March 14, 2017
Model United Nations
Book Report: Chasing the Flame
Samantha Powers tells the life story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian-born United Nations official who tragically lost his life during a bombing in Baghdad. Sergio dedicated over 30 years of his life to the United Nations and always being a voice through the public as a well know humanitarian. If there is a single individual who can be said to have been at center stage through all of the most significant humanitarian and geopolitical crises of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, it was Sergio Vieira de Mello. Vieira de Mello was born in 1948 just as the post-World War II order was taking shape, his father Arnaldo Vieira de Mello was a diplomat. After earning his degree from the University of, he found work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, traveling to southern Sudan, Mozambique and Vietnam, and passionately embracing the United Nations and international law as the embodiments of global justice.
Sergio was a philosopher by training – someone who cared passionately about issues – but he was also tremendously practical and very good at getting things done. And, according to the precise role he was playing, his attitude to some issues changed. In some cases, especially in the earlier part of his career, he was functioning as a humanitarian and would basically say “I will negotiate even with the devil, in order to get supplies through and to relieve suffering.” And he sometimes was prepared to go along with governments, or very unpleasant armed factions, in order to be able to help people who were in their power. Perhaps an extreme case was when he was repatriating refugees to Rwanda after the genocide, from Tanzania, and he pretty much violated what’s supposed to be a sacred principle of UNHCR, that people are only ever sent back of their own free will. And there was not much question that most of these people would rather have stayed in Tanzania. But the government of Tanzania didn’t want them. And Sergio basically came to the conclusion that the best (or least bad) thing in the circumstances was to organize this in a humane and civilized way – and a lot of people felt he was going too far in sacrificing principle to realpolitik. But then I think, partly as a result of the different jobs he was given, and partly of his observation of what was wrong and why these terrible humanitarian problems arise, he came around more to thinking that human rights and the basic principles of the UN are very important and sometimes they trump the immediate, short-term humanitarian considerations.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of just...