Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

On 19 March 2003, the US and its allies invaded Iraq. The UN Security Council sanctioned the invasion. In May, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. an international diplomat, reluctantly, and under enormous pressure, took a short leave of absence from his role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to act as the Special Representative to Iraq for Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations.

While there was very broad opposition to the invasion, both Islamicists on the right and radical socialists on the left went much further and denounced the UN for legitimizing “Washington’s indefinite subjugation of the country” in order to control its oil. When Sérgio declared that, under the circumstances, the UN would have to work with the invading authorities, those same critics of the UN as a cover for the U.S., accused the UN of painting over the crimes of the US and its allies. After all, de Mello had said that the U.S. was de facto the governing authority of Iraq and, therefore, “Working with the Authority is part of the rules of the game. They are responsible for the administration of the country until there is a new order.”

However, Sérgio as Annan’s pro-consul had a radically different view how the new order was to be brought about in comparison to Paul Bremer III, President George Bush’s pro-consul in Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. Bremer had been named to his position in the same month as de Mello. The latter was anything but a mouthpiece for the U.S.

The two men had overlapped much earlier as well. Bremer attended the Institut d’études politiques de Paris from 1966 to 1968. In the same period, de Mello was at the University of Paris writing a PhD in philosophy under Professor Vladimir Jankélévitch, a student of Henri Bergson. Jankélévitch was chair of Moral Philosophy at the Sorbonne and an authority on German idealism, especially Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling who had been a student of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and a roommate and close friend of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel when they were both students, though later Schelling became a severe critic of Hegel.

Professor Jankélévitch had participated in the 1968 Paris protests, one of the few professors at the University of Paris to do so. Sérgio was a participant in the student demonstrations that brought down the de Gaulle government and left him with a scar on his forehead when he graduated from the Sorbonne in 1969. Bremer, in contrast, came from and supported the establishment.  

Whereas de Mello pursued his diplomatic career through the UN system, Paul Bremer did so in the American foreign service, including as an assistant to Henry Kissinger in the Republican administrations of the 1970s and in the 1980s as Executive Secretary and Special Assistant to Alexander Haig until Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands in 1983. In 1986, Bremer became Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism. After a period in the private sector, he returned to public service to take up the appointment to Iraq in 2003. He had directly experienced the ravages of terrorism for, while in the private sector, his office in the North Tower was just above where the plane crashed into it in 2001.

If Bremer was steeped in the need to counter terrorism, de Mello had long trained as a peacekeeper and conflict mediator while also becoming an expert on refugees. I first heard of him and was strongly advised to meet him, when I went to Lebanon to write up my report on the numbers made homeless by the Israeli invasion in 1982. Sérgio was then Senior Political Officer for UNIFIL and DPKO in Lebanon. Unfortunately, our paths did not cross at that time and I only learned much later that he had regarded the Lebanese UN mission as one of its greatest failures. For there, the UN was so restricted in what it could do, it was effectively impotent. He reappeared in my intellectual horizon again when he headed the Asia Bureau of UNHCR from 1988-1990 after I had become deeply involved with the resettlement of Indochinese refugees in Canada and had founded the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. But, again, we never met at that time.

I had heard about his toe-to-toe meeting with the Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, whom he had known at the Sorbonne in Paris. During his appointment as UN envoy to Cambodia from 1992-1993, he was determined to “talk to the devil” and not just international statesmen. I finally did meet him in 1993 in Sarajevo when he had become head of Political Affairs for UNPROFOR and I was undertaking my study of repatriation of refugees resulting from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. It was, however, only to shake hands. However, the next time we met – two or three years later – was when I and Astri Suhrke had completed our study of the international involvement in the Rwanda genocide and Sergio was the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the Great Lakes Region. I cannot remember why I had not interviewed him during the study, but when we met, it was totally evident that he had not only read our report but had read it carefully.

The nineties was the decade in which humanitarian intervention reached its apogee and, under Canadian leadership, was formalized in the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect in the twenty-first century at the same time as the UN emptied it of every meaning by including the Chinese amendment that humanitarian intervention could only take place with the consent of the country targeted. Sérgio de Mello had celebrated the “New World Order” that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, but would soon become snagged in the political barbed wire that prevented any meaningful intervention. What was begun at the end of the twentieth century, especially following the impotence of the international community in the face of the Rwanda genocide, disintegrated in the emergence of renewed world rivalries of powerful states at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

