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Tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello.

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Tuesday 26 August 2003

James Dunn, former Australian Consul, East Timor


Tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello  


The killing of 24 members of the UN’s Iraq mission, including its distinguished chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, has shocked us all, at a time when we have become attuned to acts of terrorism. The belief in immunity for UN humanitarian workers was in fact shattered even before the Baghdad bombing, by the murder of three UNHCR officials at Atambua in West Timor.  


The loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello was particularly devastating to those of us who knew him, who were able to observe his unique talents and dedication, and enjoy his warm friendship during the Timor UNTAET mission, which he led from 1999 until independence last year.  


I first met Sergio on board a UN Hercules, on a lumbering flight from Darwin to Dili. It was the beginning of his Timor assignment, and I sensed both his excitement at the challenge, and a certain apprehension. It was understandable enough, for he faced the daunting task of rehabilitating a devastated nation, and guiding it quickly to independence, a challenge never before undertaken by the UN.  


This encounter began an enduring friendship. Sergio was not short of advisers, but regarded me as an independent outsider who shared his deep commitment to the UN’s humanitarian role. Thus I found myself being consulted on quite sensitive issues - his tricky relations with Jakarta, his dealings with impatient Timorese leaders, and the unresolved issue of the Indonesian military’s responsibility for crimes against humanity. We discussed at length his move to place East Timorese leaders in positions of ministerial responsibility, giving them, I suggested, their L-plates, a precursor to full independence two years later. 


Sergio was a consummate UN diplomat and an outstanding administrator. He led and inspired an extraordinarily diverse gathering to UN workers. He was a determined yet flexible negotiator, with a passionate commitment to UN humanitarian principles. While his instincts were often pragmatic, Sergio always acknowledged the need to cotinue the struggle to bridge the gap between the outcomes of compromise and the principles enshrined in UN human rights instruments. His appointment last year as UN Human Rights Commissioner therefore came as no surprise. 


The East Timor challenge totally absorbed him. At first it was anything but plain sailing. In the circumstances the pace of reconstruction was initially painfully slow, taxing the patience of the Timorese leaders and the UN’s credibility. At that time it sorely tested Sergio’s confidence. At one point he contemplated resigning. The prospect startled me and I pleaded with him to stay, for he was the outstanding person for this difficult job.  


Sergio was a tireless worker whose inspiration won the dedication of the officials around him. He was thrilled at the mission’s successes, but deeply felt it when things went wrong. I recall his distress when we learnt that three UNHCR officials had been murdered by militia at Atambua. Running UNTAET was far from easy. He had to satisfy the expectations of the Security Council, the donor’s club, the Timorese, and also deal with internal conflicts that threatened the mission’s cohesion.  


Sergio Vieira de Mello was an exceptionally warm and likeable person. He was a prince of peace in a world darkened by the rhetoric of violence, revenge and war. He beckoned us to be more understanding and tolerant, at a time when intolerance abounded. His death has understandably led to an unprecedented outpouring of grief. His native Brazil has declared him a national hero. To me he is an international hero in the ongoing struggle to make our world a safer and more just place. We can ill afford the loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello, but we have his achievements, especially in East Timor, to inspire us to reinvigorate our efforts towards the ideals that motivated this outstanding international citizen. It is a testimony to his success that no people were more grief-stricken at his loss than the Timorese, as expressed in this extract from a short poem by one of them:  


Goodbye Mr. Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a hero of peace 

and a good friend of Timor-Leste 

Like thunder on a rainy day we heard that you were killed. 

Don't know what to say, everything has become silent 

Except for deepest mourning and tears. 

Atanasia Pires  


Guests on this program:


James Dunn  

Former diplomat, defence analyst, senior foreign affairs advisor to Federal Parliament and, most recently, U.N. investigator of crimes against humanity