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Samantha Power on “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World”

StoryFebruary 22, 2008
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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 58-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]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In these last minutes we have, we’re turning to Samantha Power’s latest book. She has just written a new biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. He was the top UN official in Iraq when he died in a truck bombing at the UN’s Baghdad headquarters in August 2003. Twenty-one others were killed, dozens were wounded in one of the deadliest attacks on the UN in its fifty-eight-year history.

De Mello served in the United Nations since ’69 in some of the world’s most sensitive areas, like East Timor, Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In 2000, Vieira de Mello took the lead in the UN’s operation in East Timor from Indonesian occupation to East Timor’s independence. In late 2002, he took over as [head of] the UN’s Human Rights Commission before his appointment to UN special representative in Iraq.

Samantha Power’s new book is called Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.

Samantha, quickly tell us why you chose to take him on as a person and write a biography of him.

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, first of all, I think we have no understanding in this country, in the United States, of what the UN is. The tendency to just make the UN a scapegoat for the sum of the member states’ indifference to the world’s worst problems — so the thought of opening up that system and actually showing it from the perspective of arguably the best the UN had ever had in terms of problem solver, nation builder, diplomat, and so forth — when I was introduced to Sergio, I was given the advanced warning that he was a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy. I thought, OK, that’s not exactly the model people have in the United States of the UN, so let me walk in his footsteps.

And because he had been, as you suggested, in the world’s worst places over a thirty-four-year career and made a lot of mistakes, tilted at times toward state power, needing the United States, was sometimes too reticent, I think, about — of late, anyway, in advance of the war in Iraq, and so forth. There were times when he would pull his punches, certainly made mistakes, but had a thirty-four-year head start making those mistakes. And when you look ahead at American foreign policy or basically the needs of the global community more generally, this idea of brokenness, the amount — the number of failing states, of under-governed spaces, of places — of a commons, basically, where the member states within the UN talk a great game about global threats and global challenges, but they don’t actually put their resources into play.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of Sergio Vieira de Mello. It was September 2002. I was outside the United Nations in New York during the flag-raising ceremony celebrating East Timor’s independence from Indonesia, and I asked him about his views on the chance of a US invasion of Iraq.

    SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: In any conflict, we are concerned that civilian populations should be spared, that every effort must be made in any war, in any internal conflict, never to target civilians. And should a war erupt in Iraq, I believe the Iraqi people don’t deserve more suffering. They have suffered enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, he would then die in Iraq as a result of the truck bombing.

SAMANTHA POWER: Yeah. And One of the untold stories and the devastating parts of this book and the last four years of reporting the book is to realize he was actually alive for three-and-a-half hours under the rubble.

And here’s something, that despite predicating the war on a link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism, a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and 9/11, as Bush did, there was no preparedness done to respond to terrorist attacks in Iraq. In other words, if you’re going to predicate the war on a link with terrorism, you would think that operationally you would prepare your troops to deal with al-Qaeda attacks on civilian targets. No preparation whatsoever.

So, as Sergio, this person who’s given his life to trying to enhance dignity, you know, and trying to mend broken places, effectively died under the rubble like a refugee, the troops — heroic individual acts by individual Americans who just ran to the scene and tried to improvise, but ultimately, when it can to lifting the rubble from over him, a lady’s handbag was used, literally one of those basket handbags that had been plucked out of one of the offices. There were no stretchers, so they had to use curtains from the Canal Hotel windows and a curtain rope as a kind of amateur pulley system. So, the most powerful military in the history of mankind is reduced to a woman’s handbag, a curtain rope and a curtain to try to save the most valuable civil servant that the UN has ever offered.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact on the UN of the bombing and of the people lost in that?

SAMANTHA POWER: Well, a great question. I mean, first of all, the war in Iraq was over-determined. It was a disaster, of course, from the beginning. But I think if Sergio had stayed, what he would have done is damage control. You know, he was trying to get Bremer to scale back the de-Baathification decree that — to put the soldiers who had been demobilized back in power to hemorrhage power quickly, he said. From East Timor, Sergio said to Bremer, you know, “Look, I hoarded power in East Timor. I thought just because I represented the UN that it wasn’t an occupation. But I learned very quickly that if you hoard responsibility, you hoard blame. And again, back to this point of dignity, dignity, dignity, you can talk all you want about democracy and the road to democracy, but if you’re actually trampling people’s ability to choose for themselves, something’s going to break.” And Bremer just didn’t get it. He said, “Well, but we’re liberators.” And Sergio said, “Yeah, that’s what I thought in Timor, and I wasn’t the United States of America. I was even acting under a UN mandate.” So the effect was, the UN pulled out. It became a much more polarized situation. There were no middlemen. But also the UN’s work around the world is now much more fortified than it was before.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to take that on in part two of our interview. Right now, we have to wrap. Samantha Power is author of Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.

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