The flickering flame: a decade without Sergio Vieira de Mello

by Fausto Ribeiro

Sergio vieira de mello

The year that marked the tenth anniversary of Sergio Vieira de Mello's death in Baghdad was also the one in which his biographer, Pulitzer Prize-winning activist Samantha Power, was nominated as the American Ambassador to the United Nations. Now, 2013 is over and the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose efforts have been essential in the struggle against the Assad regime's chemical warfare. In light of this, one must surely wonder whether a turning point in international relations is taking place, after years in which irrational power-politics seemed to be the only available form of conflict resolution. As part of the effort to reflect upon that question, a reappraisal of Vieira de Mello's life's work may prove invaluable.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN diplomat whose peculiar background included a Sorbonne degree in philosophy and a stint as a quintessentially soixante-huitard Paris rebel, never ceased to look for a theoretical foundation upon which to base his notoriously active and adventurous career. In a 2000 lecture, for instance, the Brazilian diplomat claimed to experience a “tranquilizing fascination” with the Hegelian idea that the march of history is perfectible through the power of reason – an idea which dismisses the recurrence of human tragedies as nothing but superficial upheavals that do not prevent progress towards an idealized future. However, Vieira de Mello would also declare himself suspicious about that notion, “because the real of my experience has invariably inspired in me a great skepticism towards totalizing theories, given the multiple manifestations of the irrational that always contradict them”. Hegel's World's Spirit (Weltgeist) would be, in the diplomat's perception, akin to “a religious interpretation of the course of history, in the sense that conviction derives from faith, from purely abstract reason, and not from concrete facts, from the real”. To consider the World's Spirit an irrefutable theory would only be possible for des yeux des convertis – the eyes of the proselytes.

In numerous aspects, Vieira de Mello considered that the UN, with the creative duality and mutual support existent between its Security Council and its Secretariat, “had begun to prove that it may – and, therefore, must – exert the role not of the Spirit, but of the World's Conscience”. A conscience would differ from a spirit in that it is “anti-dogmatic, receptive, and tolerant, because it is enriched and formed by the discovery and recognition of its characteristics, by its particular values, and, above all, by its capacity to extract the principles and common interests from the brute mass of events and of our history”.

Before presenting this alternative theory of history, however, Vieira de Mello asked a question whose deep significance would only become fully clear one year later, on September, 11th, 2001: aside from nihilism, what is there left? The matter-of-fact manner in which nihilism was dismissed in the question clearly indicates that Vieira de Mello found this alternative to be so abhorrent that it did not even merit further consideration. It is therefore a grim irony that precisely such nihilism was at the core of the mindset that would lead not only to the destruction of the Twin Towers, but also to the 2003 attack that put an end to Vieira de Mello's life itself.

While glancing at the immense horror contained in that which was rejected by the Brazilian diplomat with such eloquent silence, it is impossible not to notice that the West's reaction to this irrational evil appears to have been constructed in the exact opposite manner espoused by Vieira de Mello, who was clearly one of the most passionate supporters of the UN system. Indeed, three years before the Iraq war, he was already stating that “very rarely has an alliance over the common interest been possible outside of the UN framework”, and warning that “we have been witnessing new forms of irrational, which consist of denying the very usefulness of this structural and systematic guarantee of political and moral rationality in international relations. This simplistic, selfish, isolationist, and short-sighted cynicism is a new paradoxical form of self-destruction, of premeditated divorce between the rational and the real”.

If it is, as Christopher Hitchens euphemistically wrote, a sign of cognitive dissonance to argue that the West's flawed reaction against terrorism place it on a level of moral equivalency to the nihilistic fundamentalists who attempt to destroy it, it is also, on the other hand, undeniable that the illegal disregard of the UN system in the beginning of the Iraq war was one of those instances of catastrophic rupture between the real and the rational that Vieira de Mello feared so much. One may arguably claim that when his advice fell on deaf ears in 2000, the seeds were planted for the infamy of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo to blossom a few years later.

