On Aug. 19, 2003, a Kamash truck pulled into the alley behind the Canal Hotel in Baghdad and a bomb detonated, crumpling a corner of the United Nations’ mission in Iraq. Inside the building was Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian-born United Nations official who had previously served in Vietnam, Lebanon, Cyprus, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor. More than anyone else at the United Nations, he embodied the organization’s idealism, as well as its limitations. Vieira de Mello was pinned under the rubble and hung on for several hours before dying. The ineffectual efforts of American forces to save him were a harbinger of the larger American failure in Iraq.
Samantha Power, whose earlier book, “A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” won a Pulitzer Prize, has written a comprehensive biography of Vieira de Mello that explains how his personal evolution paralleled that of the United Nations and how his contradictions and failures were rooted in those of the institution he so loyally served. Vieira de Mello was born in 1948. The son of a Brazilian diplomat, he was a prototypical global cosmopolitan who grew up in Europe and, as a student, manned the barricades during the événements of 1968 in Paris while studying Marxist philosophy. The young Vieira de Mello was instinctively anti-American and cringed when he heard an American accent. After earning his degree, he found work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, traveling to southern Sudan, Mozambique and Vietnam, and passionately embracing the United Nations and international law as the embodiments of global justice.
But the organization’s approach was fraught with internal contradictions that were rudely exposed in the genocidal crises of the mid-1990s. Before the end of the cold war, its peacekeeping operations involved interspersing lightly armed international troops to separate combatants who had signed peace deals and providing humanitarian assistance. The United Nations racked up some successes in places like Namibia, El Salvador and Mozambique, where security conditions were not terribly demanding.
After 1991, however, the number of peacekeeping initiatives exploded, painfully revealing the United Nations’ limitations. Its ethic of strict political neutrality between warring parties ended up favoring aggressors like the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. Moreover, the peacekeepers’ restrictive rules of engagement prohibited them from firing their weapons, even in self-defense. This led to disgraceful episodes like the one in Rwanda in 1994 when Belgian peacekeepers abandoned the Tutsis to rampaging Hutu militias.
The fact of the matter is that some conflicts simply cannot be solved without resort to power: the Bosnian war ended only when the Croatian Army and NATO air power attacked Serbian forces, while ethnic cleansing against the Albanians in Kosovo was stopped only through NATO bombing of Serbia itself. But the United Nations — and Vieira de Mello as its representative — was so fixated on its traditional role as neutral arbiter that it actively sought to prevent the use of air power by NATO. Without being able to deploy force to fix the underlying cause of conflict, even the best-intentioned humanitarian interventions often had the perverse effect of prolonging conflict.
Samantha Power argues that Vieira de Mello underwent a personal evolution that tracked the United Nations’ experiences. In his early days he carried the United Nations habit of being nonjudgmental to an extreme: he dined with the bloody Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary; he cultivated a friendship with Slobodan Milosevic (which earned him the nickname “Serbio”). “Chasing the Flame” is critical of Vieira de Mello for, in the words of one of his colleagues, “siding with power” when he helped organize forced returns of refugees to Vietnam and Rwanda. But the book is not entirely convincing in its claim that by the end of the 1990s, Vieira de Mello had concluded that the United Nations needed to shift from peacekeeping to peace enforcement as part of a new, global “responsibility to protect.” If he believed such a thing, he never articulated the view or disavowed the earlier United Nations posture as fundamentally broken, as Kofi Annan was eventually to do.
When the Bush administration came into office in 2001, it took what it regarded as the lessons of the 1990s a little too much to heart. No longer would the United States be tied down by the political correctness of multilateral organizations; instead, it would act first and seek international legitimation later. The Iraq war was the direct result.
Vieira de Mello’s ill-fated mission to Baghdad was a particularly bitter pill for the United Nations to swallow. It was no secret that the organization’s staff almost universally opposed the invasion, and yet Kofi Annan insisted on sending a large team to Baghdad to prove that the United Nations was still relevant. Once in Iraq, Vieira de Mello found his mission distrusted and marginalized by L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, a fact that did not prevent Al Qaeda in Iraq from making the United Nations one of its first civilian targets. Sadly, the United States could have greatly profited from the nation-building expertise of a man like Vieira de Mello.
In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the idea that strong countries like the United States should use their power to defend human rights or promote democracy around the world has become widely discredited. From an overmilitarized foreign policy, we are in danger of going to the opposite extreme, forgetting the lessons of the 1990s that hard power is sometimes needed to resolve political conflicts, and that we do not yet have an adequate set of international institutions to deploy it legitimately and effectively.
“Chasing the Flame” argues, as Vieira de Mello himself once did, that the United Nations is often unfairly blamed for failures to protect the vulnerable or deter aggression, when the real failure is that of the great powers standing behind it. Those powers are seldom willing to give it sufficient resources, attention and boots on the ground to accomplish the ambitious mandates they set for it. At present, the United Nations is involved in eight separate peacekeeping operations in Africa alone; failure in a high-profile case like Darfur (which seems likely) will once again discredit the organization. Power (who has been a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama) makes the case for powerful countries like the United States putting much greater effort into making the institution work.
In the end, the book does not make a persuasive case that the United Nations will ever be able to evolve into an organization that can deploy adequate amounts of hard power or take sides in contentious political disputes. Its weaknesses as a bureaucracy and its political constraints make it very unlikely that the United States and other powerful countries will ever delegate to it direct control over their soldiers or trust it with large sums of money. But surely the life and death of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a good place to begin a serious debate about the proper way to manage world order in the future.
Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of its international development program.
Samantha Power on Sergio Vieira de Mello
Uploaded on Apr 21, 2009
In an interview with Progressive Book Club, Samantha Power, author of “Chasing the Flame”, discusses the larger lessons to be drawn from the life and death of Sergio Vieira de Mello.
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