Sergio Vieira de Mello was the top UN official in Iraq when he died in a truck bombing of the UN’s Baghdad headquarters in August 2003. Twenty-one others were killed and dozens wounded in one of the deadliest attacks on the UN in its fifty-eight-year history. De Mello had served in the United Nations since 1969 in some of the world’s most sensitive areas, including East Timor, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
We return to our conversation with Barack Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power. She won a Pulitzer Prize for an earlier book, A Problem from Hell. Her latest book is a biography of UN diplomat Sergio de Mello called Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. I interviewed her with Juan Gonzalez and asked her who de Mello was.
Well, he was perhaps the greatest UN troubleshooter that the organization has known in its sixty years. He had a thirty-four-year career of moving with the world’s headlines. So in the ’70s, if the wars of decolonization and independence were the wars du jour, he was a person deployed to Bangladesh, to Sudan, to Mozambique, to Cyprus. Then, actually in 1981, he was deployed to southern Lebanon, where there was a UN force trying to maintain the buffer between Palestinians who were staging raids in northern Israel and Israelis who were staging incursions into Lebanon, and was actually part of the UN mission that was trampled by the Israeli invasion in 1982. Funny story, Sergio used to be a very shrill idealist, shrill as even to a pejorative, but a very —- he wore his leftism very, very loudly. But he says -—
He was actually, according to — involved in the student protests in France ’68, right?
He had been, exactly, in ’68. But he’s — one of the turning points in the way he thought about putting forth his ideals was the Israeli invasion, because he went running up to a tank commander who had crossed into southern Lebanon. He said, “What you are doing is unacceptable. It’s a violation of UN Charter, simply unacceptable.” And the general said, “You think this is unacceptable? You should see the fifty tanks that are pulling up the rear. That’s unacceptable.” And Sergio said, from that point onward, he decided he would never use the word "unacceptable" again, you know, that when you’re dealing with state power, that you’ve got to find other ways of actually negotiating with it.
In the ’90s, I got to know him in Bosnia. That’s when sectarian ethnic conflict was erupting. He was in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo. And then in — as you know — in the late ’90s, he was the Paul Bremer figure, the viceroy put in charge of Kosovo in the aftermath of the NATO bombing and then in charge of East Timor for two-and-a-half years.
Then, when the war on terror, so-called, was all the talk and all the problem that it became, he was a human rights commissioner, figuring out what to do about George Bush. Do you denounce him and the violations of international law? Or do you try to get in the room? And Sergio’s preference, whether it was with Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq in his final posting or with the Khmer Rouge or with any head of state, including George Bush, his preference was always to be in the room. So he was criticized by the human rights community. And I think he saw himself as a kind of Machiavellian idealist, you know, that you had to, in a sense, try to be as savvy, sometimes even as ruthless, as the various states you were trying to contain.
What was it like for Sergio de Mello to go to Iraq when the UN did not support the US invasion of Iraq, and yet the UN, as we heard him say, had to protect civilians?
Great question. Sergio, in this thirty-four-year career of moving to the most violent places in the world, moving with the headlines, had never declined an assignment. Never. He always went where — he viewed it like — almost like military service. And yet, in advance of the decision to appoint a UN envoy to Iraq, he called Kofi Annan’s office and talked to his chief of staff and said, “Take me off the list. For one, I want to shore up my job here in Geneva as UN human rights commissioner. I’m mistrusted by the human rights community. I want to win their trust. Going to Iraq is just going to confirm somehow that I’m a stooge of the Americans, which isn’t true. But that’s what they have in their minds, some of them. But moreover, the Bush administration has spit upon the UN in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They are not serious about international law. They’re not serious about the UN. I’m going to go there. It’s going to be degrading for the institution. I’m going to be a supplicant to Paul Bremer. He’s not ready to take my advice. I’ve got thirty — more than thirty years of dealing with constitution drafting, elections, transitional justice, policing, and he’s not going to care.”
And what Kofi Annan said to himself and then eventually to Sergio is, “You’re the best I’ve got, if we have any hope of actually bringing the United States back to the United Nations, of making the UN relevant.” And Kofi Annan was quite insecure, because Bush was taunting him and saying, “You’re going to become the League of Nations. You’re going to become irrelevant. You’re not an institution that can live up to the challenges of the twenty-first century.” So Annan had a bit of insecurity about UN relevance, and he thought Sergio was the one person who just by sheer force of personality, experience and technical expertise, that he could actually get in the room with Bremer and make Bremer listen to him.
