- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

A career spent in some of the world’s most dangerous places finally caught up with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian-born diplomat killed in yesterday’s suicide bombing of the United Nations’ headquarters in downtown Baghdad.

A specialist in refugee and humanitarian relief issues, the 55-year-old Mr. Vieira de Mello served in such hot spots as Cyprus, Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor in a 33-year U.N. career before reluctantly agreeing to yet another temporary stint as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s point man in Iraq in June.

He once compared himself to an “ambulance driver arriving at the site of a car crash,” charged with bringing the grievously wounded victims back to life.

He was planning to leave Baghdad next month and return to his permanent post as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, one of the institution’s most visible and delicate posts.

Fluent in four languages, the elegant, silver-haired Mr. Vieira de Mello was described by colleagues as suave, low-key and unflappable. News of his death produced shock and grief yesterday at the U.N. headquarters in New York and in his native Brazil, where President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of mourning.

In New York, Mr. Annan called Mr. Vieira de Mello’s death “a bitter blow for the United Nations and for me personally.

“I can think of no one we could less afford to spare,” he said. The blue-and-white U.N. flags were ordered flown at half-staff.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, Mr. Vieira de Mello joined the United Nations in Geneva in 1969 after studying philosophy at Sorbonne University in Paris.

Mr. Annan was just the latest in a series of U.N. chiefs to turn to Mr. Vieira de Mello to handle difficult assignments.

In 1981, he was named principal adviser to U.N. peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, serving through the period of Israel’s invasion of its neighbor a year later. After the Rwanda genocide of the mid-1990s, Mr. Vieira de Mello spent several months coordinating humanitarian efforts for Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Prior to his Iraq assignment, Mr. Vieira de Mello was best known for his work as Mr. Annan’s envoy to war-torn East Timor beginning in late 1999, successfully overseeing the island-nation’s transition to independence from Indonesia.

Unlike the broad mandate he had in East Timor, Mr. Vieira faced a far more ambiguous task in Baghdad, where U.N. efforts to assert greater oversight of Iraq’s economic and political reconstruction often clashed with the agenda of the U.S.-led military coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein.

But U.S. diplomats say Mr. Vieira de Mello established a good relationship with U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer, and the U.N. envoy made a number of trips to Turkey and other neighboring countries in an effort to build regional support for the new Iraqi governing council created by Mr. Bremer.

But Mr. Vieira de Mello also quietly prodded the U.S. government to speed the return of power to Iraqi representatives, saying he could understand the resentment of ordinary Iraqis at seeing the country “occupied,” and acknowledged that the United Nations itself could be a target of those hostile to the U.S.-led military campaign.

“The U.N. presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to anyone who would seek to target our organization,” he told the Security Council in his first report on the security situation in Iraq in June.

Mr. Vieira de Mello was married and had two grown sons.

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