieira de Mello often calculated those to be bargains worth making.
Shortly before the Iraq crisis began, he was named U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. The human rights job did not particularly suit him, and he was restive in it. But Vieira de Mello also wondered what he could actually accomplish in occupied Iraq, and at first he resisted the posting. But when Secretary General Annan persisted, Vieira de Mello acquiesced, assembling an extraordinary team of aides. He flew to Baghdad, insisting that he would stay only four months.
He knew that the United Nations had been shaken by the Iraq crisis, but he said he believed it could renew its claim to relevance in Iraq. He must have known that he was faced with making the best of a bad job. And yet he had been in bad situations before and succeeded. As one of his aides in Baghdad put it, ''To the last, Sergio was the most optimistic of all of us.''
Vieira de Mello played a critical role in winning legitimacy for Iraq's Governing Council, which, for all its faults and limitations, was the one institution in Iraq that mitigated the relationship between occupier and occupied -- between the American forces and the Iraqi people. And yet it seems clear that he, like the institution he served, underestimated the degree to which anti-American forces in Iraq viewed the United Nations as little more than a handmaiden to American power.
And there were undeniable problems with the security arrangements at Vieira de Mello's headquarters; the U.N.'s own investigations later called its security system dysfunctional. But for Vieira de Mello really to have ensured his security would have required him to turn U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel into a fortress, as the American-occupation authorities have done with their headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace. Doing this would have meant cutting U.N. staff members off from the Iraqis they were there to serve, however, and this Vieira de Mello was never willing to do. He died, you could argue, for his belief in the bedrock principle that the U.N. had to be open and independent.
The decision to appoint him testified to the unique role Vieira de Mello played within the world organization. After his murder, Secretary General Annan was asked whether he would soon be sending a new special envoy to Iraq. Annan replied that he would not do so until such a successor had a clear mandate from the Security Council.
A reporter pointed out that Vieira de Mello had operated in Iraq without such a mandate and with considerable success.
Annan replied, ''I had only one Sergio.''
David Rieff is a contributing writer for the magazine.