This week leading to Easter was an authentic Via Crucis for some 300 innocents massacred by demented people: half of them were hapless tourists flying on Lufthansa’s low cost GermanWings, the other half, university students in Kenya who were shot and decapitated because they happened to be Christians.
Whether Christian or not, let us all agree that we cannot be silent. That something must be done – all of us can do something either at work or on our days off. And I was reminded of Sergio Vieira de Mello from Brazil, a man who dedicated his life to humanitarian causes and was horrifically killed in the line of duty. Samantha Power wrote an unforgettable book about Sergio – a man defined by Stephen Balbach, one of the reviewers of the book, as the “ultimate go-to guy”, in his words:
Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil (simply “Sergio” to many) was the personification of what the United Nations could and should be. As Paul Bremer’s adviser Ryan Cocker once said, “Sergio is as good as it gets not only for the UN, but for international diplomacy.” Sergio was the UN Secretary General’s “ultimate go-to guy”, a nation builder in the world’s toughest spots like East Timor, Cambodia, Kosovo. No one who met him – from George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War, to the Khmer Rouge, to Slobodan Milosevic – came away untouched by his intelligence, physical bearing, charisma and integrity. It was a major blow to the world when he and 14 other UN staff were killed on August 19th 2003 by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, an event that has become known as the “UN’s 9/11”.
Here is my own review of it (I gave it 5 stars!):
Brilliantly written, with a title that beautifully reflects the thrust of the book, it draws a spell-binding portrait of an idealist, dedicated to his work and the goals of the UN. At the same time, it depicts with deep compassion a very human person, highly likeable in spite of the flaws. The last chapter, reporting the details of his tragic death, makes for a harrowing read, high drama that will bring tears in the reader’s eyes – including tears of frustration, because with a little better organization, his life might have been saved.
Yet, it could be argued that the real value of this book lies in another direction, it zeroes in on a phenomenon I have often come across in my 25 years of work at the UN: the rise of a new class of bureaucrats, far from the stereotype we all think of when the word “bureaucrat” comes up. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian, was a true cosmopolitan, a man who lived beyond any nationalistic allegiance (though he loved his home country) and who truly believed in the supremacy of human rights, as defined in the UN Charter and the Declaration.
Here is no bureaucrat attached to red tape and looking forward to week-end partying. Here is a man who worked incessantly, often putting work before family.
I can vouch that there are many more like him in the UN system, people who honestly believe that the world should move beyond nationalism if it is ever to achieve peace and prosperity. Such people are “civil servants” in the most basic sense of the term, i.e. serving Society with a capital “s”, and Samantha Power reveals in this book exactly how such people come about, what pushes them, what inspires them and frustrates them, in short, how they act and why.
To anyone wondering how and why the UN continues to survive the violent attacks against it, including skepticism about is continued relevance, here is the beginning of an answer: the resilience of the UN system lies largely in the quality of (some) of its staff – people like Viera de Mello. The insights “Chasing the Flame” provides into this little known aspect of the UN is what makes this book particularly important and a must read.
I hesitate to say “Happy Easter” but we need to make it happy and hopeful, we need to believe that humankind can be redeemed, that there will be in future many more people like Sergio…So have a Happy Easter, whether you are Christian or not!
|Available on Amazon here|