Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power chose an auspicious day to give her first “Sergio talk” — a discussion of her new book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Tuesday afternoon at The New America Foundation. Power’s book is a chronicle of the life and influence of Vieira de Mello, the career UN diplomat tragically killed in August 2003 after a suicide bombing of the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad. While the UN has bravely continued to operate in Iraq, the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — the agency to which Vieira de Mello dedicated much of his career — has until now worked almost entirely out of Amman, Jordan. Wednesday, however, High Commissioner Antonio Guterres announced that he would send the organization’s first representative to Baghdad since Vieira de Mello’s premature death.
The weight of UNHCR’s responsibility — dealing with over 2 million refugees in Syria and Jordan, as well as an even greater number displaced within Iraq, all with a Baghdad staff that will soon increase to just five — underscores the courage with which the UN has conducted its mission in Iraq. Despite a persistent lack of security, the UN has nonetheless taken on some of the greatest challenges in Iraq and contributed to some of the country’s most tangible successes. As Power reminded listeners at yesterday’s talk, the indelible images of Iraqis proudly showing their purple hands, stained with the ink from their ballots, trace directly back to the UN’s crucial role organizing Iraq’s landmark elections.
The difficulties faced by the UN in Iraq echo the problems with
which Sergio Vieira de Mello grappled throughout his career. He
believed deeply that the key to the UN’s success was its impartiality;
yet he learned, through one experience after another, that this
impartiality is extraordinarily difficult to assert and maintain in situations of catastrophic violence and flagrant human
rights abuses. Moreover, while the UN’s aims may transcend borders, it
must always work intimately with the particular concerns of its
individual Member States.
In Iraq, the UN faces a double bind: even as it rightly touts its
independence from the occupying powers as the essence of its
usefulness, it must often rely on foreign military personnel to
maintain security — and thereby risk damaging the impression of its neutrality.
Despite the unavoidable tension of its position, the UN is still
appreciated as a neutral moderator in Iraq, emphasized by the Iraqi
Parliament’s recent decision to request UN assistance in organizing the country’s upcoming October
elections. As both the U.S. and the UN encounter further challenges in
Iraq, Power’s insightful and well-articulated book provides an
valuable insight into how one of the UN’s most fervent
supporters dealt with the issues that make its mission so difficult —
yet so very important.