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Human Rights Leader Samantha Power on the Life of a U.N. Icon

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Human Rights Leader Samantha Power on the Life of a U.N. Icon

Posted by Laura Heaton on May 14, 2010

Human Rights Leader Samantha Power on the Life of a U.N. Icon

This post originally appeared on’s Human Rights blog.

If Samantha Power — who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, acclaimed journalist, and popular Harvard lecturer on human rights before becoming a close advisor to President Obama — says that she has a story to tell about a “man of action and a man of reflection,“ who had “a thirty-four-year head start in thinking about the plagues that preoccupy us today,” we would all do well to listen.

The story of longtime U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello has become a centerpiece of Power’s public discussions on the importance of the U.S. taking a principled stance on human rights in its foreign policy, the shortcomings of the United Nations, and how to confront, or better yet prevent, mass atrocities and genocide. From her book Chasing the Flame grew the film “Sergio” by director Greg Barker, which after making the rounds at international film festivals, debuted on HBO last week. Following the screening, Power and Barker joined a public conference call moderated by a veteran of African conflict zones, John Prendergast.

Their candid conversation, which lasted well into the night, is a rare gem, and I wanted to draw attention to it today. You can listen to this podcast after the jump, at the bottom of this post.

When Sergio Vieira de Mello died in the rubble of the bombed out U.N. compound in Baghdad, the United Nations lost one of its most experienced and talented diplomats. Power eloquently described how she channeled her grief over his death into an effort to examine and immortalize his legacy. And she found that, beyond simply an intriguing biography, the tragedy of Vieira de Mello’s death was a metaphor for the vexing, even debilitating, challenges the United Nations faces around the world.

Power first met Sergio Vieira de Mello when their paths crossed in eastern Europe in 1994. She was a young journalist covering the war in the former Yugoslavia and Vieira de Mello was a top U.N. diplomat dispatched to work on ending it. Though it would be another 10 years until Power began researching Vieira de Mello’s life for the biography, she recounts their first dinner meeting with a level of detail that conveys the significance of those first impressions. He was “a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy,” she wrote.

Vieira de Mello did indeed travel with the headlines of the day; a timeline of significant dates over the last 30 years of the U.N.’s history mirrors the major promotions and moves of Vieira de Mello’s career since he was 21. As he rose through the U.N. ranks, he continuously reflected on his decisions from both a philosophical and a practical standpoint. As Power wrote in Chasing the Flame:

At the start of his career he advocated strict adherence to a binding set of principles. (…) He was deeply mistrustful of state power and of military force. But as he moved from Sudan to Lebanon to Cambodia to Bosnia to Congo to Kosovo to East Timor to Iraq, he tailored his tactics to the troubles around him and tried to enlist the powerful. He brought a gritty pragmatism to negotiations, yet no amount of exposure to brutality seemed to dislodge his ideals.

At times, Vieira de Mello’s approach flirted with moral lines, such as when he chose to negotiate directly with the Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge while the rest of the world isolated the genocidal regime, and certainly he was responsible for his share of mistakes. But the profile Power paints is of a leader who challenged himself to translate failures into lessons. He understood that his engagement — the U.N.’s engagement — would not always, or perhaps even not often, move mountains. But he understood that even a small improvement made the effort worthwhile. Vieira de Mello personifies Power’s concept of an upstander, someone who doesn’t simply stand by when injustices occur.

It’s remarkable to have the chance to hear Samantha Power, a woman many people regard as a hero in her own right, describe the inspiration she found in one of the fallen heroes of our time. Listen to this podcast; the lessons she draws from Vieira de Mello’s life are central to the work all of us do as human rights advocates.

You can download the entire podcast by right-clicking here and selecting "Save as."

Photo: Sergio Vieira de Mello (Wikimedia Commons/Agência Brasil)