In May, 2003 Sergio Vieira de Mello had just completed two and half years as the United Nations’ chief envoy to East Timor, a remote, sweltering island in Southeast Asia. A charismatic and widely-admired Brazilian-born diplomat who had served the UN for thirty-five years in some of the world’s worst humanitarian and political situations, Vieira de Mello had returned to Europe to take an appointment as High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, a prestigious post he administered from Geneva. Depleted from his experience in East Timor, where he directed the country’s transition to independence, and ready for a break after three decades of living in war zones, Vieira de Mello was not enthusiastic when he learned he was favored to head up UN operations in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan eventually prevailed upon Vieira de Mello, and on June 2nd he arrived in Baghdad, the UN’s first envoy to post-Saddam Iraq. Over the course of the next two and a half months, Vieira de Mello and his small staff worked 80-hour weeks to reestablish a UN presence in a country that was growing progressively more violent. Vieira refused to situate the UN headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone for symbolic reasons-doing so would run counter to the spirit of openness he wished to project-and the building at which the headquarters were housed, the Canal Hotel in eastern Baghdad, was easy to access. On August 19, an Iraqi suicide bomber crashed a Kamash truck laden with explosives into the southeast corner of the hotel, killing Vieira de Mello and 22 of his colleagues.
In Chasing the Flame: Siergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Samantha Power offers an ambitious, comprehensive biography of Vieira de Mello, and in the process disassembles questions about how the how international community should respond to civil wars and genocide. Power is a journalist, human rights activist, and professor of global leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Until recently she was also a foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, and is expected to get a high-level position if there is an Obama administration, so the views she expresses on international stability and peacekeeping in Chasing the Flame are of special interest.
In Chasing the Flame, Power builds on the theme of her last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide-a blistering appraisal of U.S. policy toward mass murder, with an emphasis on the genocides that occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s. Power believes that severe humanitarian crises require the international community to respond with force if necessary. She is not inclined toward unilateral intervention-she points to Iraq as the template for what happens when a single state tries to police the world-and she hopes for a strengthened UN with a more robust peacekeeping capacity and a stronger, more aggressive mandate from its member states, particularly those on the Security Council: Britain, France, Russia, the U.S., and China.
In Vieira de Mello, Power has found a man of like-mind-she quotes him saying, “Security is the first priority, and the second priority, and the third priority, and the fourth priority.” Power is critical of Vieira de Mello’s habit, early in his career, of striking up amiable relationships with killers and hard-liners out of a misplaced sense of practicality-as the UN envoy in Bosnia in the mid-’90s he was so friendly with Slobodan Milosevic that his colleagues nicknamed him “Serbio.” But she argues that Vieira de Mello eventually constructed a smarter, subtler approach to diplomacy that balanced idealism with fierce pragmatism. “The massacre in Srebrenica and the genocide in Rwanda seemed to jar him out of earlier naivete,” she writes. “For the rest of his career, though he still engaged with thugs and killers, he was less prone to appease his interlocutors.”
When Vieira de Mello joined the UN in 1968, he was a young Marxist recently graduated from the Sorbonne, and his vision of the organization tilted toward a kind of pacifism. After years spent in places like Cambodia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia, and East Timor, however, Vieira de Mello came to see armed force as an indispensable and underused component of the UN’s peacekeeping arsenal. Power suggests that his transformation to some extent mirrors a larger transformation among members of the UN Secretariat. In 1961 Dwight Eisenhower, summed up what was probably the general sentiment at the UN when he said “With all the defects, with all the failures that we can chalk up against it, the UN still represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.” Today, Power says, many at the UN are, like Vieira de Mello, much more inclined to advocate the battlefield; no one in the Secretariat wants to see more images of blue-helmeted soldiers standing by while one ethnic or sectarian group massacres another.
But what the UN Secretariat wants and what the UN’s member states-both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council-allow it frequently diverge, and never more prominently than in the case of ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and genocide. Power’s account of Vieira de Mello’s globe-spanning career illustrates that there are complications to peacekeeping now that didn’t exist when the original UN Charter was written, emphasizing as it did the right of sovereign states to be free from foreign interference, including interference from the UN itself. Chief among those complications is the fact that the world has many more failed and failing states in which working out what sovereignty entails is a delicate and difficult question. Nevertheless, Power, like Vieira de Mello during his life, is quite clear about the UN’s human obligation to protect the innocent in instances of humanitarian crisis, and she places the onus of that responsibility on the UN’s member states.
Chasing the Flame made me recall an interview I had a number of years ago with Romeo Dallaire, the French-Canadian General who oversaw the UN’s miniscule peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1996. Dallaire was forced to plead on live television with UN higher-ups to send him troops and a mandate to use force as he watched Rwanda engulfed by one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century; he later attempted suicide, so guilt-wracked was he by his experience. I asked Dallaire why the UN and the international community were reluctant to meet his entreaties. He sharply corrected me. The UN was not reluctant, he said; the international community “emasculated” the UN by refusing to provide troops. Today the same phenomenon is occurring in Darfur: China and Russia are heavily invested in Sudanese oil, and have blocked efforts by the Security Council to force the Sudanese government to cease its campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Darfurians. Whether the UN will move in the more muscular direction Power desires is difficult to predict-a Barack Obama administration may prove a bellwether-but the fact that in the last five years the world has done virtually nothing while four hundred thousand Darfurians have been massacred does not seem to bode well for her hopes, or for the hopes of Sergio Vieira de Mello.
411: Samantha Power will discuss Chasing the Flame at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, 1535 Santa Barbara Street, on Tuesday, March 18th at 8pm. For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.