Talking to the Devil: A New Perspective on Diplomacy

BOOK: CHASING THE FLAME; Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power


 Sergio Vieira de Mello was a passionate and handsome man, devoted to his job and in love with diplomacy. He used to considered the United Nations as his family, whereas his job was his mission and not just a way of earning money to survive. “He carried the UN passport proudly” (Power, 2008, p.56). In the field, he felt at home.

He travelled all his life across the world, he faced the most difficult conflict situations and he had to deal with criminals and terrorists in order to fight for his cause. In order to do that, he decided to “talk to the devil” and find solutions, instead of doing nothing and just sit behind a desk in an office. He always defended the UN for being a neutral organization. He died loyal to his family, even though he was not convinced to go to Iraq, he could not deny his help when he was asked by the Director General.

Nowadays, it is important to learn from his determination and from his spirit. In times of confusion, we should take people like Sergio as examples. Therefore, I believe everyone should read this book and get in touch with his intense experiences.


 Sergio Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro as the son of the diplomat Arnaldo Vieira de Mello and of his wife Gilda, on 15 March 1948. The family had to follow Arnaldo’s movements around the world. Thus, Sergio spent his early years in Buenos Aires, then in Italy (Genoa and Milan), then in Beirut and back to Rome. He started his studies in philosophy in Rio de Janeiro, but he soon decided to transfer to Europe, studying in Switzerland for a year and then enrolling at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

As a student, he participated in the 1968 riots in Paris against Charles de Gaulle government. He was also beaten by a policeman and got a scarf above his right eye. He was an idealist, deeply against imperialism and its consequences. After graduating from the Sorbonne, he found his first job as an editor in Geneva at the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition to Portuguese, De Mello was fluent in English, Spanish, Italian and French, with some conversational Arabic and Tetum.

He suddenly participated in field work assignments in Bangladesh during its war of independence in 1971, in Sudan in 1972 for the Addis Ababa agreement which ended the First Sudanese Civil War, allowing the return of some 650’000 Sudanese refugees and displaced persons. Moving then to Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974.

He continued field assignments in Mozambique, where he was actually running the mission.

In 1973, he married Annie Personnaz, a French assistant at UNHCR, and they had two sons, Laurent and Adrien. During his work, he continued his studies doing a Master in moral philosophy and a PhD by correspondence from the Sorbonne. His doctorate thesis was entitled “The role of Philosophy in Contemporary Society”. In 1985, he also submitted a second state doctorate entitled “Civitas Maxima: origins, foundations and philosophical and political significance of supranationality concept”.

He spent three years in charge of UN operations in Mozambique during the civil war after the obtained independence from Portugal in 1975, and three more years in Peru. He served as Special Envoy for the UNHCR in Cambodia, being the first and only UN Representative to hold talks with Khmer Rouge. Between 1981 and 1983, he became senior political advisor to the UN interim Force in Lebanon.

In the 90s he was involved in the clearing of land mines in Cambodia and then in Yugoslavia. He was made Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees in 1996 and became UN undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator two years later. After the end of Serbian control in 1999, he was a special UN envoy in Kosovo.

He was dealing with the issue of boat people in Hong Kong and in 2000 he visited Fiji in an attempt to assist a negotiation for settlement to the hostage situation (kidnapping of Fiji’s Prime Minister and other members of Parliament).

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. Here, he met Carolina Larriera, an Argentine economist in the UN peacekeeping department. They had a civil union that lasted until his death. In 2002, he became the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In May 2003 Vieira de Mello was enrolled as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, at first he didn’t want to take the assignment but then he decided to apply.

He was killed in Baghdad, in the Canal Hotel bombing by Al Qaeda.

BOOK: CHASING THE FLAME; Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power
BOOK: CHASING THE FLAME; Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power


 When Sergio arrived at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations were in time of trouble. On one hand, the organization was seen as the unique possible solution to find peaceful cooperation among states. “In a world of conflict, repression, and extreme poverty, he [Sergio] had come to see the UN as the only body that could serve both as humanitarian actor in its own right and as a platform for governments to identify common interests and pool their resources to meet global challenges” (Power, 2008, p. 65). However, up to 2003, he arrived to see the world in a very different way than when he joined the organization. He was a young brave man, full of dreams of a new world to be built. On the other hand, he understood the difficulties and the problems of a broken world, dangerous and contradictory. A place where super powers were playing, and still are today, just for pursuing their interests and defend their integrity. “By 2003 he had begun to worry that powerful countries were pursuing their own security in ways that aggravated their peril” (Power, 2008, p. 11).

The following extract is directly taken from the book and shows in the best possible way Sergio’s vision of the UN. A vision that he had the opportunity to develop, during his long career in the Organization.

