I was walking down 51st or 52nd str. in New York, towards my hotel at Beekman Place. It was late evening in the spring of 2003. It was overcast with a light drizzle in the air. I crossed 1st Avenue. There, I bumped into Sergio. Sergio Vieira de Mello, my friend who had recently taken up the position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. I was surprised to find him here in New York at this time.
He looked dishevelled. Why are you here? What’s the matter? My questions led to a longer conversation there, on the corner of 1st and 50th. Sergio came from Kofi Annan’s residence on Tudor Place. The Secretary General of the UN had requested his trusted colleague to come over from Geneva for an important conversation: he wanted Sergio to go to Iraq, as his Special Representative.
This was right after the US invasion, and I knew what this meant. As Minister of International Development of Norway at the time, we had had tough discussions in our own Cabinet on Iraq. As a Security Council member, we broke ranks with our most critical ally, the US, on the Iraq war. The invasion was, in our view, illegal according to international law. Now the UN was about to be dragged into this, through deploying a mission to Bagdad. Sergio was under pressure to lead it.
I will never forget our conversation there in the evening chill: Sergio didn’t really want to go. He wanted to remain in Geneva, and start his new life with Carolina, his partner. To give his private life priority, and not once again sacrifice it. I knew how much this meant to him. He had finally found his love, as he enthusiastically told me over a drink in my apartment in Oslo in December 2001. Sergio had wanted to get his divorce settlement and marry Carolina for quite some time now.
Now Iraq? But why does it have to be me? I had never seen Sergio like this. And would it at all be possible for the UN to fulfil its mandate under these circumstances? Yet, was it possible to say no to the Secretary General? And not any SG, it was his close friend and confidante Kofi who was pleading with him. We both knew Kofi was in trouble with the Americans, and we were all told they wanted Sergio for the mission. We also knew what no UN presence meant no checks and balances on the US occupation. That was not good, either.
A few months later, Sergio was no more. He was the first Special Representative of the United Nations to be killed on the job. The Mission under his leadership was deployed in May 2003. On 19 August 2003 the bomb exploded at the UN’s Headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Bagdad. Sergio suffered hours of excruciating pain buried under rubble in the ruins of the dilapidated building before he died. Al Qaida was the architect of this disaster.
I will never forget watching CNN that day in my office, minute by minute, following the attempts to get Sergio out, and Carolina desperately shouting into the ruins. Agonizing hours in despair, praying that he would survive. But he didn’t.
A film has recently been released about Sergio and his service, a film where his relationship with Carolina Larriera, his partner, takes centre piece. In Sergio Wagner Moura (Sergio) and Ana de Armas (Carolina) make a stellar performance in portraying the two main characters. While the film does not do justice to Sergio’s entire life and mission, as Hollywood movies based on true stories seldom do, it gets some essential matters right. And it is certainly worth seeing. The film does both the UN and Sergio a service.
It corrects misrepresentations about Sergio’s motives and career. That is important for the legacy of one of the UN’s very best diplomats. One of them was the assumption that Sergio’s departure for Bagdad was motivated by his own career and future ambitions of becoming the next Secretary General of the UN. There were stories that he had gone to the Americans first, expressing his desire to become SRSG and lead the UN-mission in Iraq. To become the next Secretary General of the UN support from the US is essential, as that of the other permanent members of the Security Council. But this was not correct.
When I met Sergio the last time, 6 weeks after his deployment to Iraq, in Jordan, by the Red Sea, on 22 June 2003, he was clear about his plans. We were both speakers at the World Economic Forum for the Middle East and North Africa and managed to sneak away from our teams for a coffee in a corner. We used those precious 30 minutes well and had a heart to heart-conversation about our lives. Sergio wanted to limit his stay in Iraq as much as possible, 3-4 months max. He was ready take responsibility for any political fall-out. He brushed off any reference to SG-ambitions and any concerns the Americans might have. He was going back to his job as High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and his life with Carolina.
I am certain that Sergio would have been very happy to see a film about his life give so much attention to their relationship. In a modest way Sergio provides some retribution for the immense suffering his partner Carolina has endured after his death. I wish the UN now could act accordingly. Sergio would certainly have wanted that.
That Sergio Vieira de Mello was ready to sacrifice his own career for the principles he believed in comes out clearly in the film. The human rights report he had prepared on the US operations in occupied Iraq was an example of his commitment. If he ever seriously pursued higher office, he would never have confronted the US in this way.
For those of us who have been serving the UN in the field, in similar positions, the film shows the role the UN can and should play in conflict-affected and fragile countries. Sergio Vieira de Mello had spent his whole career in the UN, and in many ways embodied the values and principles of the organisation. He came from the tradition where the role of the UN is clearly understood as an independent protector of global norms and standards, of human rights and humanitarian principles. A realist, but never naïve. Member states were important and influential, but the values and principles were above them and their politics.
While he was a realist and fully aware of the cynical power dynamics that are at play both in the countries he served and in the Security Council, he was clear that he could not and should not allow the organisation to be compromised.
This last part of Kofi Annan’s tenure as Secretary General was the start of a difficult period for the UN. In the last 15 years, the geopolitical landscape has changed, and the Security Council with it. This has affected the UN, and the organisation has been under increased pressure from powerful member states. In many ways the polarized debate in the Security Council has left the organisation paralyzed. The dead lock has prevented the organisation from principled action in many conflicts, Syria and Yemen included. With the Trump administration this has become much worse, and the organisation is probably facing its greatest challenge in its 75-year history. Its credibility is at stake.
But a world without the UN, its bodies, and instruments, is a frightening world. It is a world without norms and standards, a world where the most powerful nations have a free reign. Because the global norms and principles are there to protect those less powerful, to protect the minority against the brutality of the majority. That is the primary role of the United Nations. And we need its strong and powerful voice more than ever. Sergio reminds us of the UN we want to see. And indeed, the film has come out at an important time. 2020 is the year of the 75 Anniversary of the United Nations. It is a golden opportunity to find that voice again and to make it heard - across the world.