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Sérgio Vieira de Mello

Sérgio Vieira de Mello UN official

UN official
Sérgio Vieira de Mello
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro UN official
Was Diplomat
From Brazil
Gender male
Birth 15 March 1948, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Death 19 August 2003, Baghdad, Baghdad Governorate, Iraq (aged 55 years)
Sérgio Vieira de Mello
The details


Sérgio Vieira de Mello (Portuguese pronunciation: [ˈsɛʁʒu viˈejɾɐ dʒi ˈmɛlu], 15 March 1948 – 19 August 2003) was a Brazilian United Nations diplomat who worked for the UN for more than 34 years, earning respect and praise around the world for his efforts in the humanitarian and political programs of the UN. He was posthumously awarded a United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2003.

He was killed in the Canal Hotel Bombing in Iraq along with 20 other members of his staff on 19 August 2003 while working as the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Iraq. Before his death, he was considered a likely candidate for UN Secretary-General.


Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro to the diplomat Arnaldo Vieira de Mello and his wife Gilda, on 15 March 1948. He had an older sister, Sônia. The family followed Arnaldo's diplomatic postings, such that Sérgio spent his early years in Buenos Aires, Genoa, Milan, Beirut and Rome. In 1965, he enrolled to study philosophy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, but as classes were frequently disrupted by strikes, he opted to continue his education in Europe. He studied for a year at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, before enrolling at the Sorbonne University in Paris, where he studied philosophy under Vladimir Jankélévitch. He participated in the 1968 student riots in Paris against the Charles de Gaulle government, and was hit in the head by a police baton, causing a permanent disfigurement above his right eye. He also wrote a letter published in the French leftist journal Combat in support of the riots, which made returning to Brazil, at this stage a military dictatorship, potentially dangerous. Thus, after graduating from the Sorbonne in 1969, he moved to Geneva to stay with a family friend, and found his first job as an editor at the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At UNHCR, Vieira de Mello participated in field work assignments in Bangladesh during its war of independence in 1971, in Sudan in 1972 following the Addis Ababa agreement which ended the First Sudanese Civil War and allowed the return of some 650,000 Sudanese refugees and displaced persons, and Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974. These early assignments were operational, rather than political: he was helping to organize food aid, shelter and other types of aid to refugees. He continued field assignments with a posting in Mozambique to help refugees fleeing white supremacist rule and civil war in Zimbabwe (at the time, still Rhodesia) where he was deputy head of the office but due to absence of his boss was effectively running the mission. In 1973, he married Annie, a French assistant at UNHCR, with whom he had two sons, Laurent and Adrien. During his early years at UNHCR, he also completed an MA in moral philosophy and a PhD by correspondence from the Sorbonne. His doctorate thesis, submitted in 1974, was entitled The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society. In 1985, he submitted a second "state" doctorate, the highest degree in the French education system, entitled Civitas Maxima: Origins, Foundations and Philosophical and Political Significance of the Supranationality Concept. In addition to his native Portuguese, Vieira de Mello was fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and French, as well as some conversational Arabic and Tetum.

Vieira de Mello spent three years in charge of UNHCR operations in Mozambique during the civil war that followed its independence from Portugal in 1975, and three more in Peru. Vieira de Mello also served as Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Cambodia, being the first and only UN Representative to hold talks with the Khmer Rouge. He became senior political adviser to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon between 1981 and 1983.

The early 1990s found him involved in the clearing of land mines in Cambodia, and then in Yugoslavia. After working on the refugee problem in central Africa, he was made Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees in 1996 and he became UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator two years later. He would hold this position simultaneously with others until January 2001. He was a special UN envoy in Kosovo after the end of Serbian control of the former Yugoslav province in 1999.

Vieira de Mello was instrumental in dealing with the issue of boat people in Hong Kong. In mid-2000, he visited Fiji together with Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth of Nations' Secretary-General, in an attempt to assist in finding a negotiated settlement to the hostage situation, in which Fiji's Prime Minister and other members of Parliament were kidnapped and held as hostages during the 2000 Fijian coup d'état.

Before becoming the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2002, he was the UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor from December 1999 to May 2002, guiding that former Portuguese colony occupied by Indonesia to independence. He was also special representative in Kosovo for an initial period of two months and was the coordinator of humanitarian operations at UN Headquarters.

In May 2003 Vieira de Mello was appointed as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, an appointment initially intended to last for four months. According to The New York Times Magazine journalist James Traub in his book The Best Intentions, Vieira de Mello had originally turned down the appointment before being persuaded by US President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice. According to Samantha Power in her book Sergio: One Man's Fight to Save the World, Vieira de Mello had charmed Bush at a meeting in March 2003, at which the two men discussed the human rights situation in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a controversial issue for the United States. Power reports that Vieira de Mello bonded with Bush by telling him that he had authorized military force to combat terrorism while working as UN Transitional Administrator in East Timor. In June 2003, Vieira de Mello was part of a team responsible for inspecting Abu Ghraib prison before it was rebuilt.


