Diplomatic Fallout: Vieira de Mello and the Dark Side of U.N. Diplomacy

Diplomatic Fallout: Vieira de Mello and the Dark Side of U.N. Diplomacy

There will be many eulogies for Sergio Vieira de Mello in the weeks ahead. Next Monday, Aug. 19, marks the 10th anniversary of the death of the charismatic Brazilian United Nations official in Baghdad. The veteran of humanitarian and peacekeeping missions from Sudan to Timor-Leste had reluctantly taken the post of U.N. special representative to Iraq after the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam Hussein. When a suicide-bomber killed him and 21 of his colleagues in an attack on their lightly guarded headquarters, U.N. officials were traumatized. He remains a totemic figure for the organization today.

His admirers will doubtless dwell on his widely attested leadership and charm. Commentators will take particular interest in what Samantha Power, Vieira de Mello’s biographer and now U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has to say. But the tributes should be tempered by a recognition that Vieira de Mello’s successors are still grappling with ethical and strategic dilemmas that frequently complicated his career.

These include a basic moral issue: What compromises must the U.N. make to alleviate suffering in countries where warlords or dictators rule? A second dilemma concerns the U.N.’s place in big power politics: Can the institution’s representatives play an autonomous role in crises where its strongest member states have important stakes, or will U.N. officials ultimately end up serving those states’ interests?

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