Subject: Dunn: Sergio Vieira de Mello A Tragic Loss to Those Who Care

From James Dunn

Sergio Vieira de Mello A Tragic Loss to Those Who Care

For those who have served as UN advisers, the killing of 24 members of the Iraq mission last week was a shocking atrocity. We have often felt that UN missions enjoy a kind of immunity. It was an illusion that has been completely shattered by the truck bombing of the UNís Baghdad office, which claimed the life of one of the world bodyís most distinguished UN representatives, Brazilian born Sergio Vieira de Mello, whom I got to know well during his time as head of UNTAET, the East Timor mission he led from 1999 until independence last year.

We first met, at the beginning of his Timor assignment, when I found myself seated with him and Jose Ramos Horta on a UN flight from Darwin to Dili in November 1999. He was obviously excited by the challenge ahead, but I detected a certain apprehension. It was understandable enough, for de Mello was confronted by a nation in ruins, its towns destroyed, its people dispersed and demoralized. The task of rehabilitating the East Timorese and guiding them to independence in the shortest possible time then seemed like mission impossible. It was a role never before undertaken by the United Nations. Sergio, as he asked us to call him, went about this formidable task with the skills of a diplomat and administrator, and the dedication of a humanitarian.

As I was treated as an authority on East Timor, I met Sergio frequently, and we struck up a casual but warm friendship, one that endured right up to his posting to Iraq, about which he sent me an email only two months ago. De Mello was, of course, not short of advisers, but he seemed to see me as an independent outsider, who shared his deep commitment to the UNís humanitarian role. He had his own regular advisers, but I found myself occasionally being consulted on quite sensitive issues, including his relations with Jakarta, as well as dealings with the Timorese, and the still unresolved issue of the Indonesian militaryís responsibility for crimes against humanity. In particular I strongly supported his move, in mid 2000, to place East Timorese leaders in positions of ministerial responsibility, giving them, I suggested, their L-plates. It was the precursor to full independence two years later.

Sergio was urbane and a consummate diplomat, but I saw another side of him, his warm humanity and his dedication to human rights standards. He was an outstanding United Nations administrator, one who may have risen to the position of secretary general. Sergio was a tireless and flexible negotiator, with a passionate commitment to the UN system. While his instincts were often pragmatic, he always acknowledged the need to struggle to bridge the gap between the outcomes of compromise and the principles enshrined in UN human rights instruments. It therefore came as no surprise when Kofi Annan appointed him to UN Human Rights Commissioner in October last year, another extremely challenging post.

The East Timor challenge totally absorbed him. At first it was anything but plain sailing. UNTAETís first six months were especially taxing. UN missions are thrown together quickly and rather haphazardly, and it was months before UNTAETís constituent parts were functioning. Inevitably reconstruction during that time proceeded at a painfully slow pace, taxing the patience of the population and their leaders. During this difficult period Sergioís confidence was sorely tested. At one point he confided to me that he was contemplating resigning, partly for personal reasons. I pleaded with him to stay, insisting he was the outstanding person for this difficult job.

Much has been written about Sergioís charismatic qualities, but more importantly he was a warm caring person, and a tireless worker who won the dedication of the officials around him. He was thrilled by our successes, but deeply felt our losses. I recall his tears when we learnt that 3 UNHCR officials had been murdered by militia at Atambua. Sergio faced diverse challenges. He had to meet the expectations of the Security Council, the donorís club, the Timorese leaders as well as the population at large, and deal with internal conflicts and rivalry that threatened the missionís cohesion and effectiveness. While eruptions of internal disharmony were not uncommon, Sergio himself attracted universal respect, affection and loyalty.

Sergio Vieira de Mello was an exceptional person as well as a highly talented UN official. He was a prince of peace in a world where violence and military action are increasingly resorted to as solutions to our differences and security problems. He was a light of reason and tolerance at a time when intolerance and prejudice is leading us into a dark age. His death has understandably led to an unprecedented outpouring of grief. His native Brazil has declared him a national hero. To me he is an international hero in the ongoing struggle to make our world a safer and more just place. We can ill afford the loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello, but we have his achievements, especially in East Timor, to inspire us to work more determinedly towards the ideals that motivated this outstanding international citizen. It is a testimony to his success that none were more distressed than the Timorese at his loss, as expressed in this extract from a short poem by one of them:

Goodbye Mr. Sťrgio Vieira de Mello, a hero of peace and a good friend of Timor-Leste Like thunder on a rainy day we heard that you were killed. Don't know what to say, everything has become silent Except for deepest mourning and tears. Atanasia Pires


Back to August menu
July
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu