"19 AUGUST - IGNORED TRIBUTE TO SACRIFICE BY U.N. BAGHDAD TEAM / SERGIO DE MELLO. WHY?"

 

SEPTEMBER 2017

19 AUGUST - IGNORED TRIBUTE TO SACRIFICE BY U.N. BAGHDAD TEAM / SERGIO DE MELLO. WHY?

This year's August 19 was the first time since 2003 that a U.N. Secretary-General overlooked a special tribute to U.N. colleagues criminally killed in the bombing of their Baghdad office.

At the time, Secretary-General Kofi Annan was visibly shaken. He had persuaded his distinguished colleague and friend, Sergio Vieira, to leave his Geneva post as High Commissioner for Human Rights to go -- if only for an interim period of three months -- and establish a credible U.N. presence and effective role during a very delicate period immediately after U.S. troops' occupation and takeover by its High Commissioner Paul Bremer.

Veteran observers recall that while Mr. Annan did his best to support Sergio, certain officials around him consistently eroded Sergio's means to operate, hinting he aimed to become the next Secretary-General. In particular, Iqbal Riza, Annan's Chef de Cabinet, did not hide his attempts to undercut Sergio's mission, including through a "Senior Group" at Headquarters, appointing a favoured person as focal point and laying blame for shortcomings elsewhere. A detailed background is included in Samir Sanbar's "Inside the U.N. in a Leaderless World."

Secretary-General Annan went all the way in commemorating Sergio, his Deputy Nadia Younes, and every member who gave the ultimate sacrifice at a General Assembly evening event, specially devoted to their memory as Brazil's Culture Minister and legendary artist Gilberto Gil led a musical performance. Kofi Annan participated by playing the drums while Sergio's close friend and colleague Samir Sanbar joined in the chorus.

Since then, 19 August each year was marked by a special tribute; families joined in placing flowers and exchanging loving, fond memories.

When Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took over, he continued the tribute, although he had no personal acquaintance with the team and -- indeed -- no institutional memory. Eventually, the date was placed under a wider context of a world "Humanitarian Day." Some suspected it was part of a systematic determination to erode the spirit of international civil service, under an officially plausible umbrella. Still, Mr. Ban continued the tribute within that context and sincerely listened to bereaved families and colleagues who started complaining about certain shortcomings.

The new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is the first Secretary-General to ignore the tribute. A former Prime Minister of Portugal and a once Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would certainly know about Sergio Vieira de Mello, a noted Portuguese-speaking Brazilian former Geneva-based High Commissioner for Human Rights, who in fact resided with his family on a nearby Lake. On 19 August this year, on "Humanitarian Day," the new Secretary-General with other officials displayed prepared placards -- saying "Not A Target" -- a very rightful point. Yet he will certainly recognize that U.N. civil servants killed in Baghdad bombing were definitely a target.

Most of those who devoted their careers and risked their lives for a relevant credible U.N. welcomed his takeover in January, expecting an effective substantive effort to regain its vital role. When the new Secretary-General overlooks the ultimate sacrifice by his outstanding colleagues some of them, at least, will start asking questions. "Why...?"