Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello
Appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1992, Sergio Vieira de Mello and his staff occupied the Palais Wilson, a regal manor overlooking Lake Geneva. Named after Woodrow Wilson, US president and champion of international peace and cooperation, the building was the first headquarters of the League of Nations. Though the League never succeeded, the United Nations— an organization predicated on collective action and on the enforcement of international law—grew out of its weaknesses. In 2003, it was from the Palais Wilson that Vieira de Mello, a life–long UN career officer, found himself on his way to be the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Iraq.
Exhausted by his many years of fieldwork representing the UN in Vietnam, Lebanon, Cyprus, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and East Timor, Vieira de Mello was ready to settle into his life with his fiancé and his Geneva–based job as the UN’s official monitor of human rights. Motivated by “Wilsonian” ideals of multilateralism and the UN commitment to international peace, he disapprovingly viewed the Iraq War as a product of the Bush administration’s illegitimate unilateralism. Nonetheless, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on a hesitant Vieira de Mello to head the UN’s new mission in Iraq, established in the wake of the US invasion. Having participated in peacekeeping missions, conflict resolution, and nation building around the world, Vieira de Mello seemed a natural candidate for the job. Despite his reservations, Vieira agreed to undertake the daunting mission, assuming responsibility for restoring the UN’s viability as an international actor. He and the institution he so loyally served are the engrossing subjects of Samantha Power’s new book,Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World.
Vieira de Mello’s time in Iraq would be short. Though he listened closely to many disparate voices in Iraq, touring the country in order to meet with political leaders, religious clerics, and activists, Vieira de Mello’s work culminated in but a few concrete changes. While he may have been responsible for the formation of a flawed but functioning Iraqi Governing Council, a majlis al–hukm, he had only minimal influence on the decisions of US leaders in Iraq, and in particular, Paul Bremer, the head of the US Coalition Provisional Authority. As he confronted US leaders situated behind the secure boundaries of the Green Zone, Vieira de Mello increasingly saw the Iraqi security situation as unpredictable and dire.
On August 19, 2003, as Vieira de Mello counted down the days before he could return to Geneva, an Al–Qaeda terrorist drove a Kamash truck into a relatively unprotected part of the Canal Hotel, the UN compound in Baghdad, and detonated approximately one thousand pounds of explosives. Buried under rubble that had once been his corner office, Sergio Vieira de Mello, along with twenty one others, died after a rescue operation that lasted over five hours. When he was finally found, Vieira de Mello’s body was resting on the light blue UN flag that had once adorned his office. His legs were crushed, and his silver dog tags, bearing identification markers and the UN flag, had disappeared in the explosion. Less than three months later, the UN withdrew its staff from Iraq in the wake of increasing violence.
Samantha Power’s project in Chasing the Flame is twofold: to tell the story of the man, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and of the institution in which he so strongly believed until his death. Within its biography format she claims also to tell the story of “dangerous world whose ills are too big to ignore but too complex to manage quickly or cheaply.” She skillfully approaches her first task, illustrating how Vieira de Mello developed from a youthful revolutionary into a pragmatic diplomat and politician. In portraying Vieira de Mello’s own transformation and ultimate demise, she alludes to an expanding set of problems that the UN faces, not least of which is its growing sense of irrelevance in the face of US unilateralism, signified, to an extent, by the Iraq War. In his own life, Vieira de Mello had developed an array of strategies to deal with the complications he faced in complex and often violent political situations. These included the need to achieve on–the–ground legitimacy, to forge lasting political solutions to political problems, and to approach humbly and patiently difficult situations with an appreciation for their complexity. Samantha Power employs Vieira de Mello as a model of a sound and practical approach to peacekeeping and problem–solving. It is these lessons, she argues, that the UN must likewise adopt to mend its own standing as a respected and effectual world institution.
Yet, in documenting the life of a twenty–first century role model, the book, by the end, appears to be more an instructional guide for the aspiring UN peacekeeper than an encompassing or relevant reflection on the role of the UN in international politics. While Power compellingly insists that we cannot look towards abstract principles or institutions to solve urgent humanitarian crises, she fails to demonstrate how public outrage over crises can be translated into effective policy within the existing power structures of the UN.
Vieira de Mello’s history is intricately entangled with that of the United Nations. Born in 1948, the year that the UN passed its monumental “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and convened to criminalize genocide under international law, Vieira de Mello found employment at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) upon finishing his graduate studies. Vieira studied philosophy in high school and later enrolled in the Sorbonne to immerse himself in the writings of Hegel and Marx. In France, during the 1968 revolution against the de Gaulle government, Sergio proclaimed himself a student revolutionary intent on antiestablishment activism and, in so doing, solidified the idealistic leanings of his early youth.
These zealous leanings prompted Vieira de Mello to devote his life to humanitarian and peacekeeping work, primarily under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHCR). Youthfully passionate and committed to aiding victims at all costs, the young Sergio was unwilling to create enemies and valued the UN’s unconditional neutrality. In Vietnam, Lebanon, and Cambodia, he cemented the singular qualities that later distinguished him from many of his colleagues: a relentless insistence on being in the “field;” an insatiable curiosity about the cultures and languages of the areas in which he worked; a willingness to negotiate and engage with militants, war criminals, and gnocidaires; and a dedication to restoring dignity and selfesteem to victims.
