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