Sergio Vieira de Mello is not a person that most of us would have known about had he not died in a vicious terrorist attack against the United Nations office in Iraq in August of 2003.
In fact, the engaging Brazilian who became first United Nations Special Envoy to Iraq, would likely have been forgotten if not for Samantha Power's recently released biography Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. The book closely follows the life of the international civil servant, detailing his rise through the ranks of the United Nations to eventually become High Commissioner for Human Rights and a Special Representative to the Secretary General in Iraq at the time of his death. But the book is much more than a simple biography. It is simultaneously a history, critique and defense of the United Nations at a time when a decidedly unilateralist American regime has done everything possible to discredit perhaps one of the greatest triumphs to emerge from the chaos of the Second World War.
International affairs is familiar territory for journalist Samantha Power, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. Now a professor of global public policy at Harvard University and a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Barack Obama, Power has devoted much of her previous work to broader examinations of conflict-affected regions like Darfur. Chasing the Flame is her first foray into biography, and she commands the genre with impressive strength and ease.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro into a diplomatic family – his father a member of the Brazilian Foreign Service – and spent most of his early years abroad in countries like Argentina, Italy, and Lebanon. He later finished secondary school in Rio de Janeiro before traveling to France to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. It was after his studies, longing for a more practical way of engaging the problems of the world, that he sought a job at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He would spend most of his career in this UN agency dealing with complex emergencies around the world, from crisis in Bangladesh – his first – to refugee issues in Tanzania – his last operation at the UNHCR. He went on to become an Undersecretary General and advisor to the newly appointed Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York.
Power's narrative of Vieira de Mello's involvement in many of the major refugee crises of the twentieth century is duly effective. She provides valuable insight into his character, how he learned to engage with people across national, ethnic and cultural boundaries and how this would later serve to his advantage in Iraq. It also gives a history of how the United Nations has evolved, and stumbled, through the greater part of its sixty-odd years of existence.
In Power's documentation of Vieira de Mello's frustrations with his only employer, we find her critique of the United Nations. Her assessment is not the vicious rant of John Bolton or any other Bush administration official who has dismissed the organization as corrupt and ineffective, but rather a serious look at the institution's more frustrating aspects through the eyes of an employee who knew these flaws intimately. Vieira de Mello's constant frustration with shoestring budgets for humanitarian operations, the political nature of many senior appointments, and a long string of broken commitments from donor nations all help to bring to light serious issues that Power suggests must be tackled if the United Nations is to remain viable.
Her harshest criticisms – and Vieira de Mello's it seems – are not for the United Nations itself, but rather for its member states. We cannot, they seem to say, ignore the United Nations when it suits us and then complain about its ineffectiveness. We, the people of this world, are the United Nations and must hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards if we expect the organization to thrive. Sergio Vieira de Mello, Power argues, held himself and those who worked with him to the highest standard even if – as in Iraq – the situation conspired to make those standards irrelevant.
Vieiro de Mello was not without his professional and personal flaws, and Power's account of his life definitely brings these shortcomings to light. He was perhaps overly ambitious and at times perhaps more focused on advancement of his career than the success of the United Nations. His desire for international renown may have lead to some of his more reckless actions, like a dangerous media-conscious tour of Kosovo while he served as UN Special Representative there. And contradictory moves such as publicly cozying up to the Bush administration while privately abhorring its actions in Iraq are well detailed.
Additionally, Power briefly touches on his dysfunctional family life brought on in part by an appetite for women. On the whole, however, Vieira de Mello's commitment to the United Nations and its mission more than overshadows any of his shortcomings. In the end, his commitment to the United Nations was so great that he gave his life in service to the organization and the world. Ultimately, he stands as an example of how all committed citizens must make sacrifices if they want to make this world better and safer.
That Iraq was perhaps the greatest blow the United Nations has suffered in recent years is a fact underscored by the tragic death of one of its shining stars – Vieira de Mello – at a time when the organization desperately needed someone like him as a representative. His willingness to lead operations in the field, his unwillingness to hide from local populations behind security cordons, and his ability to listen and engage are all qualities that Power notes would have been very helpful to both the Iraqis and the Coalition Forces had de Mello lived through his time in Baghdad.
Sadly, a suicide bomber decided this was not to be. The world owes Sergio Vieira de Mello thanks for paying the ultimate price in his efforts to make this world a better place for all of us. We also owe Samantha Power for reminding us just how significant a sacrifice this charismatic diplomat made.
Uzodinma Iweala is a writer based out of New York City.