Sergio Vieira de Mello was a veteran United Nations diplomat who, while serving as Secretary-General Special Representative in Iraq, was killed along with 21 others in a massive terrorist truck bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003.
De Mello, a sophisticated, energetic envoy from South America with nearly a third of a century experience working in the U.N., had been widely regarded as a possible successor to current Secretary General Kofi Annan**.
**De Mello reportedly had been reluctant to accept the Iraq post from Secretary General Annan. Less than four weeks prior to his death, he said in a Security Council briefing that “the United Nations presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization.”
Born March 15, 1948 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, de Mello studied philosophy at the University of Paris (Pantheon-Sorbonne), eventually earning a doctorate.
De Mello joined the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1969. He served in Bangladesh (formerly Muslim East Pakistan, but taken over by Hindu India) during its “independence” in 1971. Following the Turkish incursion into the island of Cyprus, he worked with refugees there. He worked for three years in Mozambique during the civil war that followed its 1975 independence from Portugal, and three years in Peru. He served as senior advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon from 1981-1983, during Israel’s incursion to fight Palestinian terrorists there.
After a decade serving in the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, de Mello was again sent abroad to work as U.N. representative in Cambodia, disintegrating Yugoslavia, and central Africa. He was promoted to Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees in 1996 and, two years later, to Undersecretary General of the U.N. in New York.
After serving as special U.N. Envoy in Kosovo in 1999 during NATO’s incursion, de Mello was assigned to oversee the transition to independence of tiny Roman Catholic East Timor, thousands of whose residents had been killed by Muslim terrorists, from the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia.
In 2002 de Mello became U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). He replaced High Commissioner Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, who had upset many U.N. leaders by criticizing human rights violations committed not only by small countries but also by permanent Security Council members Russia and the Peoples Republic of China.
Acknowledging that the human rights realm was a “political minefield,” de Mello led the U.N. Human Rights Commission back towards its traditional role of focusing condemnation on small nations, especially Israel. Like his predecessors, de Mello could not gain agreement even on a definition of “terrorism,” because the bomb-thrower one faction calls a terrorist is regarded by a different faction as a “freedom fighter.”
De Mello reluctantly left his position as High Commissioner for Human Rights to accept his assignment as U.N. special envoy in Iraq.
In Iraq he openly sympathized with those who resented the presence of American troops, telling the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo: “It is traumatic. 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 [Brazil].”
He insisted that the United Nations, and not the U.S.-led coalition, should control the spending of Iraqi oil revenues. (The scandal over abuses in the U.N. Iraqi Oil-for-Food Program would not begin emerging in the major world press until months after de Mello’s death.)
Dying at age 55, de Mello was divorced and had two sons. He was survived by a mother residing in Rio de Janeiro.
The terrorist attack on a United Nations headquarters that killed him was almost universally condemned by entities ranging from the Peoples Republic of China to the Arab League. Press reports immediately after the bombing suggested that the attackers might have crossed the border from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The United States reportedly had offered to station troops around the U.N. headquarters in Iraq to protect it, but this offer was refused because it might have made some Iraqis reluctant to approach the United Nations building and might have made the U.N. appear to Iraqis to be an institution under American control.
Harvard Law Professor Alan M. Dershowitz wrote that the United Nations had encouraged terrorism by giving special attention and support to those like Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat who engaged in terrorism. More peaceful stateless groups such as the Kurds, Tibetans and Turkish Armenians have been given no United Nations recognition or support comparable to that accorded the PLO.
The United Nations, argued Dershowitz, has also “allowed states such as Syria that sponsor terrorism to sit on the Security Council and to chair important committees, while denying Israel these same rights. This has sent the message that the U.N. applies a double standard when it comes to terrorism.”
“Now the chickens have come home to roost,” wrote Dershowitz. “Now that the victims of ‘national liberation terrorism’ are U.N. employees instead of Jewish babies, maybe the U.N. will finally come to its senses and understand that by legitimizing and rewarding terrorism, they have created a Frankenstein monster that can be turned against any nation, organization or group. Unless there is a change, no one will be safe from this U.N.-created, -fed and -rewarded monster that threatens the entire world.”