Sérgio Vieira de Mello

United Nations envoy in Iraq
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The Independent Online

Sérgio Vieira de Mello, diplomat and United Nations official: born Rio de Janeiro 15 March 1948; Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations 1996-97, Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs 1998, special envoy in Kosovo 1999, Interim Administrator of East Timor 2000-2002, High Commissioner for Human Rights 2002; Secretary-General's personal representative in Iraq 2003; married (two sons); died Baghdad 19 August 2003.

Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations envoy in Iraq, who was killed when his headquarters in Baghdad was bombed on Tuesday, had been widely tipped in the organisation as one of the front-runners to succeed Kofi Annan as UN Secretary-General. As a highly experienced specialist in international conflict resolution, he spent most of his life abroad. But he came from a Brazilian diplomatic family, and Brazil's President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, decreed three days of official mourning for his death.

Vieira de Mello had been in Iraq since late May, as Kofi Annan's personal representative. His main task was to coordinate the international relief and reconstruction effort, which meant that he had to work closely with the US occupation forces while emphasising his separateness from them. It was a difficult and delicate role, but Vieira de Mello managed to build a good working relationship with the US administrator, Paul Bremer.

He was helped in this by the personal approval of President George W. Bush and his National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, whom he had met to discuss Iraq in Washington in early March, before the US-led invasion. In Baghdad he argued that the invasion of Iraq had been justified, even though no weapons of mass destruction were found. "But we did find many bodies in mass graves, and plenty of evidence of the massive violation of human rights. That is enough," he said recently.

In Brazil, on the other hand, where the intervention in Iraq had been widely opposed, he was praised for standing up to the US. "He took a firm position with the United States, demanding that they re- establish water and electricity in Iraq. He said deploying tanks in Iraq was like rolling tanks into Copacabana," in the words of a leading member of the ruling Workers' Party.

Vieira de Mello had his own firmly held views about Iraq's future. He said recently that free elections or a referendum must be held before the end of 2004, if the reconstruction process and transition to democratic rule were to have any chance of success. He did not believe that the allied occupation could go beyond next year, and had recently visited Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Syria in an attempt to enlist their leaders' support.

Kofi Annan was among Vieira de Mello's warmest admirers. "The death of any colleague is hard to bear, but I can think of no one we could less afford to spare, or who would be more acutely missed," he said. Less than a year ago, Annan had appointed him UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in succession to Ireland's former president Mary Robinson. He was on a four-month secondment to Iraq, which would have ended next month.

Sérgio Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, the son of a diplomat. That made him a carioca (an inhabitant of Rio) by birth, but his family left Brazil for a foreign posting when he was just three weeks old. He was educated mainly at the French school in Rio and at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied Philosophy.

He considered a diplomatic career, but after his father was dismissed from the Brazilian foreign service in 1969 by the military government of the day, Sérgio refused to sit the entrance examination to the celebrated Rio Branco diplomatic academy in Rio. Instead, he joined the United Nations, at the age of 21. His first job was at the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Geneva.

Over the next three decades, Sérgio Vieira de Mello was present at most of the world's trouble spots, helping to rebuild societies torn apart by war and civil conflict. He took part in missions to Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique and, between 1981 and 1983, he was the regional representative in Latin America of the UNHCR.

He acquired a wide range of experience in the course of his travels, serving in Cambodia as head of the international mine-clearing programme, and in Lebanon as senior political adviser to the UN Interim Force. In 1986, Vieira de Mello was appointed chef de cabinet of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and in 1996 he became Assistant High Commissioner.

Two years later, Annan summoned him to New York to become Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. After a spell as UN special envoy in Kosovo in 1999, he was sent to East Timor later that year to run the transitional administration that took the country to free elections and full independence from Indonesia in 2002.

Vieira de Mello was not, on the face of it, the obvious choice for the Iraq job. He did not speak Arabic and was not particularly knowledgeable about Middle Eastern affairs. He is said to have turned the offer down twice, but finally agreed, on condition that it was a short-term secondment from his UN human rights job. His great strengths were his unrivalled experience in handling impossibly difficult situations, on the one hand, and his personal charm and warmth on the other.

Vieira de Mello was considerably more than a safe pair of hands. He was also a passionate advocate of the UN's role as an independent intermediary and honest broker in conflict situations. "The important thing is that we should be open to dialogue with all elements in a society, even with the forces of evil, and by means of this dialogue we can become a sort of bridge or link," he said. He liked to claim that his philosophical studies had prepared him well for his role in life: "Our work is to promote understanding, tolerance, peace and security. Isn't that what philosophy is about?"

By common consent, Vieira de Mello made such a brilliant success of his role in East Timor that Kofi Annan hardly allowed him time to settle back into his Geneva office before offering him the Iraq posting. Although he set out to establish good relations with all sides, and tried to persuade them all to become involved in the reconstruction of their country, Vieira de Mello was well aware that his life was in constant danger in Iraq. He took obvious precautions, but he told a Brazilian interviewer a few weeks before he died that, as God was Brazilian, he was sure that he would always protect him.

Colin Harding