Geneva, 19 August 2020 — Today the UN celebrates the World Humanitarian Day, to highlight the work of those in the field, in the frontlines of international aid.
The day was instituted after the 2003 bombing of the UN offices in Iraq, the office that had as its main goal to support the coalition forces, help rebuild the nation, and bring stability to the country.
For this complex and perilous task the late Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed his long-standing friend and colleague Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian national who had served the UN for 34 years, negotiating peace agreements and overseeing the repatriations of thousands of refugees.
In July of 2002 Sergio Vieira de Mello was appointed to be High Commissioner for Human Rights, barely a year later, on May 23 of 2003, Kofi Annan asked him to handle the Iraq situation.
Not one to shy from challenges, Sergio accepted the position, thinking that, a few months in, he would be able to return to his new appointment as High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.
I interviewed him at the announcement of both his appointments in New York. One marked an effusive exchange, full of hope for the future of Human Rights advocates, as Sergio had just returned from East Timor, a wildly successful nation-building effort, thanks in great part to him and his team.
After he accepted the post of High Commissioner he gave me an interview where we discussed the importance of gender in establishing international norms and frameworks to protect the dignity of women. Women’s rights were at the top of his agenda.
The second announcement, in May 2003, was somber. Both him and Kofi Annan looked preoccupied, anxious, during the press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York, and if they knew that it was an impossible task that had befallen the UN and its chief negotiators.
We know what happened after, barely three months after that day.
On the morning of the 19th of August 2003, I was at the newsroom at UN Radio, at the UN Headquarters in New York, when the news crossed the wires. There was an explosion, and the UN Secretary General Representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello was not accounted for.
That was the internal communications received, that was what CNN was reporting live from the scene. We were to keep hoping that he would soon be removed from under the rubble. But we knew that there were no good news coming, just a wild hope that in some miraculous way he would be rescued.
That day 22 UN staff members perished on-duty. Several others survived.
After what seemed an eternity, but were only three and half hours of warding off phone calls from news organisations in Brasil, and an inbox overflowing with hopeful messages, Fred Eckhard, then the UN Secretary General spokesperson, held an impromptu press conference in the hall adjacent to his office.
Everything else is a blur. I had to go back to my desk and finish writing the news story of the day, for our newscast and website, and answer the thousand and one questions coming from colleagues in Brazil: at Folha, Estado, Globo, CBN, and the Brazilian National Broadcast. Not good. I’m in shock.
It hit me that I was extremely privileged to have had the chance to ask Sergio Vieira de Mello questions for our broadcast when he was leaving the UN Security Council on many occasions, that he was welcoming and willing to engage in dialogue with the press and help spread the messages of hope and fortitude for those most vulnerable in our societies.
He would seem a bit aloof for some, but once he warmed up to you, as a press member, he would be forthcoming and never refused an opportunity to speak and clarify points and issues. I was devastated, as one of my best sources within the UN was gone. Selfish, I know. Death always surprises us, and mostly perhaps because we feel that, when it takes away someone we admire professionally or a close relative, it has targeted us too.
Later, I discovered that I was not alone in my professional awe of Sergio Vieira de Mello as a negotiator, thought leader, and inspiration at the UN. As the hundreds of messages poured-in though our inboxes at UN Radio, students of international relations, diplomats, and people who followed International affairs were also shocked, and shared the same sense of despair.
From nurses to policy-makers, treating the sick in dangerous environments and trying to foster economic development, to negotiating peace accords, those who choose field work at the UN and its humanitarian organisations rarely do it for monetary gains.
Even if paid above average, by some standards, they usually have large expenses maintaining residences in the country of origin, families to support, and children to put thought university in far-away countries, as most missions do not allow family members to come. It is a harrowing experience, away from family, grappling with civil discord in an unknown country, negotiating cultural differences, watching political greed tear communities apart, navigating clashing international interests, and often witnessing the horrors of war and its crimes against humanity first-hand.
We at The UN Brief pay homage today to the great negotiator in these excerpts from his speeches, and from past celebrations of his life and accomplishments. Watch:
Angelina Jolie, UNHCHR Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees
Sergio Vieira de Mello led the nation-building process of East Timor, here are some of his comments during the time at the helm of UNTAET. Watch: