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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Remembering the murder of Sergio Vieira de Mello 

I had an extremely busy and interesting day in New York yesterday, which included both the Open Source Media launch event (of which more later) and meetings with high-powered New York lawyers. After all of that hard thinking, I took the 9 pm Accela express down to Washington, where I have another extremely busy day in front of me.

On the train I mostly read emails and prepared for today's work, but when all was done I was able to start William Shawcross' book Allies, the subtitle of which is "Why the West had to remove Saddam." Shawcross, you will recall, is a British journalist who has written quite critically of American foreign policy in the past. Thirty years ago, he wrote Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, a very harsh indictment of that American administration. Suffice it to say that Shawcross has never been a knee-jerk hawk or devoted Yankeephile. He therefore writes about Anglo-American war in Iraq with some greater credibility, perhaps, than others on either side of the issue.

I was struck by the introduction, which focused the reader on the nature of the enemy in the murder of a single man, the UN Secretary-General Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. To tide you over until I can get back to real blogging, I offer most of Shawcross' fascinating introduction below. Whatever one might think of the United Nations, it is really quite sad:
On August 19, 2003, a truck filled with explosive was driven into the Canal Hotel, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The building contained the offices of 300 international and Iraqi civil servants and humanitarian workers. The bomb was targeted directly at the office of the UN Secretary-General Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello.

This was the international version of September 11. 9/11 was an attack against America; 8/19 was an attack, by the same sort of people, against the international system.

The bomber killed more than twenty people, including UN officials, and wounded scores of others. This number is not to be compared with those who died on September 11, but the impact is enormous. The terrorists who carried out this attack murdered more UN officials in any single assault since the organization was created following World War II. It represented a direct assault against the principles of international civil society that the world has tried to create since 1945. It was an attempt to murder not only fine men and women but also all the humane values that the UN, for all its shortcomings, represents and strives to fulfill.

Sergio Vieira de Mello was one of the most brilliant diplomats at the United Nations. He was considered to be a possible successor to Kofi Annan as Secretary-General, and it would have been a great appointment. On his death, Brazil, his home country, at once announced three days of official mourning.

His working life covered the gamut of the world’s attempts to deal with evil and its aftermath. After joining the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he had worked in the 1970s in Bangladesh, in southern Sudan, in Mozambique, in Latin America, and in Lebanon. Later he moved to Indochina to help first with the Vietnamese boatpeople and then in Cambodia. Everywhere he worked with the same mix of dedication and flair.

I had known Sergio for many years, and I had watched him work in Cambodia, in the Balkans, in East Timor, and in Africa. He was a joy to be with – a magnetic personality. He spoke at least five languages fluently.

In Cambodia in the early 1990s, he was in charge of the repatriation of several hundred thousand refugees. He dealt with the odious Khmer Rouge commanders and with all the intransigent officials of the communist regime in Phnom Penh with equal charm, firmness, clarity, and skill. He made all the arrangements meticulously, and for an operation of that scale the repatriation was pretty flawless.

In Bosnia he slept and worked in one room in the headquarters of the UN Force Commander. I remember going with him to meet the egregious Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, in Pale. Karadzic was a psychiatrist of sorts, and Sergio gave him the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, in which a cover story was about war between psychiatrists. Having charmed Karadzic, Seregio then sat down to hours of tough negotiations with him.

He was intensely serious about his work, but he could also laugh and make fun of himself and the predicaments in which he often landed. He was debonair, immaculately dressed, remarkably handsome, carrying a smile that could launch a thousand cease-fires. Women adored him. Men admired him. One U.S. Senator once said, “Whenever I meet Sergio, two things happen. First, I feel poorly informed and secondly, I feel poorly dressed.” I have never heard anyone speak unkindly of him. People talked of “Sergio’s magic.”

We used to joke that the only possible title for his eventual memoir was “My Friends – The War Criminals.” Now he will never get to write it because the war criminals got him.