“Vieira de Mello carried a leather-bound copy of the UN Charter with him when he travelled, and he suffered when the UN suffered. In his long career he saw religious extremists and militants take shelter in UN refugee camps, where they sold UN food for money to buy arms. He saw warlords transform themselves into used-car salesman by selling stolen UN Land Cruisers (repainted but still bearing UN license plates). He saw proud French and British peacekeepers stripped of their weapons, handcuffed to lampposts, and turned into human shields. But he was more stung by the UN’s self-inflicted wounds. While the bad guys in war zones were predictably bad, he was sometimes more frustrated by the sins of the nominal “good guys” who carried UN passports or wore UN berets. Senior officials, including himself, were often so eager to tell the major powers what they wanted to hear that they had covered up deadly facts or exaggerated their own successes. In Rwanda and Srebrenica, another UN “safe area” in Bosnia, UN peacekeepers had turned their backs on civilians who had sought the protection of the UN flag, paving the way for some of the largest massacres since the Second World War. And yet. For all the indignities, he didn’t believe countries acting outside the UN would fare much better. He knew that there was no other forum where all countries gathered to try to stop the planet’s bleeding” (Power, 2008, p.8-9).

I believe that this extract contains all his thoughts about the UN. It has been really interesting for me to discover the organization in its good and bad features, through the experience of a very intelligent and sensitive man.

He really did believe in the fundamental principles of the UN, in its Charter and in its purposes. He was in love with the intention of international cooperation, but he was able also to see the problems and the weaknesses of the system. He was especially worried by the internal problems of the organization he was working in.

In particular, during the hard crisis the UN had to suffer after Rwanda and Bosnia tragic events. He was pride of his successes working for the UN for 34 years: “in spurring decolonization, helping refugees return to their homes, persuading militants to engage in political processes, sponsoring elections and ushering independence” (Power, 2008, p. 518).

However, he also passed throughout times of frustrations, such as in Lebanon where he described the mission as “awful”, a “black chapter” in his life, he saw the UN as “powerless” (Power, 2008, p.56).

Even considering all the problems, he was still confident about the fundamental role of the UN in the international sphere. Indeed, he thought that “the only way to bring about lasting global stability was to press countries to play by international rules – by UN rules” (Power, 2008, p. 9).

He was a man of action, made for the field. He did not want to sit behind a desk in an office, when there was so much work to be done in the world. He was a diplomat, but he also was a philosopher. Quoting Kant, Vieira De Mello during his last dissertation said: “we must act as if in perpetual peace is something real, though perhaps it is not. The future is to be invented”. His aim was to bring the ideas to life in practice. “I studied philosophy a long time, but I need to look for confirmation of philosophy and of values in the real world. I’m restless. I like challenges, changes. I look for trouble, it’s true. Because in trouble I find truth and reality.” Indeed, he began each mission by trying to get real and see the world as it really was rather than as he might like it to be.

He was not only a diplomat: he had a real political role. He was a man of politics influencing international relations. He was not only dealing with states’ decisions but deciding and acting for the organization, recognizing it and himself as deeply impartial. He believed in the necessity of neutrality for doing his job. Many times, the UN had been considered as governed by the USA, and he strongly defended his “family” declaring that impartiality had always been the basis for UN action. However, he knew that the organization had much to change and to reform. He thought that the UN system had to be rebuilt in order to challenge global threats of the twenty-first-century. He believed that corruption and mediocrity among the UN personnel were due to the lack of self-responsibility. UN staff thought itself as just “servants of powerful governments” not as “agent of change themselves”. (Power, p.519) The fundamental issue of the UN missions was that they had to finish fastly, in order to gain people’s trust and not being seen as new invaders.

According to Jamieson, his mentor in Geneva, “UNHCR ought to endeavour to eliminate itself.” “Jamieson urged him to be sure to distinguish the interests of the UN, his place of employment, from the interests of refugees, his reason of working” (Power, p. 23).

Moreover, he believed that member states should improve their support to the organization, not hiding behind the UN flag for doing their private interests, but deepening their commitments to governing internationally, beyond the logic of realism. Also, he thought that it was necessary to be selective, as the UN could not deal with too many tasks: regional organizations had to be more involved in the process of governance.

In order to improve the UN system, the future had to be based on legitimacy, achieved through real competence, law and security, but most importantly through dignity. “He thought that the international system would be far more effective and humane if it too focused on dignity – the dignity of individuals, of communities and of whole nations. But to enhance dignity, he knew, outside actors had to do something they did not do naturally: probe deeply into the societies they were working in. He was acutely conscious that the future of the places he worked belonged to the individuals who lived there” (Power, p.531). He saw respect as the key to success: “be humble, admit your mistakes and your failures, as soon as you identify them, and try and learn from them obviously. Be frank and honest with the people you are there to help because only then will you stand a true chance of succeeding, and of your achievements being acknowledged by them, which is more important than the international community” (Power, p. 532).

The UN had to rebuild itself and its system, starting from the basis.


I believe it is important to talk about his experience from this point of view. To me, this part has been the most interesting one. Indeed, Sergio introduced a new way of doing diplomacy, a new method for finding solutions.

The first example of his new approach was in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge during the UNTAC mission in 1991-1993, where Vieira De Mello served as UNHCR special envoy for Cambodia and UNTAC Director of Repatriation.

