A brave man's journey
From The Economist print edition
TIMID bureaucrats not headstrong brainboxes may leap to mind when United Nations officials are mentioned. But Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed when jihadists blew up his UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, was an exception. Samantha Power's detailed and sympathetic biography tells the tale of a Brazilian expatriate whose world outlook was shaped by the left-wing idealism of Paris in 1968 but then tempered by ever-increasing doses of reality.
By the end of his life, Vieira de Mello had junked the Marxism and anti-Americanism of his youth, as well as the niceties of UN procedure. He saw law and order as a vital adjunct of peacekeeping; he believed international intervention worked only if it was cloaked in legitimacy; and that it was always necessary to engage with the worst people in a conflict, if only to see how best to neutralise them.
The book provides a thoughtful account of the conflicts and disasters that changed his mind. These stretched from Lebanon to Cambodia, from Rwanda to ex-Yugoslavia, from East Timor (his biggest success) to the post of UN human-rights commissioner and, finally, to catastrophe in Iraq. He was on the scene during the dying spasms of the cold war and the birth pains of the new American century: cajoling parties to the conflict, wheedling outsiders for money and fuming at the leaden, out-of-touch officials back home.
Ms Power, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, describes Vieira de Mello as “brave but enigmatic”. He was willing to do things and go to places that most international bureaucrats would have found too risky: bringing the Khmer Rouge to the negotiating table was a high point. In the blurry world between humanitarian aid and international law he was as good as it gets, wielding a mixture of ambiguity and decisiveness with the personal and institutional authority to make it all, sometimes, work.
As a person, he remains a bit of a puzzle. He was a great womaniser—in a way that perhaps seems more scandalous now than it did in the 1970s—yet he stayed married to a faraway wife for two decades. He was an arch pragmatist, but remained idealistic about the UN's goals. He was a brilliant leader of a small team, but bad at managing a big one. He seems to have relied heavily on charm.
A striking lesson from the biography is the incompetence that surrounded Vieira de Mello after he was blown up. As he lay trapped in the ruins, rescuers tried frantically with their hands to shift the rubble. What they needed were planks to stabilise the debris and jacks to lift it. All that came too late. The UN, which had previously failed to blast-proof the windows of a headquarters under imminent threat of attack, was then too stuffy to fly his Baghdad-based Argentine fiancée all the way to his memorial service in Brazil.