Remembering Sergio Vieira de Mello Ten Years After the Attack on the UN in Baghdad

08/19/2013 10:05 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

August 19 is the tenth anniversary of the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in Iraq. De Mello, considered by many as the most suitable successor to Kofi Annan, was a victim of the terrorist attack on our political mission in Baghdad in the first -- and so far, the most serious -- attack on the UN since it was founded in 1945. There were twenty-one other victims, and more than 200 injured. As a survivor of the attack and partner of Sergio Vieira de Mello, I can say that to this day none of us understands why an attack of such magnitude did not warrant a rigorous investigation. Instead, the circumstances of the incident were buried under statues and memorial speeches.

On this anniversary we should take a moment to reflect on the life of a UN official who was truly committed to the ideals and principles of peace. However, we must also demand an independent investigation, doing justice to the memory of the people who lost their lives in Baghdad on August 19, 2003.

Sergio had an extensive and intense career built around some of the most resonant episodes of the past 40 years. Among the most memorable moments were his mediation after the Middle East hostilities in 1982, the repatriation of 400,000 Cambodian refugees in the nineties, and his efforts to negotiate an end to the slaughter in Bosnia.

After De Mello's experience in the Balkans, he was asked to undertake what was to become one of the most difficult UN missions to date, but ultimately the most successful post-crisis mission ever: lead Timor-Leste's birth into an independent nation, along with the Timorese patriots. This was the first time the UN was able to fulfill one of the dreams inscribed in its founding charter: to build the institutional framework of a country from the ground up -in this case, a country that had been occupied and devastated by Indonesian colonial troops.

At the time of his death, Sergio Vieira de Mello held the top UN Human Rights job - a position that many people have identified as the "conscience of the world." Sergio succeeded Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, who during her tenure had underscored the pivotal role of the Organization. While serving as High Commissioner, he was also asked by UN Chief Kofi Annan to become the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, based in Baghdad.

After his simultaneous designation to these important functions, many in the international circles considered De Mello, as a likely and natural successor to Kofi Annan.

In light of this, the anticlimactic final chapter to the tragedy that ended the life of Sergio and so many others is as surprising as it is unacceptable. Rather than a full investigation and an active effort to shed light on the context and aftermath of the Baghdad bombing, the international community -particularly the UN and the U.S. - displayed a remarkable passivity. The UN was contented with a formal repudiation of the event and rather perfunctory acts of containment to survivors and relatives of the victims. And the scant traces that emerged about the perpetrators of the attack were either ignored or sabotaged. Indeed, when in 2007 Abdel Aziz Awraz Mahmoud Saeed was captured in Iraq and told his prosecutors that he was prepared to disclose his involvement in the bombing, he was -despite international requests set in motion, including one by the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers - summarily executed before he had a chance to make a statement.

And now, ten years later, victims, survivors, family, friends and thousands of "in house" officials still do not know the exact circumstances of the attack, the motives of the perpetrators and the criminal and moral responsibility of those who allowed and enabled the attack, a critical starting point in the healing process of the terrible wounds generated by this bombing. Instead of medals, we would have preferred the truth; we do not want the facts to be buried under the weight of institutional bureaucracy.

***

I am a survivor of that tragedy. Yet despite my status as UN staff, to this day I have not received any gesture of redress or protection from the organization that assigned me to represent them in Baghdad, considered at that time the most dangerous place in the world.

I was Sergio Vieira de Mello's partner at the time of the attack. Our relationship began under great duress and adversity, during the early years of the reconstruction of Timor-Leste, a land ravaged by war and occupation, where nearly half the population had lost their lives.

After successfully completing the mission in Timor, Sergio and I had returned to New York. Our life moved on in relative serenity, until Sergio got the news of his appointment as High Commissioner for Human Rights. A few months after taking office in Geneva, he was appointed to Iraq.

We were no strangers to insecurity, and our life together had always been dominated by risk and uncertainty. The specter of hatred and tragedy that loomed over Baghdad only strengthened our relationship, unbeknown to us, our last moments together.

But it was not only the terrorists in Iraq who tore my life apart. My life was also shattered by the instructions coming from the highest officials of the bureaucracy and the United States, covering the circumstances of this attack with a blanket of silence and trying to distort and rewrite Sergio's history, our relationship and the absurd neglect in which he died.

I myself had to experience the tortuous amnesia of the bureaucracy, and for over a year did not even appear on the list of survivors.

In this endless silence under which the attack has been buried there is a single voice that can rise to reclaim the true story of one of its most prestigious sons: the voice of Brazil, Sergio´s country, which he loved deeply, despite - or, rather, because of- his intense international life and his long spans abroad.

Celso Amorim, today Brazil's Minister of Defense, and who for nearly a decade led the Brazilian foreign ministry, has finally asked the question that everyone shied away from: "I'm not prone to conspiracy theories, but one cannot recall the episode without wondering if the weak point, from the perspective of security, was not deliberately weakened, perhaps to deflect possible attacks from the most sought after target, the U.S. military administration."

These late thoughts do not come as a complete surprise: Two months before the attack, during their last meeting at the World Economic Forum held in Jordan, Sergio confessed to Amorim that the situation was dramatic, that he was apprehensive and facing growing differences with the Americans, and that, with the help of Brazil, he could give the delicate Iraqi reconstruction effort a healthier multilateral dimension.

A decade later, I cannot but think of this opportunity as the beginning of something long overdue: the clarification of the underpinnings of a tragic event, which only Brazil itself can finally bring to light. This would be the only meaningful homage that the world can offer to a man that embodied life by devoting his own to the improvement of the lives of so many others.

On this tenth anniversary the UN must take effective and conducive action in order to clarify and repair, so the victims of this tragedy can have the closure only truth can offer, and which has been denied until today.