You mentioned that he spent time in Rwanda, certainly one of the colossal humanitarian failures of our time. What specifically did he do there?
Well, he was actually in Bosnia during the genocide in Rwanda. And I think one of the most jarring experiences for him was to go to Rwanda in the immediate aftermath of the genocide and actually visit one of those UN sites, former UN sites, where peacekeepers had deployed and where civilians, Tutsi civilians, had gravitated, looking at the UN flag and saying, OK, this means protection, but where then — it was in this case the Belgian peacekeepers — received a call from Brussels telling them to leave. And so, the civilians who had trusted in the promise of the UN flag, trusted that the UN was in fact the place that the world community parked its ideals, and that these Tutsi had not read the fine print that said, actually, the UN is also just a gathering of states who are each motivated by their own self-interest and so forth, and at a moment of crisis, those states are each going to exercise their will in the way that they want. Tutsi hadn’t read that small print. So, as a result, by trusting in the promise of the UN, they were actually rendered more vulnerable than they had been before. So he was sort of blown away by that. Actually, it was the first time he thought the UN could do more harm than good in places. He was a real UN true believer up to that point.
But then he had the really tough job of figuring out what to do with the genocidaires, the people responsible for the genocide who had fled into neighboring Tanzania and neighboring Congo and who were living among something like two million civilians. So there you have a terrible sort of Sophie’s choice. Do you turn off the spigot of international life support, so basically to starve out the genocidaires in the hopes that they’ll go back and then can be arrested by the Rwandan government or, if the international community was ever serious about making arrests, by states in the neighborhood or police? Do you turn off that spigot and thereby jeopardize the lives of the two million, or do you keep the spigot of life support on and thus know that the genocidaires are just sharpening their knives to go back and fight another day? And he ended up sort of stalling and trying to do a bit of both and going door-to-door in the international community and trying to get states to step forward to make arrests of the genocidaires.
And again, the system doesn’t lie. The same states that didn’t do anything when the genocide was being carried out, when 800,000 people were being exterminated, of course weren’t then about to do the right thing about arresting genocidaires in the aftermath of the genocide. And that’s the wall that he kept hitting.
President Bush was just in Rwanda. Before that, President Clinton flew in. On the tarmac, he apologized to the people of Rwanda. What was Sergio de Mello’s response to the United States at the time, when Madeleine Albright wouldn’t say the word “genocide” for fear of triggering some kind of international response?
Yeah, I mean, his view was that the UN is only going to be as effective as the most powerful states within the UN are going to make it. And it drove him crazy that people would blame the UN for Rwanda. He’d say, “But it was the United States that went to the Security Council and demanded the withdrawal of peacekeepers. It was the Belgian government that demanded the withdrawal of its own — or ordered the withdrawal of its own peacekeepers.” That is, somehow we have to — there’s a branding issue here, which is, when specific countries do the wrong thing, such as going to war in Iraq or such as allowing the genocide in Rwanda, they are going to take cover, take refuge under the banner of the UN, because the UN is always going to be the symptom of what the states within it do. It drove him crazy.
And so, I mean, part of my hope for this book is that by opening up the system, we will finally sort of divvy responsibility adequately between civil servants — I mean, there are only 9,000 civil servants, UN civil servants, who work, you know, in the secretariat in New York and in headquarters — the responsibility of those individuals, which can be considerable. Kofi Annan certainly has responsibility, some responsibility, for not drawing attention to warnings of an imminent genocide in Rwanda. Sergio bears responsibility for different decisions he made in his life. Of course, we all should bear responsibility. But compared to the colossal responsibility of the powerful countries who allow these —- who are the ones who have bank accounts -—
What was your assessment of President Clinton not doing anything about Rwanda at the time and allowing it to take place?
Oh, I was against. I mean, A Problem from Hell obviously documented sort of just how President Clinton didn’t even call a Cabinet meeting for the entire hundred days of the genocide, insisted on the withdrawal of peacekeepers, refused to pay for radio jamming, which would have blocked the radio that was being used not only to propagate the hate but also to broadcast the names and addresses of potential victims who were getting away. I mean, it was an all-systems failure. But President Clinton was at the helm of that failure, and I think it’s an American outrage, and I think President Clinton himself has made that plain, that it’s the greatest regret of his presidency.
We’re talking to Samantha Power. Her earlier book was called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Her latest book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.