U.S. soldiers placing Mello's casket into an SUV.

Vieira de Mello was working as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq when he was killed,. in the Canal Hotel bombing. Abu Musab Zarqawi, a leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, claimed responsibility for the blast. A communiqué from al-Qaida said that de Mello was assassinated because he was a crusader that extracted a part of the Islamic land (East Timor) after the Indonesian regime committed genocide on the small country with Christian majority.

He had been mentioned in some circles as a suitable candidate for UN Secretary-General. His death was widely mourned, largely on account of his reputation for effective work to promote peace. Vieira de Mello was buried at the Cimetière des Rois in Geneva, Switzerland.

Awards and recognition

Logo of the SVDM Foundation.

Vieira de Mello received a number of posthumous awards and honours, including a United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights in 2003. In April 2004, Sérgio Vieira de Mello was posthumously awarded the 'Statesman of the Year Award' by the EastWest Institute.

Following the initiative of the Villa Decius Association, the Polish Prize of Sergio Vieira de Mello was established in the year 2003 with an aim to promote human rights, democracy and tolerance and had its First Edition already in 2004.

The Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation was created in 2007 to honor his memory, pursue his ideals and continue his unfinished mission. The Foundation was established in Geneva (Switzerland), at the initiative of his two sons and his wife with some friends and colleagues. In 2008, Mr Kofi Annan launched the first annual lecture, followed by Ms Sadako Ogata in 2009, by Mr.Bernard Kouchner in 2010, by Mr. José Manuel Durão Barroso in 2011, and by Mr.Cornelio Sommaruga in 2012. Lectures take place at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Geneva.

On 11 December 2008, the United Nations General Assembly made history when it adopted Swedish-sponsored GA Resolution A/63/L.49 on the Strengthening of the Coordination of Emergency Assistance of the United Nations, that amongst other important humanitarian decisions, decided to designate 19 August as the World Humanitarian Day (WHD). The Resolution gives for the first time, a special recognition to all humanitarian and United Nations and associated personnel who have worked in the promotion of the humanitarian cause and those who have lost their lives in the cause of duty and urges all Member States, entities of the United Nations within existing resources, as well as the other International Organizations and Non-Governmental Organizations to observe it annually in an appropriate way. As a background to this landmark resolution, the family of Sérgio Vieira de Mello resolved to work towards having 19 August recognized as a befitting tribute to all humanitarian personnel. Early April 2008 the Board of the Sérgio Vieira de Mello Foundation prepared a draft Resolution to be sponsored and adopted by the General Assembly designating 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. France, Switzerland, Japan and Brazil, contacted with the draft Resolution, agreed to co-sponsor it.

Sergio Vieira de Mello founded two Human Rights Agencies: the United Nations Housing Rights Programme and United Nations Human Rights Educational Project (UNHREP). The former, currently a part of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, aims to "assist States and other stakeholders with the implementation of their commitments in the Habitat Agenda". UNHREP aims to be "an educational facility for teaching Human Rights from a variety of angles. ... [as well as, eventually] international relations, conflict resolution, diplomacy and diplomatic etiquette".

The new square dedicated to Sérgio Vieira de Mello in Bologna, Italy (January, 2011)

After his death, the Italian city of Bologna has dedicated to Sergio Vieira de Mello a new square ('Piazza Sérgio Vieira de Mello') situated in a modern part of the central quartiere Navile.

Career chronology

  • 1969–1971: French Editor, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1971–1972: Project Officer, UNHCR, Dhaka, East Pakistan
  • 1972–1973: Programme Officer, UNHCR, Juba, Sudan
  • 1974–1975: Programme Officer, UNHCR, Nicosia, Cyprus
  • 1975–1977: Deputy Representative and Representative, UNHCR, Maputo, Mozambique
  • 1978–1980: Representative, UNHCR, Lima, Peru
  • 1980–1981: Head of Career Development and Training Unit of Personnel Section, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1981–1983: Senior Political Officer, UNIFIL, DPKO, Lebanon
  • 1983–1985: Deputy Head of Personnel, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1986–1988: Chef de Cabinet and Secretary to the Executive Committee, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1988–1990: Director of Asia Bureau, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1990–1991: Director of External Affairs, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1991–1993: Director for Repatriation and Resettlement Operations, UNTAC, DPKO, and Special Envoy of High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, UNHCR, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • 1993–1994: Director of Political Affairs, UNPROFOR, DPKO, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • 1994–1996: Director of Operations and Planning, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • October–December 1996: Special Envoy of Secretary-General to the Great Lakes Region
  • 1996–1998: Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1998–2002: Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, UN, New York, US
  • June–July 1999: Special Representative of Secretary-General to Kosovo
  • 1999–2002: Transitional Administrator, UNTAET, DPKO, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dili, East Timor
  • 2002–2003: High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland
  • May–August 2003: Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Iraq
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