UN’s Go-To Guy : Sergio Vieira de Mello

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Born in March 1948, Sergio Vieira de Mello was a Brazilian United Nation diplomat, famously known for being enterprising, efficient, dedicated, and charismatic. He was a man of peace, a senior diplomat who served the UN for 34 years in the fields of refugee protection, peacekeeping operations, and the promotion of human rights.

His remarkable career, which he summed up as a “minefield”, started at the UNHCR organization in Geneva at 21 years old, while being a philosophy student at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

 

At the UNHCR, and for the next 33 years, he would participate in humanitarian and peacekeeping missions in Bangladesh (in 1971 during the independence war), Sudan (in 1972 at the end of the first Sudanese Civil War), Cyprus (after the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974), Mozambique where he helped refugees escaping the civil war in Zimbabwe, Peru, and many other countries.

At the time, these missions were considered as operational rather than political. There, the native of Rio de Janeiro would help to organize food aid, provide shelter for refugees. He for instance helped the repatriation of 650.000 Sudanese refugees and displaced people following the civil war in 1972.

He continued his ascent up the UN hierarchy within refugee aid bodies, notably by becoming UNHCR’s special envoy to Cambodia between 1991 and 1996, negotiating with Khmer leaders in high-risk locations, with the aim of helping tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees. In 1996, he was made Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees in 1996 and became Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator two years later.

Following his mission in Kosovo in 1999, Vieira de Mello was appointed UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor from December 1999 to May 2002.  The goal was to lead the former Portuguese colony to independence from Indonesia. He did it successfully, negotiating with Xanana Gusmão, the leader of the Timorese resistance. The transition was incremental but peaceful, until independence was achieved in 2002.

Vieira de Mello described this mission on French radio as follows:

The UN Security Council gave us the most ambitious mandate in the history of the United Nations, namely, to build a country. So, we had to start from scratch, and we tried, and I think succeeded, in creating a new civil service, a new administration.”

Following the success of this mission, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed the Brazilian diplomat High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002, and the following year he was appointed UN Special Envoy to Iraq. Sadly, he died of an Al-Qaeda-sponsored bomb attack on the UN offices in Baghdad, at the age of 55, during a short 4-month mission he was reluctant to take part in.

In his memory, World Humanitarian Day was established in his honor in 2008, on August 19, the day of his death, to pay tribute to humanitarian workers. Two foundations have been set up by his relatives, to promote dialogue for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and finally, two reports are available on Netflix, retracing in images the missions carried out by this inspiring diplomat.

 

Sources

Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/04/20/the-u-ns-go-to-guy/

OHCHR:  https://www.ohchr.org/en/about-us/high-commissioner/past/sergio-viera-de-mello

UN Watch: https://unwatch.org/issue-85-nomination-sergio-vieira-de-mello/

Arno Beaume
WRITTEN BY

Arno Beaume

I have a keen interest in the areas of international relations and the foreign policies of great powers, with a particular emphasis concerning international diplomatic negotiations and conflict resolution. I also have a daily habit of keeping up with world news for the past few years, making it a natural choice for me to delve into writing about these global events.

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