It is difficult to even contemplate, therefore, the immensity of the dilemma faced by Vieira de Mello when he was offered the post of Secretary-General's Special Representative in Iraq. His opposition to the war was coupled with serious doubts about the appropriateness of the role the Coalition had allowed the UN to have in what was expected to be the “post-war” reconstruction efforts. One may argue that his acceptance of the appointment was a demonstration of unconditional respect for UN hierarchy, particularly for its Secretariat. Nevertheless, given his words in 2000, a higher philosophical stance may also be deduced from Vieira de Mello's posterior decision: if the UN was to be, after all, the “World's Conscience”, it could only follow that its presence would be even more crucial in the moments when irrationality seriously threatened to tear the fabric of reality. In Vieira de Mello's own words, “the UN is the only instrument which allows for the reintroduction of norms of morality in the course of history and for its humanization”. By consciously employing the word “reintroduction”, he made clear that even when wickedness had once more been allowed to descend upon the march of history, it was still the UN – its many faults and limitations notwithstanding – that possessed the legitimacy to serve as the international community's “acting reason, voluntaristic, persuasive”. He argued that “on the occasions which may affront the principles of humanity and the public conscience, it is necessary for the UN to employ force to prevent evil, or, when it is already too late, to stop it from degenerating into its extreme form”. These last words strongly indicate what may have become the rationale for Vieira de Mello's later acceptance of his Iraq mission: abbreviating the invasion, mitigating its most dire effects, and attempting to guarantee compliance to international humanitarian law and to the principles of human dignity were all goals that only the UN had a chance, however small, of accomplishing.

When the UN itself was eventually attacked and Vieira de Mello's life sacrificed, bewildering doubts arose about the organization's very raison d'etre henceforth. Were the perpetrators of the attack indeed just another representation of the same type of irrational and nihilistic fundamentalism which had shook the foundations of reality in 9/11, or was there a different, terrifying implication in the fact that this time the target of the attack was an international organization whose most prized asset had always been the recognition of its neutrality? Had the UN lost its legitimacy as the World's Conscience at the moment it was perceived by a belligerent party as being so partial that it deserved not merely to be criticized – as it had already been throughout its entire existence – but rather to be targeted in a fierce armed attack? Sadly, the UN could no longer count on its philosopher to answer these vexing questions, nor on its most skilled diplomat to implement his humanistic responses on the field.


Many saw Samantha Power's rise through the ranks of the Obama administration as an indication that the type of moral idealism associated with Vieira de Mello would finally hold a prominent place in US foreign policy. Liberal interventionists, for one, looked forward to the chance of seeing the responsibility to protect doctrine put into practice by the world's mightiest military power.

The progress made in 2013 in coaxing the Syrian regime to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal may appear to have a place in that optimistic trend. It is noteworthy, however, that during the build-up to the American ultimately aborted intervention, Power employed the same sort of UN-bashing rhetoric that was so common before the Iraq war. While Obama asked Congress to authorize attacks on Syria, Power argued that “the Security Council the world needs to deal with in this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have”, and that “the system devised in 1945 did not work”. Far from pointing towards a future reform that might rid the Security Council of its fatal paralysis, Power was in fact indicating, with those harsh statements, the Obama administration's hawkish resolve to overrule the UN if it did not approve the intervention. She argued that to stand back on the issue would harm not only international security, but also the UN system itself. One was left wondering how exactly would the overt disregard of the UN Charter be the policy required to prevent the very UN system from being damaged.

The fact that Power's forceful language was the only reason why Russia was convinced to yield its clout to curb Syria's war crimes should prevent anyone from celebrating this development as a victory, except in the very specific sense that it might have temporarily alleviated the suffering of those victimized by the civil war. It was, indeed, one more instance in which the Security Council, with its frozen decision-making process, proved to be a dysfunctional institution, utterly incapable of effectively dealing with grave conflicts in a multilateral manner. But it wasn't just this: the threat of yet another violation of the UN system by the US was this time made even sadder by the prominent presence of Samantha Power at the pulpit. Sergio Vieira de Mello she is surely not.


In 2000, Vieira de Mello taught us that the UN was a contemporary manifestation of what the Pre-Socratics considered to be the very purpose of philosophy, i.e., to grant order to chaos. The UN's order, said the diplomat, may be turbulent, filled with sudden, unforeseen, brutal, and traumatic disturbances, marred with sicknesses that are difficult to extirpate, replete with materializations of pure evil in all its forms: it is, nevertheless, order. Although its ultimate capacity to expel the irrational from history is uncertain, Vieira de Mello believed the UN was already in the process of humanizing history. With humility, he said, “we may reach such rebirth, which shall place us, reconciled, in the beginning of a new, post-Hegelian stage of our history, when the equation between the rational and the real will assume a new dimension, less egotistically terrestrial and more cosmic”. Ominously, however, he asserted that “we are in danger of disappearing before such challenge is presented to us”. Let us not fail to perceive the demise of a philosopher of such lucidity as a prenunciation of the destructive power of an unopposed irrational; let us allow the UN to serve its role as the only viable spokesperson and standard-bearer for rationality, so that the international civil society and the individuals who compose it, be them in Kigali, New York, Baghdad, Damascus, or elsewhere, can live in the certainty that the World's Conscience is working to ensure that such rationality is, indeed, real.