Subject: NYT: Man in the News -- Sergio Vieira de Mello

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

The New York Times May 24, 2003

Man in the News -- Sergio Vieira de Mello In a Storm, a Calm Voice



About two years ago, during the long, fractious aftermath of East Timor's break from Indonesia, Sergio Vieira de Mello and various United Nations personnel and journalists were descending into Jakarta on a United Nations plane when the landing was abruptly aborted.

The pilot went back in the cabin asking for a cellphone on which he could call the Israeli manufacturer to determine how to ensure the landing gear was down and locked.

As Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat now teaching at the National War College, recalled the incident, the journalists grew agitated. Mr. Galbraith got on a cellphone to his wife. Another United Nations official kept rereading the same column of cricket scores. The leader of the group, Mr. Vieira de Mello, kept on talking, joking and acting as if nothing untoward were happening.

"The only hint you have of what is going on is that his voice is about a half octave higher," Mr. Galbraith said in an interview on Thursday.

That imperturbability has been the trademark of his 34-year tenure at the United Nations, according to diplomats and friends of Mr. Vieira de Mello. It could serve him well in a new job in Iraq, where he is expected to improvise as the organization's newly appointed special representative.

In East Timor, Mr. Galbraith noted, "he had absolute power, it was the most comprehensive mandate" ever granted to such a special representative. "Full legislative, executive and judicial authority was invested in him."

Now his authority is born of a cluster of gerunds in a United Nations resolution, none of which includes the notion of control: "coordinating," "promoting" "facilitating" and, over and over, "encouraging." But with half a dozen complex and successful assignments behind him in places like Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Mr. Vieira de Mello is said by friends and associates to be able to handle ambiguity.

The main asset of the suave silver-haired 55-year-old, they say, is intense charm.

"The man has this special charm that I think works with everybody," said Silvana Foa, who was a spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees when Mr. Vieira de Mello was a top executive there. "He's the kind of person that you walk into a room and he makes you feel like you're the queen of England."

Sergio Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. After graduating from secondary school, he went to Paris, and earned four separate degrees there, including two doctorates from the Sorbonne that were awarded after he had already started with the United Nations in Geneva. He speaks Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

His career took him from Bangladesh to Sudan to Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru and Lebanon before he returned to Geneva to high-ranking headquarters jobs.

In 1986 he was appointed the chief of staff to the high commissioner for refugees and stayed in headquarters five years before heading to Cambodia in 1991 to help manage the effort to repatriate hundreds of Cambodian refugees from camps on the Thai border.

In East Timor, Mr. Galbraith said, "he made a point of getting out and about the entire country."

"He spoke at public meetings. He was very focused on maintaining good relations with the military and had excellent relations with the U.N. military who were subordinate to his command. He was mindful of what the different diplomatic communities wanted. He understood all the constituencies in an operation like this."

His official resume makes no mention of his personal life, but a United Nations spokesman said that he had two grown sons.

Diplomats here say that Mr. Vieira de Mello's skills at establishing relationships will be severely tested in the chaos of Iraq, but that they are optimistic he can keep the United Nations' profile high. He is also unlikely to set hopes too high on a swift turn to functioning democracy. Mr. Vieira de Mello's description of the East Timorese in an interview in The South China Morning Post in 2001, was infused with such realism.

"They may not know what democracy is," he told the reporter. "But I think they have learned what democracy is not. They have learned and they have paid a huge price for that. Can we expect perfect democratic institutions in a matter of two, two and a half years? Of course not."

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