Sergio Vieira de Mello will be remembered for the indelible mark he made on the world’s most desperate, strife-torn countries. For overseeing a comprehensive plan for the “boat people” from Vietnam, for taking charge in Kosovo when ethnic tensions ran high, for skillfully guiding East Timor into independence, and most recently for his role in Iraq, where he wisely persuaded the U.S. to allow more immediate engagement of Iraqis in governing, to name but a few instances.
Sergio combined idealism with pragmatism, daring with just the right degree of caution, all the while keeping his eye fixed on getting things done. Tough minded and debonair, he was also guided by heart and a deep sense of commitment to advancing a humanitarian and human rights agenda in a world filled with civil strife, failed states, and acts of terrorism. Discouragement was never a word in his vocabulary nor intellectual arrogance a part of his modus operandi. He was always ready to listen and to learn.
We at Brookings will always remember Sergio with warmest appreciation for the unstinting support he gave to the Project on Internal Displacement, co-directed by Francis Deng, representative of the U.N. secretary-general on internally displaced persons and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, and Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies. As under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Sergio became the first U.N. official formally—and wholeheartedly—to endorse the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the international standards for displaced persons initiated and developed in a process organized at Brookings. Few other U.N. officials would have had the courage to do so without first seeking the approval of member governments. He then got the international humanitarian, development, and human rights offices at the U.N. to endorse the Principles, and he had them published and disseminated, with a Foreword under his name. Sergio also understood the importance of assuring the safety of displaced persons and other civilians at risk, a critical step beyond providing food, medicine and shelter. At a time when many U.N. officials veered away from discussing “protection” as too politically sensitive, he asked us to develop the draft of the protection policy which eventually was adopted by U.N. and non-U.N. agencies. Even when new in his job in Geneva last September as High Commissioner for Human Rights, and in the middle of another meeting, he broke away to address our conference, saying our work was “dear to his heart.” Sergio’s door always remained open to our Project, no matter where or what he was doing.
His death is a great loss for everyone. A lessons-learned book could be written from watching him operate in rebuilding conflict-ridden societies. May the memory of his work continue to inspire and teach those engaged in the world’s most difficult places.
On May 5, Noha Aboueldahab joins the American University in Cairo for a discussion on transitional justice for the war on terror.