Timor, he presided over it for two-and-a-half years between Indonesia’s occupation and East Timor becoming independent. The issue of dealing with, as you said, the most powerful countries on earth, and that’s as effective as the UN can be, the United States not turning their back on East Timor through the years, but actually funding the Indonesian military, training the Indonesian military, arming the Indonesian military in this genocide that took place in Timor, whether it was the Republicans, Gerald Ford, or the Democrats, Carter and Clinton — Bush, as well, was in there. What about that? Not looking away, that wasn’t the issue; it was actively supporting those that were killing the civilians in Timor.
I just — I agree. I mean, complicity, support, as you say. I mean, people like you, and there’s an amazing advocacy community in this country for many, many years that tirelessly worked to try to not only stave off, as you’re suggesting — what I’ve written about in the past — sins of omission, but sins of commission. But, you know, then you get to that bind in 1999, which is the UN diplomats broker a referendum agreement, the Timorese come out and vote again, they don’t read the fine print, which says, when you vote, we’ll maybe declare independence or you will vote for independence and then the Indonesians will burn your country down, and then we’ll decide at that point whether or not we protect you. They didn’t read the fine print. So, then you came to that moment of, OK, the States have turned their back on what the Indonesians have done all these years. Now the Indonesians are burning down East Timor, as they were in September 1999, October 1999. What do you do as a global community? And countries with soiled hands, like Australia, like the United States, like Portugal, a former colonial power in the region, came together and said, OK, we have to support a multinational force to get rid of the Indonesians.
I actually interviewed Sergio de Mello about his time in Timor, as we stood outside the United Nations the day the flag of the newest nation in the world was raised, and that was the flag of the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Sergio de Mello, of course, headed the UN mission in the transition from Indonesian occupation to independence.
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: Thoughts and emotions. To see that flag flying on First Avenue in front of this building is very, very important to me. As you know, this is the end of a long and painful, sad saga. The fact that East Timor today has been admitted as a full member of the United Nations is the true culmination of efforts, efforts over centuries, not just the last two-and-a-half decades. And it’s also a reward to all of those who attempted to support the East Timorese in their struggle.
Last, but not least, let me say that as UN high commissioner for human rights, to be here today, after having tried for two-and-a-half years to build new democratic institutions based on the rigorous respect of human rights is also an inspiration for the future and, last but not least, an encouragement to continue to stand by East Timor in consolidating all that they have achieved with our support in the last three years or so, in particular, women, the right of women, their right to enjoy fully their role in society, and something that, as you know, we promoted while we were in East Timor and that I will continue to support very strongly from my new post in Geneva.
That was Sergio de Mello as he stood outside the United Nations on the day that the United Nations celebrated the new nation, Democratic Republic of East Timor, and raised the flag. Do you think he would have ever become the Secretary General if he had lived, if he had not died in the truck bombing of the UN compound in Iraq?
First of all, it’s just heartbreaking to see the footage. There’s very little footage of him out there. And for him, Timor was the culmination, was where he got to bring all these years of experience into the fore and actually be in charge. And paradoxically, you know, if you work for the UN, you are dependent on the member states and you need UN unity behind you if you’re going to do your job. And so, Timor had that. The Security Council actually came together, wasn’t divided as it is over Kosovo. So that gave him wind in his sails when he was there. But the flipside of it was, people also left him alone. So he actually had the chance to be autonomous and to use his judgment and his digression, didn’t have the member states meddling.
And do I think he would have become the Secretary General? I don’t see how a UN that is struggling to modernize, struggling to keep up with twenty-first century challenges, could have done without Sergio at the helm, done without someone who knew the institution inside and out, and yet somehow managed both to be able to appeal to countries in the developing world, have the trust of developing societies, post-colonial societies, on one hand, but also of heavyweights like the United States and Russia and China, where spend a lot of time, on the other. I think he’s just — was one of those — I keep wanting to say “is” — was one of those rare global figures that could convince people of his good faith, could convince people of his commitment to some set of universal principles, and could even make people patient with him and his need to play politics here and there. They would give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if you didn’t agree with him tactically, you felt he was tilting too much toward China or too much toward the United Sates, you knew it was all from the standpoint not of advancing US interests or Chinese interests, but of just trying to figure out how to enhance civilian protection.
So whether — I mean, I think it was Asia’s turn, and Asia certainly is in a hurry to assert its clout in the international system, so I think inevitably on the post-Kofi Annan cycle, it would have been an Asian leader, but right around now, we’d already be asking with a relatively lackluster Secretary General, are we ready — do we really want to give this guy a second term, or can we make our way to somebody who really knows an awful lot about an awful lot?
Samantha Power is a senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama and his presidential campaign. Her latest book is called Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.