Allen Lane £25 (622pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Chasing the Flame, by Samantha Power

Courage in the firing line

Sergio Vieira de Mello was the most remarkable figure I have ever met in the not-always-glittering constellation of United Nations functionaries. Almost invariably known simply by his first name, Sergio had film-star good looks, a wonderful gift for languages, and quick sense of humour. He adored women and made no secret of it. He could give a reflective lecture on Kant and the meaning of history, but could also get railways mended, refugees repatriated and citizens sprung from besieged cities. He worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and later the UN itself, in many dangerous places, including Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, and ultimately Iraq. He died aged 55 in the car-bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. It was an extraordinary life. Bravery is one of the few qualities valued in all cultures, and Sergio had it in spades – coupled with a belief that presence, charm and integrity could ward off threats.

Professor Samantha Power is well qualified to tell the story of his eventful life and tragic death. This is not because of her chair at Harvard (Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy), but because of who she is and where she's been. She made her reputation as a reporter for the Boston Globe covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which is where she met Sergio; she has worked in many of the same troubled areas; she is the author of a distinguished book on A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide; and she has, thank goodness, retained the reporter's passion for digging out sources and interviewing witnesses. Until her recent gaffes, she had also been a foreign-policy adviser to Senator Barack Obama.

This is an impressive biography that brings to life, not just the man but the situations in which he worked and the dilemmas he faced. He was born into a peripatetic existence as the son of a cultured Brazilian diplomat whose career had hit a ceiling due to his love of the bottle. As a 20-year-old student in Paris, Sergio took part the 1968 événements, and then went to family friends in Geneva to find work. Getting a job with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva was not wholly accidental. His linguistic abilities clinched the appointment; his own history – he had never lived anywhere for more than four years – gave him an insight into refugee problems; and his commitment to radical improvement found more constructive uses than on the streets of Paris.

What were Sergio's core beliefs? He had so much glamour and style, and achieved so much in the field, that it may seem pedantic to focus on his intellectual and moral compass points. Yet they are important to understanding his actions, even his fate. With a few serious exceptions, Power covers them brilliantly. She portrays a man who believed that that the world needed salvation: not for nothing was his 1985 doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, written in his spare time in Geneva, entitled "Civitas Maxima" and devoted to "the Supranationality Concept". His conviction that the world needed to accept universal norms, and to get beyond the nation-state, translated into a belief in the UN as an instrument of salvation. Power tells us that Sergio always carried a leather-bound copy of the UN Charter with him on his travels.

In several crises, Sergio faced a conflict within his own head about a fundamental principle of UN peacekeeping: impartiality. He was a passionate believer in it, yet much too intelligent and engaged to be unaware of its weaknesses. He accepted – even with relish – the need to deal with ghastly thugs such as the Khmer Rouge and Bosnian Serbs. What stuck in his throat was the passivity it imposed when armies slaughtered civilians and created vast refugee flows.

I vividly recall a seminar paper he gave in March 1994 when Head of Civil Affairs for the (misnamed) UN Protection Force in former Yugoslavia. He recognised that peacekeeping doctrine had to "undergo a difficult period of readaptation", but emphasised that humanitarian agencies had to "act in a spirit of total neutrality and impartiality". They could not and did not – especially, as Sergio well knew, in Bosnia, where the majority of aid went to the beleaguered Bosnians.

In the realms where the limits of impartiality are exposed, and individuals with high internationalist principles need to take account of awkward facts, Power's book, so impressive in other respects, is at its weakest. Her account of Sergio's views and actions sometimes misses the key issues. In describing his first field mission, in Bangladesh in 1971, she rightly emphasises that this is where he discovered he was a man of action; but fails to point out that his work in helping to repatriate refugees was only possible because India had liberated the country by force.

Power is similarly blind to the crittical role played by states rather than the UN in the rescue of Kurdish refugees in 1991. She indicates that the successful US-led military operation enabling the refugees to return to northern Iraq had been authorised by Security Council resolution 688, and suggests that Sergio saw this as the harbinger of a new world order. Both propositions are overstated. Resolution 688 willed the humanitarian ends but not the military means. Sergio saw it as significant because it established a direct link between refugee flows and international security, but had enduring doubts about the use of force to establish "safe havens" for the Kurds. In his 1994 paper, he still wondered whether it was right to "impose an in-country solution".

This hesitation about US military power was naturally magnified when he went to Iraq in June 2003 with the impossible job of Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. He had to assist in a vast reconstruction effort, to meet ambitious objectives in a UN Security Council resolution. Yet he was not the occupying power, and was rightly concerned about being too closely identified with the Americans. His pursuit of impartiality, totally understandable in the circumstances, left him unprotected from the car-bomb that killed him.

Power describes the attack brilliantly, but misses one poignant fact: five days before, the Security Council had passed a resolution establishing the UN Assistance Mission, with a far-reaching mandate to assist Iraq's development. Sergio had been particularly keen on this resolution. Sadly, the bomb that destroyed him was a highly instrumental response to the cause he served with such distinction, and to the principle of impartiality which had been a pole-star of his extraordinary life. The story told here calls for deeper reflection on the limits of impartiality than Power offers.



Professor Adam Roberts is senior research fellow at the Centre for International Studies, Oxford University

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvMartin Freeman’s casting is a stroke of genius

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players