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The Legacy of a Modern Diplomat


Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.

Five years ago today, a massive truck bomb detonated at the U.N. compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people. Among them was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.’s special representative in Iraq, and a legendary Brazilian diplomat who represented a sea change in the U.N.’s reactions to humanitarian emergencies.

Viera de Mello’s decades of working for and with the United Nations included deep experience with seemingly intractable conflict and reconstruction missions in Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor. Dynamic, suave and empathetic, Vieira deMello was widely eulogized as a singular figure in international diplomacy. “I had only one Sergio,” said a shaken Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, in the bombing’s aftermath.

Vieira de Mello’s biographer, the human-rights expert and former Barack Obama adviser Samantha Power, agrees. “Whether on Darfur or on Georgia,” Power wrote in an email sent from Brazil, where she is commemorating the diplomat’s life, “one doesn’t feel today as if there is an international official (unaffiliated with his country’s national agenda) who can be relied upon to be sent into a crisis, suss the scene and, while not a miracle worker, max out on what can be achieved — through negotiations, through the mobilization of international resources (Sergio was a hell of a salesman once he got back to capitols), etc.”

Vieira de Mello still looms large five years after his death — and his legacy is a new breed of U.N. diplomat. “Up until the early 1990s, the U.N. was mostly a diplomatic forum,” explained James Traub, a writer for the New York Times magazine and author of “The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power.” “When it engaged in big nation-building and peace-keeping actions, a whole new generation arose who had real-world experience in unbelievably trying settings, involving deep and difficult issues of sovereignty.”

Vieira de Mello represented a transformation toward a more activist U.N. diplomat — one more comfortable settling disputes and tending to humanitarian crises in combat zones than smoothing over hurt feelings at U.N. headquarters in New York. “He never got muddy, despite wading in the mud so frequently,” said Traub, meaning that both literally and figuratively.

While Vieira de Mello might have been the best of that trail-blazing generation, he most certainly is not the last. Among the places that generation is proving its mettle is, ironically, the country where Vieira gave his life: Iraq. Right now, the Swedish diplomat Steffan de Mistura has thrown himself into the thick of Iraq’s toughest problems.

When a humanitarian crisis erupted in the second half of the 20th century, Vieira de Mello was often there, largely as a troubleshooter with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and then rising to become U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002. Born in Brazil in 1948 — two years after the birth of the U.N. itself — into a family of diplomats, the Sorbonne-educated Vieira de Mello saw earlier than most that the superpower competition between the United States and the Soviet Union created conditions where no one power had an interest in resolving or alleviating humanitarian-related catastrophes.

Beginning in 1969, he stepped into that vacuum, first in Bangladesh, during the bloody 1971 war of separation from Pakistan; then into practically every third-world conflict zone. His resume of service is a checklist of late-20th-century horrors: Cyprus in 1974-5; Lebanon during the bloodiest phase of the civil war and Israeli occupation; Cambodia in the early 90s, working on mine retrieval and repatriation; the Balkan wars; viceroy of East Timor during the 1999-2002 transition to independence from Indonesia; Iraq.

Ironically, Vieira de Mello viscerally shared a criticism of the U.N. often levied by its most ardent American critics: its penchant for inactivity. While he never shared their prescription of weakening the U.N., he pushed the international organization throughout his career to take a broader activist role in resolving both global conflicts and internal disputes — what Traub called making the U.N. the “arbiter of sovereignty.”

In the aftermath of the Cold War, first Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then Annan began spelling out a doctrine of U.N. intervention in cases of extreme human-rights emergency. “The time of absolute sovereignty,” Boutros-Ghali proclaimed in 1992, had “passed.” Yet throughout the 1990s, the world groped to define what that meant — with inaction during the Rwandan genocide, and delayed reaction to the genocide in the Balkans.

The inaction that U.N. critics frequently cite as endemic was also a problem for the frantic diplomat. After Annan instructed Vieira de Mello to take an administrative post in New York in 1997, one colleague told him, “There is the U.N. that meets, and the U.N. that does. Now you are joining the U.N. that meets,” according to Power’s biography, “Chasing The Flame.” Vieira de Mello’s special assistant, Fabrizio Hochschild, explained to Power, “Sergio had endless patience for everything else — but no patience for administration.”

Yet Vieira de Mello had an asset perhaps unique among diplomats. “Sergio was also the only international official who was trusted by all five of the permanent members of the Security Council,” said Power, referring to the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia, each of whom can veto actions proposed by the U.N.’s decision-making body. “Council unity proves to be a crucial ingredient to the ‘international community’ actually getting what ‘it’ wants. And that unity has never been more lacking. The go-to guy was gone.”

