‘CHASING THE FLAME: SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE THE WORLD’ By SAMANTHA POWER
PENGUIN PRESS HC, 2008, Reviewed By ANDREAS VON WARBURG
The United Nations is often criticized for being a complex and inefficient machinery, too bureaucratic, inadequate and unfocused. Its Secretariat and staff have been a too-easy target for the UN many detractors, especially after the Oil-for-Food scandal hit the news. Yet, it has the strength to empower the less fortunate and foster great heroes.
In “Chasing the Flame,” Pulitzer Price winner Samantha Power explores an often unexplored side of the UN, the life and work of one of its heroes. The book recounts the story of former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian diplomat who lost his life in the 2003 terrorist attack to the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.
Vieira de Mello was the Secretary-General Special Representative in Iraq. He was there to bring a change and give Iraqis another opportunity after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“During the eleven weeks he had spent in Iraq, Vieira de Mello had tried to find and expand the space where the UN could make a difference,” Power writes in her book. “But [Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator Paul] Bremer resisted implementing the UN’s most important suggestions. Vieira de Mello had tried and failed to gain greater UN and Red Cross access to Iraqi detainees […], to persuade Bremer to devise concrete timelines for a constitution, for elections, and for the exit of US troops.”
He lost his life while trying achieve his goals, while helping Iraq, and the Iraqis. The August 2003 terrorist attack at the UN Headquarters in Baghdad was the country’s first ever suicide bombing, the first of many. The security situation in Iraq after the attack forced the UN to withdraw from the country only to come back four years later, in late 2007, with an expanded mandate from the Security Council.
At the helm of the UN mission in Iraq is now Staffan de Mistura, a friend and colleague of Vieira de Mello. “Sergio had indeed a limited mandate from the United Nations Security Council, which made his mission very difficult,” de Mistura said in a recent interview. “In this sense, the role he played was even more admirable, and to have an impact out of his very limited mandate was indeed an extraordinary achievement. Most of the decisions – good decisions – which took place during that period were strongly influenced by Sergio’s work.”
To many Sergio Vieira de Mello was a hero. “Chasing the Flame” brings us deep into the life of this passionate UN hero. It brings us deep into the thorniest, least well-understood episodes of recent world history, through the work of Vieira de Mello in Lebanon, Cambodia, Kosovo, East-Timor, and fatally Iraq. The book shows us how this visionary and humble diplomat from Brazil was able to make the best out of the UN. He fought politics and later embrace it as a tool to success and change in the poorest and dangerous areas in the world.
“Sergio Vieira de Mello’s youth left him with the impression that politics disrupted lives more than it improved them,” Power writes in her book. “Sergio Vieira de Mello spent more than three decades attempting to save and improve lives – lives that today continue to hang in the balance. As the war drums roll, and as cultural and religious fissures widen into canyons, there is no better time to turn for guidance to a man whose long journey under fire helps to reveal the roots of our current predicament – perhaps the remedies.”