In 1999 Kofi Annan had asked him to go to East Timor after the Indonesians had finally been compelled to leave after their brutal twenty-five year occupation. Vieira de Mello helped lead the tiny society out of the wreckage left by Indonesia and into full independence, restoring its utilities and creating the foundations of civil society.

For this he and the UN were denounced by Osama bin Laden. Why? Because the UN had helped a basically Christian community secure its freedom from its Muslim occupiers.

Since then, Annan had appointed him UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a difficult job that he was just settling into at the time of the invasion of Iraq in spring 2003.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1483 acknowledging the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Annan asked Vieira de Mello to go to Baghdad for just four months to set up an assistance mission. He was not very keen on the idea, but he understood the opportunities for Iraq as well as the dangers for himself and others.

His friend, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, visited him in Baghdad and asked him,”Aren’t you tired of so many horrors? Why did you agree to come to this place?” “I found no good arguments for refusing,” Sergio replied, “with his eternal ear-to-ear smile.”

Sergio saw that the UN role was to lay the foundations of civil society in a country terrorized by decades of brutal dictatorship. He said, “The people of Iraq have suffered enough. It is time that we all… come together to ensure that this suffering comes to an end … We must not fail.” He quickly won the confidence of Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator, and argued that the Iraqis must be empowered as quickly as possible. He spent his time meeting and talking to people and organizations from all parts of Iraqi society and traveling to the region, trying to persuade the neighboring governments to give the new Iraq a chance.

He learned enough Arabic to charm Iraqis in their own language and was in every way a very good friend to them. That was one reason why the terrorists killed him and many of the well-chosen team of UN officials assisting him. They included Sergio’s chief of staff, the Egyptian diplomat Nadia Younes, who was a delightful iconoclast with a deep-throated and constant laugh, as well as one of Kofi Annan’s most trusted lieutenants, and dedicated young people including Rick Hooper, and American, Fiona Watson (British), and Ranillo Buenaventura (Filipino), along with many others.

It was not clear whether the murderers were Baathist remnants of the Saddam regime or Islamic fundamentalists who had in recent weeks been rushing to Iraq to create a new war against the “crusaders.” There were suggestions that the two groups might have collaborated for this operation. Whoever they are, they were determined to stop the international community from building a decent Iraq. They wanted despotism – either Baathist or Islamic – to prevail. They had no thought for the welfare of the Iraqi people whom the UN was attempting to assist.

A few days after the attack, a communiqué published by Al Qaeda described the bombing thus: “One of the Mujahedeen broke in with a van full of explosives into the back part of the headquarters at the office of the personal representative of America’s criminal slave, Kofi Annan, the diseased Sergio de Mellow, Bush’s friend.” The statement asked: “Why cry over a heretic…? Sergio Vieira De Mello is the one who tried to embellish the image of America, the crusaders and the Jews in Lebanon and Kosovo, and now in Iraq. He is America’s first man where he was nominated by Bush to be in charge of the UN after Kofi Annan, the criminal and slave of America; and he is the crusader that extracted a part of the Islamic land [East Timor].”

This is the enemy of the West, and anybody in the Muslim world that qualifies as an "apostate." Keep that in mind.

2 Comments:

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Nov 17, 01:13:00 PM:

A very moving tribute by Shawcross to his friend.

Anyone who still does not comprehend the reason for this fight or the character of the enemy would do well to read it.  

By Blogger Matthew, at Fri Nov 18, 01:27:00 AM:

The U.N. was chased out of Iraq. The senior people probably blamed the U.S. for lack of security (even though they refused a U.S. military guard for their compound in Baghdad).

The U.N. seems to serve a purpose, but it is easy to become disgusted with all the compromises it makes with tyrants and terrorists. Mr. Vieira de Mello reminds us of the hard and often unglamorous work the U.N. undertakes, and why it could remain important if it gets its act together.  

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