We witnessed not one step forward and two steps back, but a rapid retreat into brutality and cruelty made much worse by the new style of insurgent warfare and proxy wars that took the place of the old world disorder. De Mello in his 1985 thesis had espoused an international system based on affirmative action, universal values and mutual respect for differences, but the river of history was flowing in the opposite direction as utopian ideals disintegrated in the face of irregular insurgencies, roadside explosive devices, human bombers in markets and bars pioneered by Palestinian terrorists, drone and distant warfare and the perfection of accurate bombing from the air. Sérgio de Mello had argued against Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that, with neo-liberalism, we had reached the end of history. Instead, Sérgio offered case studies of peace processes that involved NGOs, official and recognized mediators properly coordinated and sequenced negotiations, a myriad of technical experts attached to the negotiations, and, most difficult of all, the intervention of leaders from powerful countries at critical points in the process of peacemaking as well as long term commitments to rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Sérgio de Mello was right, of course. History continues to wend its way through our lives upsetting them in unpredictable ways. But the change of course of the river of history has not gone in the direction de Mello adumbrated.

However, like Immanuel Kant at the time of the French Revolution who had authored the essay “Perpetual Peace,” de Mello had been on the side of the peacemakers and on the side of reason. He pursued his synthesis of realism and idealism, both in theory and in practice, but, in the end, one had to admit that his view of utopia had also bit the dust, or rather, the concrete blocks of history. And he had been trapped by those cement slabs.

Subsequently, I learned more about our hero when I was working on early warning with the former head of the foreign service in Kenya. Sérgio de Mello had played a crucial role in the peace negotiations between Frelimo (Frente da Libertacao de Mocambique) government and Renamo (Resistencia Nacional de Mocambique). My Kenyan colleague, with Sérgio’s introduction, had travelled for 11 days up-river in a canoe to meet the Frelimo leaders. I learned that Sérgio de Mello, who had represented the UNHCR in Mozambique from 1975 to 1977, had been critical in setting up the encounter because he had known the Frelimo leadership personally.

The mediation resulted in the signing of the Rome Agreement in October 1992 (sometimes called the General Peace Agreement – GPA). Over the following three years, and with the aid of a major UN peacekeeping operation and continuing international mediation, the two armies were demobilized and reintegrated into a unified national army. Free competitive elections were held. A new constitution was adopted. A program of national reconstruction got under way. A fragile but sustained peace took hold. Sérgio de Mello had helped build the foundation for all of these steps towards peace and reconciliation.

Sérgio Vieira de Mello had taught my Kenyan colleague another lesson. For Sérgio had always treated the employees at the front desk in hotels as well as the cleaners and other employees of the organizations in which he worked with the greatest respect, remembering their names and asking after the welfare of their families. I witnessed this directly when my Kenyan colleague and I entered a hotel in Addis Ababa and he engaged the front desk staff in conversation, even though it meant that we were ten minutes late for our meeting with the American diplomats.

Contrary to the radical critics who want to put Bremer and de Mello in the same bed, the two men were radical contrasts in both personality and policy. Bremer was no sooner appointed by Bush when, on 23 May 2003, he issued Order Number 2 dissolving the entire Iraqi army and releasing 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers into the unemployed sector, thereby providing fodder for the upsurge in Iraq against the American-led invasion while leaving the country without a domestically-rooted security force. While de Mello had a record of negotiating with insurgents leading to peace agreements, Bremer was a hawk who enormously exacerbated the security situation in Iraq employing widespread repression.

Matters were made worse when Bremer initiated the de-Ba’athification of the Iraqi civil service to eliminate the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But when Iraqi politicians were put in charge of the process, they proceeded to use the program to get rid of political enemies and fire thousands of teachers who were not political supporters. This was precisely the path that de Mello would have strongly opposed given his record of working with both insurgents and local citizens in constituting their own government instead of the American imperial system imposed by Bremer.

But de Mello never got the chance. De Mello had set up his UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel deliberately outside the heavily guarded Green Zone within which the American established their security. He was convinced that the UN had to be and be seen as distinct from the Americans and not under American control. Security was poor. Three months later, on 19 August, a terrorist truck bomb was set off at the hotel killing 21 UN workers, including de Mello, and two others, and injuring hundreds.

That is where much of the movie takes place – with de Mello trapped under a huge slab of cement along with Gil Loescher, a 6’ 7” colleague of mine from the refugee scholarly community who had just arrived, not to work for the UN as de Mello’s adviser – as portrayed in the movie – but as a member of Open Democracy to attend a meeting with Sérgio. Gil had co-authored with John Scanlan Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door; 1945 to the present that had become the definitive historical account of American refugee intake policies and programs initially built on an anti-communist ideology. As James Milner, a colleague at Carlton, wrote, Gil unveiled the political dimensions of refugee policy underlying the legal framework.

