On August 26, 2003, seven days after the tragic events of August 19 at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, and about seven years ago, I spoke at a memorial for Sergio Vieira de Mello at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. I had just joined the front office of that organization, having been asked by Sergio – who had been appointed as the High Commissioner in 2002 – to come to Geneva to serve as his Chief of Staff. Of course, during the summer of 2003 and at the time of my July arrival in Geneva, Sergio was on a temporary deployment in Baghdad. But by August, I was already deeply engaged in OHCHR program reviews in anticipation of Sergio’s expected November 2003 return to the Geneva headquarters.
So, on that August 26th, I spoke as one of Sergio’s newest staffers, but also as a long-time friend. In those remarks, I sought to take away from inexplicable tragedy something that was life-affirming – that might strengthen us all in our resolve to do the very best we can do…by our friends, by our families, and by our professional commitments.
In particular, I thought about some of Sergio’s qualities and found that my sadness was tempered – that I was even invigorated by his example.
So I’ve decided to take the liberty of going back to those remarks today, as the lessons I drew from my reflections on Sergio seem as applicable today as they did when I first offered them.
First, I spoke of Sergio’s sense of humor and perspective, his wit, and a lesson that it may offer.
A story that immediately came to my mind was suggested by my friend, Lionel Rosenblatt, in a message issued at the time by Refugees International. Lionel wrote about Sergio’s experiences in Cambodia:
“When a group of Montagnard highlander refugees from Vietnam risked forced repatriation, Sergio took the lead in brokering a rescue effort. I will always treasure his handwritten fax to us which described the number of men, women, and children rescued and concluded with a tally of the chickens, dogs and monkeys the refugees carried with them.”
Anyone who knew Sergio can envision the sparkle in his eye as he composed this fax.
But there is a valuable message in this kind of story. While we each must pursue our work with the greatest degree of conviction and seriousness, we don’t want to take ourselves all too seriously. That capacity, to laugh gently at oneself, and at the world around us, can be absolutely critical to our capacity to persevere in difficult and emotionally draining work over time; and that quality is also so important to our ability to connect meaningfully with friends and colleagues as we pursue our objectives.
So, I thanked Sergio, and I thank him again today, for his life lesson about wit.
I then turned to Sergio’s graciousness. There, a quotation from Sylvana Foa of UNHCR was one that kept coming back to me. In a New York Times profile of Sergio that appeared in 2003, she said, "He's the kind of person that [, when] you walk into a room…he makes you feel like you're the queen of England."
Well, he never made me feel like the Queen of England, but, in pressing me to come to Geneva to work with him, he certainly made me feel like a prince.
And his graciousness was extended to those who were without the conventional trappings of power and influence.
When Sergio was killed, there was of course great sadness in the newly independent country of East Timor, where Sergio had served as the Secretary General’s Special Representative -- and where he had played such a profound role in the transition to independence. According to OHCHR’s Timor office representative, one of the most touching statements at a UN memorial for Sergio in Dili was from a Timorese woman who worked as a cleaner for the UN. She cried all through her speech, saying that Sergio was a very kind boss and didn't care whether you were a cleaner or an international member of the staff. He was always kind to her and had invited her and her four children to celebrate Christmas at his home.
The inspiration I took away from that story was simple, but one that is too often forgotten in the pace of events that occupy our days: that all people, the high and mighty, as well as those of more limited means, are worthy of respect and attention; that all human beings are valuable. In our humanitarian field of endeavor, that is more than a moral admonition: it also has operational benefits that save lives. If you can appreciate another person’s circumstances, and truly empathize with his or her condition, then you will be a better and more persistent advocate. You will more effectively envision and implement durable solutions. And you will be better able to bring together those who seem to have irreconcilable differences.
So I thanked Sergio, for his lesson about graciousness.
I also spoke about Sergio’s legendary pragmatism and competence, and his awareness that the lofty ideals that inform the UN Charter must usually be reconciled by the less elevated concerns that motivate governments, rebel groups and others.
Rather than flee this complexity, Sergio engaged it with vigor, and with an understanding that a less than perfect solution that saves lives is far better than the ideal solution that is never realized. My first experience with such a Sergio-led effort was the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees, in 1989. We all knew the troubling features of this plan at the time of its creation: the risk of unfair refugee screening in first asylum camps; the risk that Vietnam, in its effort to curb unauthorized departures, would restrict basic human rights; and the risk that resettlement countries would renege on their resettlement commitments. But Sergio most likely knew, probably better than most, that this effort would save and safeguard many thousands of lives. And Sergio demonstrated this pragmatism throughout his career, whether as the UNHCR representative who managed the repatriations from Cambodia, as head of civil affairs for UNPROFOR, as SRSG in Kosovo, or in so many other places.
And this lesson, of pragmatism and competence – is so valuable to anyone dedicated to transforming the principles which inform our work into solutions that advance our humanitarian mission, and improve the human condition.
Of course, all of these skills were in the service of another special quality: Sergio’s steadfast commitment to the principles that underlie the UN Charter. Like so many of Sergio’s friends and colleagues, I knew of his ambivalence about taking the UN job in Iraq. In a conversation with me prior to the Secretary General’s decision to appoint him, Sergio assured me that he wasn’t seeking the position, and that he had a big enough challenge in Geneva.
But at the time of our conversation, there was little doubt in my mind that, if asked – and whatever his misgivings about leaving Geneva and about the UN’s limited mandate in Iraq -- he would be there in Baghdad, doing a job for which there were, remarkably, few other obvious candidates. And while Sergio’s decision to go to Baghdad was no doubt the product of many factors, it was surely driven by his dedication to the UN and its principles, and the realization that the institution he so loved was depending on him.
Of course, this lesson in commitment is complex, and the complexity was manifested in Sergio’s determination to return to Geneva in the autumn of 2003. From conversations with him, and with his good friends and colleagues, it is clear that this was a man who felt not only an obligation to the UN as an institution, but also to friends and family to which he was returning. He, like the rest of us, was grappling with the almost impossible issue of reconciling all of the challenges, the obligations, both personal and professional, that life throws our way.
And, on this score, there are no easy answers. But this challenge, of reconciling commitments – which Sergio so obviously faced – also offers life lessons. The most important may be that we must remember to treat each new day as a gift, with an appreciation of the fragility of life; that we must not miss any opportunity to thank a colleague, to extend oneself to a friend, to make time for one’s family, or to tackle that professional challenge one has been deferring.
And we must support and empower the people who work with us, and for us -- as many of our own callings will demand sacrifices of them that they will make without question or complaint. We must let them know how much we appreciate what they do.
That would have been Sergio’s way.
Finally, on that day in Geneva, I spoke of a final quality of Sergio’s that I had found particularly – and personally -- meaningful in that summer of 2003: Sergio’s adaptability. On this quality, Sergio’s experience in Cambodia came to my mind, where UNHCR’s best laid plans for repatriation quickly became largely irrelevant, and Sergio rode the tiger in managing what became a largely spontaneous repatriation effort. Of course, adaptability was a watchword for him throughout his career.
Life’s events are just not all that predictable.
But one can rely on the fact that important and life-affirming challenges will always present themselves to those who are prepared to look. For me, in 2003, it was the critical challenge of helping to sustain continuity and a sense of forward movement in an institution – OHCHR – that was so severely impacted by the loss of its leader.
But whatever the challenges, if we approach them with the energy, enthusiasm, graciousness, competence, and wit of our dear departed friend – Sergio – then we do honor to his important legacy.