In late 1999, the U.N. brokered a referendum on independence on East Timor, which Indonesia had occupied since 1975. The vote went precisely as expected: East Timor voted for independence; Indonesia reacted to the vote by sponsoring marauding bands of militias; the great powers were reluctant to intervene, and a reluctant U.N. found itself pressed to act.

The Security Council authorized an Australian-led peace-keeping force, and Annan asked Vieira de Mello to act as the U.N. representative, with a mandate to somehow broker peace. Soon, the diplomat found himself in intense negotiations with Xanana Gusmao, the similarly charismatic East Timorese leader, who came from a very different social strata than Vieirade Mello.

Traub, working as a reporter in East Timor at the time, saw Vieira de Mello’s talents up close. “He let me sit on his meeting” with Gusmao, Traub remembered. “There was obvious warmth, friendliness and charm between Sergio — this Paris-educated, charming, elegant guy — and this guy [Gusmao] who had been living in jungles for years, and imprisoned for years. The bond between them was so clear, just from the body language, that [Vieira de Mello] had earned his trust. It just showed you the enormous importance of the human element in diplomacy.”

Vieira de Mello was personally opposed to the Iraq war. Yet he felt duty-bound to head the U.N.’s mission there, to help restore the credibility of the international body after the Bush administration circumvented it to invade. According to Power, Annan deployed him to Iraq because the secretary general believed that Vieira de Mello posed the greatest chance of any U.N. functionary of influencing President George W. Bush, whom Vieira de Mello had somehow charmed, even while criticizing the president.

The post was supposed to be brief. “It was only for four months,” remembered Scott Malcomson, a senior adviser to Vieira de Mello who is now an editor at The New York Times Magazine. “To the degree I can be certain of anything, he was going to stick to that.”

Yet his time in Iraq was chiefly defined by two facts: lack of cooperation with the U.S. governing entity known as the Coalition Provisional Authority and intense action among political figures that the Bush administration had attempted to marginalize. “He focused on broadening the Iraqi political process as much as possible,” Malcomson said. “He went to all the capitols of all the surrounding countries and spoke at the highest level he could reach, and in Iraq he did much the same.”

Unlike the Bush administration, Vieira de Mello engaged the existing sources of power in Iraq, including the Shiite religious leader Ali al-Sistani. Sistani’s opposition to the U.S. plan to write a constitution under occupation brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets until the Coalition Provisional Authority agreed to his demand to hold elections first.

In an interview last month, Dave Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus and architect of the 2007 counterinsurgency strategy that helped reduced violence in Iraq, inadvertently vindicated Vieira de Mello’s approach. “We’d walk in and say ‘we’re in charge,’ Kilcullen said. “In 2007 that stopped. We said, ‘You guys are in charge.’ You know, ‘Take me to your leaders.’ … We treated the landscape as we found it.”

As Malcomson put it, “He was trying to extend the political process in Iraq and out of Iraq — with the idea that that would lead to the earliest possible end of the occupation. Because the occupation would become less necessary.”

From 2004 to 2007, in the post-Vieira de Mello era, the U.N. Advisory Mission in Iraq, known as UNAMI, receded significantly. Its offices moved out of Baghdad and into the safety of neighboring Amman. Yet over the past few years — even before the violence receded in 2007 — UNAMI’s presence has ramped up. Its diplomats, under the leadership first of Pakistan’s Ashraf Jehangir Qazi and now Sweden’s Staffan de Mistura, have taken up Vieira de Mello’s banner, negotiating intensely behind the scenes to resolve some of Iraq’s thorniest issues. (De Mistura, Power said, was a “great friend” of Vieirade Mello.)

Among these issues is Kirkuk, the oil-rich multi-ethnic city in northern Iraqi, claimed by both the Kurds and the Arabs. For years, the Kurds — who call the city their “Jerusalem” — have sworn to incorporate Kirkuk within their autonomous region, fueling Arab fears that this would prelude secession.

In 2004-05, the Kurds succeeded in pushing through a constitutional provision guaranteeing a referendum on the city’s status — secure in the knowledge that their importation of Kurds into the city guarantees victory at the polls. That vote, constitutionally scheduled for late 2007, has been repeatedly deferred at the behest of the U.N., which fears that a vote ahead of a sectarian compact could reap a new crest of violence. So far, the U.N. — being untainted by the occupation — is the only credible interlocutor recognized by all parties to broker a fair solution, if one is possible.

Fourteen war zones, six languages, an ability to move between Washington cocktail parties and life under siege,” Power explained, citing Viera de Mello’s unique talents and experiences. “An ability to bring the political-strategic insights of a statesman with the gritty field sensibility of a person who had spent most of his career working hands-on in violent places. When Annan said, ‘I only have one Sergio,’ after Sergio died — he was right.”

The website for Power’s biography of Vieira de Mello will host a variety of remembrances on Tuesday. “

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