The U.N’s Go-To Guy

Samantha Power's new film offers a gut-wrenching portrait of the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man whose loss the United Nations is still struggling to overcome today.

United Nations/Getty Images
United Nations/Getty Images
United Nations/Getty Images

He was the ultimate diplomatic weapon: tough, suave, fluent in five languages, unafraid to parachute into a war zone or go toe-to- toe with the bad guys, and -- yes, it helped -- devastatingly handsome.

Sergio Vieira de Mello had a smile as wide as Copacabana Beach and a distinguished U.N. pedigree nearly as long. An admiring journalist described him in 1994 as "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy" -- a rare blend of dashing, by-any-means-necessary man of action and soaring idealist.

By time of his tragic death on Aug. 19, 2003, the Brazilian diplomat had spent nearly 35 years inside the U.N. system, sent from hellhole to hellhole as one of the international organization's most dependable troubleshooters. Representing the United Nations in Iraq, a job he reluctantly accepted at the behest of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and George W. Bush's administration, was to be his final assignment in the field. He was, as biographer Samantha Power put it Monday at a Washington event previewing Sergio, the moving documentary based on her book, the world's "go-to guy."

He was the ultimate diplomatic weapon: tough, suave, fluent in five languages, unafraid to parachute into a war zone or go toe-to- toe with the bad guys, and — yes, it helped — devastatingly handsome.

Sergio Vieira de Mello had a smile as wide as Copacabana Beach and a distinguished U.N. pedigree nearly as long. An admiring journalist described him in 1994 as "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy" — a rare blend of dashing, by-any-means-necessary man of action and soaring idealist.

By time of his tragic death on Aug. 19, 2003, the Brazilian diplomat had spent nearly 35 years inside the U.N. system, sent from hellhole to hellhole as one of the international organization’s most dependable troubleshooters. Representing the United Nations in Iraq, a job he reluctantly accepted at the behest of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and George W. Bush’s administration, was to be his final assignment in the field. He was, as biographer Samantha Power put it Monday at a Washington event previewing Sergio, the moving documentary based on her book, the world’s "go-to guy."

The film, which airs May 6 — on HBO, of all places — is both a celebration of Vieira de Mello’s life and a gripping account of his final moments, trapped beneath the rubble of the Baghdad hotel that served as the United Nations’ headquarters in Iraq while two woefully underequipped emergency workers tried desperately to free him.

The movie is also meant as a tribute to international civil servants like Vieira de Mello and the U.N. system they uphold, which an all-star panel of Obama administration officials described at the National Press Club event Monday as a deeply flawed but essential institution for managing the world’s conflicts.

As Power, a former journalist who now serves on Barack Obama’s National Security Council, described it, Sergio is "a monument to the best of the U.N. and what civil servants can do."

It also illustrates the moral dilemmas that confront the organization as it seeks to carve out a role independent of the United States — as shown in a Baghdad press conference where Vieira de Mello bristles at a journalist’s suggestion that he is in Iraq to provide "cover" for America.

Filmmaker Greg Barker said he was looking to explore "shades of gray" and that Vieira de Mello’s career — from his days as a student radical in Paris to his outreach to pariah groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Khmer Rouge — exemplified the kinds of moral choices that "the world’s all about."

Along with Power, Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offered emotionally charged reflections on Sergio’s life, the United Nations, the film, and its implications for U.S. foreign policy.

All three officials — who became outspoken advocates of humanitarian intervention in chaotic post-Cold War hot spots like Kosovo in the 1990s, exemplifying the crusading liberal internationalist wing of the Democratic Party — said that what they admired most about Vieira de Mello was his ability to get things done.

"He made a lot of compromises along the way," acknowledged Holbrooke. But, he said, speaking of the deceased diplomat’s unique combination of idealism and pragmatism, "he combined these things in a way that I’ve never seen before or since."

Power lamented the loss of Viera de Mello and what she called his "grounded idealism," extolling his ability to quickly size up a situation, meet with all the key players on the ground and hear out their concerns, and then make clear recommendations to policymakers. And she said she wished the international community could draw upon him as a resource today as it confronts a range of complex, seemingly insoluble challenges.

"We needed Sergio in Darfur. We needed Sergio in Congo. We needed Sergio on Iran."

Final moments

The film’s most compelling — and gut-wrenching — moments come in its depiction of the explosion that caused Vieira de Mello’s death, a massive truck bomb later traced to al Qaeda supervillain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Amid the chaos, rescue workers spot the Brazilian diplomat and the bodies of several others who had been meeting in his office at the time of the bombing. They climb down into a V-shaped hole created by the roof’s collapse and begin working to extract Vieira de Mello and Gil Loescher, an American professor who had come to the meeting. Both men are partly buried underneath bricks and chunks of concrete, and Loescher is blocking access to Vieira de Mello.

It’s strong stuff, particularly when the rescue workers, U.S. Army reservist William von Zehle and emergency medical technician Andre Valentine, describe how they had to hack off Loescher’s legs with a rusty saw and then cut through a nearby corpse with a knife in order to extract him and then try to free Vieira de Mello — a scene thankfully re-enacted only in the abstract — only to watch the diplomat pass away before their eyes.

The footage of Carolina Larriera, his girlfriend and a former U.N. economics officer in East Timor, is no less difficult to watch. We see a frantic Larriera struggling with security officers outside the rubble, desperate to find out what has happened to the man she loves. And we hear her describe, years later, their heartbreaking final exchange of words and her false sense of relief upon being told that Vieira de Mello had been evacuated to safety (he was not).

Indeed, he was a well-known womanizer who left his French wife, Annie, to raise two boys largely on her own while he zipped around the world from conflict zone to conflict zone, working 18-hour days and openly forming relationships with colleagues like Larriera. "Without her sacrifices," Power’s book quotes him saying of Annie, "I would never be able to do what I do."

Vieira de Mello’s first assignment was in 1971 for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh, followed by stints in Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru, and Lebanon. But he made his reputation in April 1992, when he led a daring mission to the inner sanctum of the Khmer Rouge, the still-dangerous guerrilla movement that had sponsored a genocidal reign of terror in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Vieira de Mello’s outreach to Khmer Rouge leaders was much criticized within the U.N. system and in the press. The political dividends were indeed disappointing, but after months of false starts, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees were eventually able to return to areas held by the guerrillas, who began allowing U.N. relief supplies to reach those in need.

He then served as the first U.N. special envoy to Kosovo, but perhaps his greatest triumph came in East Timor, the shattered island protectorate he ruled as U.N. "viceroy" from 1999 until its formal independence in 2002.

Dennis McNamara, a U.N. diplomat, describes him in the film as "one of the bright stars, maybe the brightest.  He was the master magician, mediator, manager, massager of egos."

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