The seven members of the UN staff in the outer office where he had been waiting were all killed by the explosion. Gil too was trapped nearby. In the movie, he and de Mello touched hands. However, as I heard the story, they were only in voice contact, though it was de Mello who used his cell phone and directed the rescuers to where Loescher was trapped and hanging upside down – a position that probably saved him from bleeding to death.

Loescher had to have both legs amputated in the extraction – an incident portrayed in the movie. Gil survived until April of last year. His daughter, Margaret, a film student at the time, made a documentary on her father a year later called, Pulled from the Rubble. As Gil noted, a red line had been crossed in the use of violence. Humanitarian and human rights workers had also become targets of terrorist attacks.

Trapped by cement, that also cost Gil his legs, this also provided a metaphor for de Mello’s life, trapped between his idealism and role as an international diplomat and the imperial oppressiveness and bungling of the Bush regime that had led the world to war under false pretences of Hussein having weapons of mass destruction. The world of international politics was polarized between the stony and humane indifference of the radicals and extreme terrorists – whether on the right or left who painted de Mello with the same brush as Bremer – and the military might of imperial America. Sérgio de Mello, trapped between them, was murdered.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the al-Qaeda Islamicist terrorists, assumed responsibility for the cement truck blast loaded with a 500 pd. aerial bomb and many explosives left from the Iraq War. Al-Zarqawi did so not only because de Mello was allegedly in bed with the Americans, but because Sérgio when he had been appointed UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor (UNTAET) had pulled off the East Timor independence after Indonesia had invaded and fought an imperial war of its own in this former Portuguese colony. Sérgio de Mello had managed to get the Indonesian government not only to accede to peace after almost two decades of war and over 200,000 Timorese killed, but induced the military government to issue an official apology.  Al-Zarqawi saw the problem in simple black and white terms – de Mello had facilitated the loss of an Islamic-run territory that was destined to be part of the Islamic Caliphate.

The motive for the bombing – other than the connection to the Americans that is only slightly referenced – is left out of the movie so that de Mello’s work in East Timor, recollected as he lay under that heavy slab of cement, is orphaned and never directly linked to the terrorist attack. Nor is the fact that, although the Americans were in charge of countering the terrorism, they had not taken any initiatives to protect the UN. In spite of the bravery of American first responders, the film offers a clear critique that the efforts of the Americans to rescue the UN officials was half-hearted and delayed and, thus, possibly partially responsible for de Mello’s death. After all, Bremer had viewed de Mello – accurately – as a critic of US policy and performance even as Sérgio tried to work as best as he could between the American-led coalition and the Iraqis.

Bremer was also a target of the terrorists. Returning to the highly fortified Green Zone on the Baghdad Airport Road, his convoy was hit by mortars and gunfire, with the rear window of his official car blown away. As bullets flew, Bremer and his deputies ducked below their seats. Sérgio de Mello could not duck under that cement; it crushed him.

2 comments on “Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic

  1. michaelmendelson says:

    The UN Security Council did not agree to the invasion of Iraq…what do you mean by the word 'sanctioned'?  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/sep/16/iraq.iraq TheUnited Nationssecretary general, Kofi Annan, declared explicitly for the first time last night that the US-led war on Iraq was illegal. Mr Annan said that the invasion was not sanctioned by the UN security council or in accordance with the UN's founding charter. In an interview with the BBC World Service broadcast last night, he was asked outright if the war was illegal. He replied: "Yes, if you wish." He then added unequivocally: "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal." Mr Annan has until now kept a tactful silence and his intervention at this point undermines the argument pushed by Tony Blair that the war was legitimised by security council resolutions. Mr Annan also questioned whether it will be feasible on security grounds to go ahead with the first planned election inIraqscheduled for January. "You cannot have credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now," he said. His remarks come amid a marked deterioration of the situation on the ground, an upsurge of violence that has claimed 200 lives in four days and raised questions over the ability of the interim Iraqi government and the US-led coalition to maintain control over the country. They also come as Mr Blair is trying to put the controversy over the war behind him in the run-up to the conference season, a new parliamentary term and next year's probable general election. The UN chief had warned the US and its allies a week before the invasion in March 2003 that military action would violate the UN charter. But he has hitherto refrained from using the damning word “illegal”. Both Mr Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, claim that Saddam Hussein was in breach of security council resolution 1441 passed late in 2002, and of previous resolutions calling on him to give up weapons of mass destruction. France and other countries claimed these were insufficient.  

  2. […] michaelmendelson commented on Sergio Part I – political background to a biopic […]

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