Power’s biography, though at times sprawling and perhaps even romanticized, relies on extensive and personal interviewing that dramatically recreates conversations in which Vieira de Mello engaged over thirty years ago. These conversations allow the reader intimate insight into the life of a man who once drank wine with Ieng Sary, “Brother Number Three” of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Tracking his transformation, Power notes that while Vieira de Mello never lost sight of the ideals of the UN and proudly operated under its flag, his political pragmatism disillusioned him with the state of the world, forcing one friend to remark that “he was...in touch with the world’s cruelty.” In light of the peacekeeping failures of the 1990s, especially Somalia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica, Vieira de Mello recognized the need for the UN to adopt a more forceful approach to peacekeeping, an approach that Power describes as a willingness to “give war a chance.” Thus, the Sergio who entered Iraq in 2003 was not merely the left–leaning philosophy student of his youth. Envisioning his international role within the context of creating a pragmatic “synthesis of utopia and realism,” Vieira de Mello knew that peace would require justice, and that the UN would increasingly have to take sides.
Power deftly tracks the UN’s extensive transformation from a body committed to neutral peacekeeping to one that recognizes— though perhaps does not always implement—the need to use force in conflictridden areas. In light of the indignities he witnessed around the world, Vieira de Mello determined that “solutions to humanitarian problems cannot be humanitarian.” Instead, it would be necessary to enlist the support of a broad range of people, especially “political, military, human rights, and economic development experts.” Sergio knew that humanitarian crises could only be solved with comprehensive political solutions; Power should take this lesson to heart. Instead of suggesting that the UN take a new approach to world crises, one modeled on Sergio’s example, she might consider explaining how the UN can do this so as to position itself to exert greater political will. Beyond implying that Vieira de Mello’s death marks the end of a productive UN, Power might come out more strongly on the question of the UN’s viability.
Though Power offers some concrete recommendations as to how the UN can become a “truly constructive, stabilizing twenty–first century player,” she does not deal with the enormous transformation that the UN must undergo to transcend—or effectively navigate—the member state structure that constrains it. Conceptualizing the UN as an organization of independent states, Vieira de Mello, and by extension Power, thought that “instead of relying on the UN to change the countries of the world...the countries of the world would have to change in order to transform the UN.” And yet, the reality is that states increasingly bypass the complex web of bureaucracy that encompasses the UN, even as the UN struggles to resolve the contradictions within its original mandate.
Vieira de Mello was right to contend, then, that the “world has become too complex for only one country, whatever its might, to determine the future or the destiny of humanity. The United States will realize that it is in interests to exert its power through this multilateral filter that gives it credibility, acceptability, and legitimacy.” But how can the UN, as a multilateral filter, fulfill its objectives when powerful states refuse to abide by its norms, causing the rest of the world to look on as its legitimacy disintegrates? If the United Nations operates under a strict code of state sovereignty and neutrality, how is it possible for a UN official to function as an effective “statesmen of the world”? Power leaves us wondering.
Thus, while Power creates a fast–paced book whose hero dashes off to meet every new adventureü she does not account for a contradiction that seems irreconcilable: the UN relies on the support of it member countries to solve common problems, and yet few are willing to contribute substantively to achieve common ends. She regards the United Nations as a leader in the field of humanitarian and human rights issues, and yet she neglects to resolve the tension between the UN’s global role and the unilateralist tendencies of states seeking to safeguard their own interests, a tension that often eclipses the UN’s capacity to produce sustained and effective action.
Ultimately, Power frames the question correctly: it is not “if to engage” but “how to engage” in a world that, while increasingly globalized and modernized, faces the urgent questions of civil war, religious extremism, genocide, terrorism, and immense poverty. In a recent interview at Columbia University, she stated that, “States have to change. Citizens have to change. The UN is not the point; it’s about the governments that comprise it.” And yet, given these enormous challenges, one has to wonder how the UN and its member states can continue the legacy that Vieira de Mello began, one in which actions are based on fostering legitimacy, enabling constructive partnerships, ensuring law and order, and guaranteeing individual dignity. Perhaps it is sufficient to point out the system’s problems; nonetheless, one leaves Chasing the Flame with many more questions than answers about how the world will operate without the grand problem–solver, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Who will take his place, and more importantly, will the UN—and its member states—be ready to receive him?
Perhaps Sergio had the answers. In December 1991, at a lecture at the Geneva International Peace Conference, the seasoned statesman reflected on the Kantian thought that he had considered essential during his days as a philosophy student. Though he questioned the practicality of perpetual peace, he still believed strongly in states and individuals as powerful agents of change. Sergio called on the people of the world to take responsibility for their future, proclaiming that citizens cannot “abdicate important decisions to statesmen,” but rather must be “jointly responsible for the opportunity, which is a right, to fully participate in the formation of progress.” Though Vieira de Mello lived through a changing international order and knew that states would continue to play an integral role in the UN’s policymaking, he never lost sight of the need for individual responsibility. Concluding his lecture, Vieira de Mello, who had spent his life in war zones viewing first–hand the baseness of human cruelty, dared to trust humanity’s potential. “We must act as if perpetual peace is something real, though perhaps it is not,” he said, echoing Kant. In his own words, he added, “The future is to be invented.”
SARA ARROW is a sophomore majoring in Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Features Editor of The Current. She also serves as a founder and Lead Senior Editor of Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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