I didn’t know Sergio Vieira de Mello, but, as a soldier who spent nine months in Bosnia in 1998, it appears I owe him a lot. I owe him the fact that, while there were the odd nights where we would hear RPGs being fired by unrepentant loyalists into the homes of their opponents, usually we slept soundly and the troops patrolling the streets while the rest of us slept went unmolested. That wasn’t entirely because of de Mello – the tough-minded Richard Holbrooke forced the initial calm on unwilling combatants and UN troops forced them to keep it – but, behind the scenes, de Mello was working his magic. Me, I got to sleep.
De Mello worked wonders later in Kosovo, where he built a government from scratch in relative peace. In East Timor, he calmed a country boiling with anger by showing them that they would get nowhere if everyone simply looked out for him or herself. He very astutely appealed to that same self-interest as he did so. As he wrote later, “I have been telling the Timorese for a long time that the best way to erode the support East Timor has enjoyed worldwide is for them to start fighting each other again. If you burn a house, if you burn a school, if you harm one another, why would donors continue to funnel money to you? Why would a foreign investor bring his money here?”
As the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, he was a tireless, tough defender of basic human dignity. In meeting with President Bush in March, he castigated the administration for tossing roughly 650 people into a “legal black hole,” telling Bush that the cause of ending terror was just, but that those who fight it “do not need to suspend certain fundamental freedoms and guarantees to achieve that goal.”
He is reported to have been hoping to stay put for a while, which would have been a well-deserved rest. After 34 years in the United Nations working for the rights of refugees and, eventually, everyone whose human rights were violated, he had his own right to a little peace. After Turkey, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Kosovo, etc., no one would have blamed him if he let his luggage gather dust. When Kofi Annan asked him to go to Iraq for four months, though, he agreed, despite the fact that the Bush administration refused to share authority with the UN, leaving him virtually powerless. Nevertheless, he pitched in where he could, lending his moral authority and honesty to Ambassador Paul Bremer, who, as Bush’s handpicked administrator, needed someone to help blow away the political air of his position. As the Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote today, “He managed, in the short time he was in Iraq, to win the trust of not just Bremer and the Americans but also Iraq's fractious political, religious and tribal leaders. He became what U.N. diplomats are supposed to be but rarely are: an honest broker respected by both sides.”
De Mello knew that his responsibility in Iraq wasn’t to toe anyone’s political line, but to help the Iraqi people give birth to a new, freer nation. To succeed, de Mello knew that you couldn’t win the minds or hearts of a people without first trying to inhabit those minds, without understanding what drove those hearts to beat. He needed to know the Iraqi perspective. He seemed to have found it. Recently, the Brazilian-born diplomat told one of his home country’s newspapers that he was sympathetic to the fears and feelings of the Iraqi people, as quoted today in The New York Times: “It must be one of the most humiliating periods in their history. Who would like to see their country occupied. I would not like to see foreign tanks in Copacabana."
Still, I had no idea who this man was until yesterday. His name had popped up in stories I had glossed over and had left only a smudge somewhere in my memory, but that was it. Then, as I drove home from work and listened to his obituary – listened to how he died, horribly trapped beneath the hot, dusty rubble of his office, talking with those who dug madly, but unsuccessfully, to save him – I realized that the man who was helping to bring peace in Iraq had also helped make safe a country in which I had served. I knew that, probably even more than my fellow soldiers who stood watch at the gates at night, I owed my security in Bosnia to Vieira de Mello and Richard Holbrooke and all the other diplomats who, in their business attire and dress shoes, had got inside the minds of foreign peoples and had brought them calm. And, exponentially more important than my wellbeing, there are millions of people worldwide who owe people like that their very lives.
It’s easy to point at UN ambassadors and discount them. They are nominated by politicians and serve at the pleasure of those who called them to that service. We should remind those in power today, though, that the United Nations isn’t filled with these political water-bearers. The next time a conservative member of Congress tries to smear the United Nations with one broad brush, we should remind them of the service and sacrifice of those who are walking the ground that they would fear to tread. The next time they say it’s “ time for the United States to get out of the United Nations,” we shouldn’t just dismiss them as paranoid and foolish, but draw them out into the light and compare them openly with the peacemakers they denigrate.
It is tragic, indeed, that a man like de Mello would have to die in such a way. Just as sad are the deaths of our soldiers, who are still being killed with an alarming frequency. While there is no way to know, I have to wonder how many of those soldiers might be alive today if, in our inexplicable drive to hold onto power in Iraq, we hadn’t sidelined brilliant, experienced diplomats like Sergio Vieira de Mello. Hopefully, if anything good can come of yesterday’s bombing, the loss of de Mello will alert Americans to the kind of people who are serving in the United Nations and the noble causes for which they fight.