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UN No Longer Seen as Impartial, Independent
What are the implications of a new book on UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello?
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-01 04:38 (KST)   
What happens when idealism meets this awful messy world we live in? asked the moderator as he introduced the program on Samantha Power's new book about Sergio Vieira de Mello at the New York Public Library (1). The form of the program was a conversation between Power and Iranian human rights advocate Azar Nafisi.

The book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, has recently been published by the Penguin Press.

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Working on the biography of Vieira de Mello gave Power the chance to spend the past four years following in the footsteps of the remarkable United Nations diplomat who was killed in the bombing of the UN's Iraq mission in August 2003 (2).

Power presented a short description of Vieira de Mello's experience from 1968 up to when he was killed in Iraq.

"He was a guy who moved with the headlines," she noted, as she described some of the many hot spots Vieira de Mello had found himself in during the 34 years that he worked for the UN.

In 1968, as a student from Brazil at the Sorbonne, he had been part of the student rebellions in Paris. Like other students of the 1960s, he hated imperialism. He also hated the state, Power explained. The alternative to the state and to the polity that he found was the UN.

He went to work for the UN at the age of 21 and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Some of the hot spots he was in included Bangladesh, Sudan and Cyprus, during the earliest phases of his UN career. By the early 1980s he was in Lebanon, and then Cambodia. By the 1990s he was in Bosnia, Congo and Kosovo -- and then East Timor and, in 2003, Iraq.

Power described how Vieira de Mello believed deeply, perhaps even to a flaw, in the power of reason. He earned two PhDs, one in Hegel and the other in Kant. Deeply steeped in political theory he felt it was possible to order the world according to reason, in line with the lessons one could gain from the study of the great philosophers. His dream was that the UN would make possible the rule of law.

Power described how Vieira de Mello did not want to go to Iraq, but had agreed in response to Kofi Annan's urging.

The reluctance was in part because he did not feel that Paul Bremer, the United States official in charge of the US occupation, could respect an independent role for the UN. The UN Security Council had not supported the US invasion of Iraq; however, it did subsequently pass a resolution approving a dominant role for the US in the ensuing occupation of Iraq. Security Council resolution 1483 authorizing the occupation put the US in charge with no appropriate role provided for the UN.

The bombing of the UN compound in Iraq was a vivid reminder that those fighting against the occupation in Iraq did not consider the UN to be an impartial, independent entity (3).

Just before Vieira de Mello was killed, he had come to believe that there was a need to publicly criticize the US occupation. He had concluded there was nothing he could do to influence Bremer. "I have to start speaking out," he is quoted telling Marwan Ali, a political aide (4).

If the UN was to have a legitimate function in Iraq, its obligation was to function as an impartial entity supporting the sovereignty of Iraq, not as a support for the continuing occupation. This was the conclusion he had drawn just before he was killed.

The program at the NYPL failed to grapple with this central dilemma that Vieira's de Mello's tragic death raises. A more focused set of questions and discussion could have been helpful to tease out the serious problems facing the UN when it is perceived of as taking sides instead of upholding with impartiality and independence the tenets of its charter and international law.

This issue is once again especially timely as the UN is now planning to expand the scaled back UN presence in Iraq that followed the bombing.

Following in the footsteps of someone whose life was so steeped in the difficulties and trouble spots of our times, as Power in her book has done, can provide a painful but important education. This is the continuing legacy of Vieira de Mello's life.
1. "Samantha Power in Conversation with Azar Nafisi: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World," New York Public Library, Feb. 21, 2008.

2. Sergio Vieira de Mello was the UN's special representative in Iraq at the time of the bombing and in charge of the UN's Mission in Iraq.

See for example: "UN's Iraq Bombing Survivors Hold Memorial Service: Concern expressed about its expanded role in Iraq."

3. "Our flag that used to be a protection is becoming a target. I'm not sure we have absorbed that reality and acted on it," observed Lakhdar Brahimi at a press briefing held at the UN on Feb. 28, 2008. Brahimi has been appointed as the head of the panel to investigate why the UN has been subjected to attacks like the one in Iraq in August 2003 and another in Algeria in December 2007. In response to a question from a journalist, Brahimi responded, "I think the UN is not seen as an organization that is independent and impartial any more. People question the independence of the UN. It's taking sides. A lot of people are rightly or wrongly angry with the United Nations."

The webcast of the press conference is online.

4. Samantha Power, "The Envoy," The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2008.

A version of the article appears in my blog netizenblog.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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