Sergio Vieira de Mello Remembered

In May 2003, I traveled to Geneva to meet with Sergio Vieira de Mello, who had been named the previous September to serve as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Shortly after his appointment, he asked me to serve as his chief of staff, and I was in Geneva in May to discuss the job offer.      

The prospect of working for such a dynamic official whom I had come to respect enormously was very exciting.  But between the time he offered me the job and my visit in May, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had asked Sergio to leave his Geneva job for four months to serve temporarily as the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Baghdad and to manage the UN operation following the U.S.-led intervention. 

Though it was supposed to be a four-month job in Baghdad for Sergio, I frankly was concerned it would become a much longer commitment – as he had been the only obvious candidate for what was fairly deemed to be an exceptionally challenging assignment.  So before finally accepting his job offer, I was in Geneva to learn from Sergio how serious he was about returning from Baghdad after four months.  In a private session with me, he insisted there was nothing that would prevent his return after this temporary posting, and he told me he was “determined” to return from Baghdad.  He acknowledged that his return date to Geneva might slip by a small amount of time, but insisted the assignment was a very temporary one and he would indeed return.  I accepted the job, began in Geneva in July 2003 and eagerly anticipated his return.

“The world lost a great humanitarian in the Canal Hotel bombing on August 19, 2003, the day we now commemorate as World Humanitarian Day.”

Tragically, that was not to be, as the world lost a great humanitarian in the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq on August 19, 2003, the day we now commemorate as World Humanitarian Day.  It is the day we honor the commitment of those like Sergio, and more than 20 others who were killed in Baghdad on that day, who risk their lives in service of humanitarianism.  And it is also the day when we rally support for those impacted by crises around the world. 

Much of Sergio’s career, chronicled so beautifully in Samantha Power’s book, Chasing the Flame, was devoted to addressing the humanitarian and political development challenges facing countries emerging from – or still engulfed in – conflict.  Especially today, we miss his energy, his optimism, his diplomatic skills and his extraordinary commitment to the principles of humanitarianism. 

On August 26, 2003, shortly after the tragic events of earlier that month, I offered words of tribute to Sergio at a memorial service at the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.  On this, World Humanitarian Day, an observance inspired by Sergio’s life and commitments, I thought I would share the remarks I offered 14 years ago.


I speak this afternoon with some degree of uncertainty, as I may be the newest member of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And, especially around new friends and acquaintances, my first inclination would have been to reflect on Sergio’s life, his contributions, and his tragic death, in a private way.

At the same time, it struck me that because I am a newcomer to this important organization, you might welcome the chance to learn a bit of what I am thinking at this difficult time. I also suppose that my personal connection to Sergio – who, after all, asked me to come to Geneva to join OHCHR – makes it fitting that I participate.

“(F)rom the memory of Sergio and his contributions, we take away something that is life-affirming – that strengthens us all in our resolve to do a bit better, by our friends, by our families, and in our professional commitments.”

I certainly cannot make sense of the horrendous act that took place last Tuesday. But over the past several days, what I have tried to do is consider whether, from the memory of Sergio and his contributions, we can take away something that is life-affirming – that strengthens us all in our resolve to do a bit better, by our friends, by our families, and by our professional commitments.

So I’ve thought a good deal about some of Sergio’s qualities, and have found myself actually inspired, even regenerated, by his examples. For me, at a time of so much sadness, the process has been invigorating. Let me share a few of my reflections on some of Sergio’s qualities, and why they have meaning for me.

In no particular order, let me first talk about Sergio’s sense of humor and perspective — and a lesson that it may offer.

A story that immediately comes to mind was suggested by my friend, Lionel Rosenblatt, in a message of condolence issued by Refugees International. Lionel wrote about Sergio’s experiences in Cambodia:

“When a group of Montagnard highlander refugees from Vietnam risked forced repatriation, Sergio took the lead in brokering a rescue effort. I will always treasure his handwritten fax to us which described the number of men, women, and children rescued and concluded with a tally of the chickens, dogs and monkeys the refugees carried with them.”

Anyone who knew Sergio can envision the sparkle in his eye as he composed this fax.

But there is a valuable message in this kind of story. It is that while one must pursue one’s work with the greatest degree of conviction, one should never take oneself too seriously. That capacity, to laugh gently at oneself, and at the world around us, can be absolutely critical to our ability to persevere in difficult, and emotionally draining, work over time; and that quality is also critical to our capacity to connect meaningfully with friends and colleagues as we pursue our objectives.

So, thank you Sergio, for your life lesson about wit.

Now let me turn to Sergio’s graciousness. There, a quotation from the UN’s Sylvana Foa, from many months ago, is the one that keeps coming back to me. In a New York Times profile of Sergio that appeared last May, she said, and I quote: “He’s the kind of person that[, when] you walk into a room…he makes you feel like you’re the queen of England.”

Well, he never made me feel like the Queen of England, but, in pressing me come here to join him at OHCHR in Geneva, he certainly made me feel like a prince.

And his graciousness was extended to those who were without the conventional trappings of power and influence. According OHCHR’s office in Timor, one of the most touching statements at a UN memorial in Dili was from a Timorese woman who works as a cleaner for the UN. She cried all through her speech, saying that Sergio was a very kind boss and didn’t care whether you were a cleaner or an international member of the staff. He was always kind to her and had invited her and her four children to celebrate Christmas at his home.

The inspiration I take away from that story is a simple one: that all people are worthy of respect and attention; that all human beings are valuable. And, for those in this field of endeavor, that is more than a moral admonition: it also happens to have operational benefits. If you can appreciate another person’s circumstances, and truly empathize with his or her condition, then you can more effectively bring together those who seem to have irreconcilable differences.

So thank you, Sergio, for your lesson about graciousness.

Now, let me talk about Sergio’s legendary pragmatism and competence, and his awareness that the lofty ideals that inform the UN Charter must usually be reconciled by the less elevated concerns that motivate governments, rebel groups and others.

“Sergio (understood) that a less than perfect solution that saves lives is far better than the ideal solution that is never realized.”

Rather than flee this complexity, Sergio engaged it with vigor, and with an understanding that a less than perfect solution that saves lives is far better than the ideal solution that is never realized. My first experience with such a Sergio-led effort was the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees, in 1989. We all knew the troubling features of this enterprise at the time of its creation: the risk of unfair refugee screening in first asylum camps, the risk that Vietnam, in its effort to curb unauthorized departures, would restrict basic human rights; and the risk that resettlement countries would renege on their resettlement commitments. But Sergio most likely knew, probably better than most, that this effort would save many thousands of lives. Sergio demonstrated this pragmatism throughout his career.

And this lesson, of pragmatism and competence – is valuable to anyone dedicated to transforming the principles which inform our work into pragmatic solutions that move the ball forward, and improve the human condition.

So thank you Sergio, for your life lessons in getting things done.

Of course, all of these skills were in the service of another special quality: Sergio’s steadfast commitment to the principles of human rights and humanitarianism that underlie the UN Charter. Like so many of Sergio’s friends and colleagues, I knew of his ambivalence about taking the UN job in Iraq. In a conversation with me prior to the Secretary General’s decision to appoint him, Sergio assured me that he wasn’t seeking the position, and that he had a big enough challenge here in Geneva. But there was little doubt in my mind that, if asked – and whatever his misgivings about leaving Geneva and about the UN’s limited mandate in Iraq — he would be there in Baghdad – doing a job for which there were, remarkably, few other obvious candidates. And while Sergio’s decision to go to Baghdad was no doubt the product of many factors, it was surely driven by his dedication to the UN and its principles, and the realization that the institution he so loved was depending on him.

Of course, this lesson in commitment is complex, and the complexity was manifested in Sergio’s determination, by all accounts, to return to Geneva in October. From conversations with him, and with his good friends and colleagues, it is clear that this was a man who felt not only an obligation to this institution, but also to friends and family to whom he was returning. He, like the rest of us, was grappling with the almost impossible issue of reconciling all of the challenges, the obligations, both personal and professional, that life throws our way.

And, on this score, there are no easy answers. But this challenge, of reconciling commitments – which Sergio so obviously faced – also offers life lessons. The most important may be that we must remember to treat each new day as a gift, with an appreciation of the fragility of life; that we must not miss any opportunity to thank a colleague, to extend oneself to a friend, to make time for one’s family, or to tackle that professional challenge one has been deferring.

In closing, I should say something about a final quality that Sergio demonstrated, and which I have found particularly meaningful in recent days: Sergio’s adaptability. On this quality, Sergio’s experience in Cambodia comes to mind, where the UNHCR’s best laid plans for repatriation quickly became largely irrelevant, and Sergio rode the tiger in managing what became a largely spontaneous effort. Of course, adaptability was a watchword for him throughout his career.

Having moved my home and my family to work for this remarkable man in this important institution, I’ve thought a fair amount about this quality of adaptability in recent days. And while life’s events are not all that predictable, one can rely on the fact that important and life-affirming challenges will always present themselves to those who are prepared to look. In this case, and for me, it is the critical challenge of helping to sustain continuity and a sense of forward movement in an institution which is so clearly composed of highly gifted and committed people – individuals who, by your important work, will do honor to Sergio’s legacy in the months and years to come.


Photos courtesy United Nations Media Centre