He believed in what he called “black boxing”: “sometimes you have to black box past behaviour and black box future intentions. You just have to take people at their word in the present” (Power, p. 98). “In his early months in Cambodia, Vieira de Mello did three things that would become hallmarks of his subsequent missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Iraq: he assembled a trustworthy “no bullshit” UN team around him; he cultivated ties with the country’s most influential players; and he contrasted the plans and resources he had been handed by UN Headquarters with the ground reality, attempting to adapt the plans to fit what he called the real world” (Power, p.78).

He decided to get to know about Khmer Rouge leadership. He was particularly interested by the fact that revolutionaries like Ieng Sary, Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan studied in Paris, probably reading his same philosophy tracts he used to read at university. “At this stage of his career, mulling the roots of evil was more stimulating than managing the logistics of easing the suffering that resulted from the evil” (Power, p. 99).

He had been very hardly criticised for his interest in charming the devil: he was accused of being friend with war criminals. The purpose of his action was to keep everyone on his side. Also, he believed that stopping cooperation with the Khmer Rouge would have restart another war. A constructive engagement was necessary to save the Cambodian peace process.

“In Cambodia Vieira de Mello saw that the twin UN values of peace and human rights clashed. Froma human rights perspective, the Khmer Rouge deserved to be punished or, at the very least, shunned. Yet, the letter of the Paris agreement required UN officials – and Cambodians – to treat the Khmer Rouge as one faction among many” (Power, p. 84). “Sergio’s focus was always on the future. He was not confrontational and didn’t see the point of asking, how much blood do you have on your hands?” (Power, p.107). He obtained their respect and ensured security for refugees returning to areas under their control. Negotiations led to the successful repatriation and resettlement of 370,000 Cambodian refugees. Then, the UNTAC held peaceful elections.

Moreover, in the case of UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia (1993-94), he decided not to take a side of the conflict: “impartiality was so central to his understanding of the essence of UN peacekeeping that he refused journalists’ requests to state which party bore the greatest responsibility for the carnage. ‘We must not be partial’, he explained, ‘I understand it is hard for you to understand, but it is the only way for us to help stop the war in Bosnia.’ He hailed the virtues of what he called affirmative action: humanitarian work made life a little more bearable for civilians in war. ‘We may not be able to change the world here’, he told his demoralized staff, ‘but we can change individual worlds, one at a time” (Power, p.146). “A wounded soul may hurt as much as a wounded body” (Power, p.184).

In order to guarantee a safe reparation, he wanted to negotiate with Serbians, with so much intensity that he acquired the nickname “Serbio”. He was accused of not taking sides and to being friend with the enemy.

During his brief period in Tanzania, he had to take a urgent decision. As he did not have the funds and the possibility to divide killers and civilians, he decided to build camps no matter what, in order to help all the people who were suffering. In this situation, he was accused of “feeding the enemy”.

In East Timor, he decided not to prosecute immediately the war criminals, militia Indonesian leaders. He wanted to stabilize the situation with Indonesia and he thought that normalizing relations was more important than immediate justice. McNamara (UN official responsible for cleaning up the UN Serious Crimes Unit, responsible for crimes against the humanity), said to him “Sergio, you’ve become a bloody politician. How can you just let the killers go free?” (Power, p.327). Even though he supported war crimes tribunals, he was more eager to stabilize East Timor international situation with Indonesia, even if that required pardoning those with blood on their hands.

During all his life he had been deeply against American capitalism, against the USA and their international approach. In the end, he had to rethink himself as he had to deal with this country, in particular with George W. Bush, who was hardly sceptic of the UN. He thought that the Organization was useless, too weak to effectively solve international conflicts. Bush changed his idea when meeting Vieira de Mello, who showed him another face of the UN. A realist and smart face, which he liked and much appreciated. His relationship with Bush changed his life, as he was then assigned to the UN mission in Iraq and was killed in the first terrorist attack against the Organization.

These are just few cases in which Vieira de Mello showed his approach with diplomacy: finding solutions even though that would have required “shaking hands with the devil”, talking to the enemy and negotiate with the devil.


After being the UN administrator in Kosovo, he was soon hired for stabilizing another broken country: East Timor. There, the United Nations had decided to establish a peacekeeping mission in 1999 to help the referendum that was ending the Indonesian occupation of this “half-island” in the Pacific. The occupation lasted for 22 years, during which Indonesian forces killed some 200,000 Timorese. The UN negotiated a deal and the Indonesian agreed to give East Timor the chance to vote for independence. Also, Indonesians assured they would have secured East Timor after the referendum. The 78.5% of Timorese voted for independence. Right after the declaration of the votes, Indonesian militia started to fight and kill almost a thousand people. The UN had been accused of incapability to protect the people and to keep the situation under control.

“Although his responsibilities toward East Timor were technically only humanitarian, he took a strong political stand. Just as the UN should not have trusted the Serbs to guarantee the Bosnian’s safety in Srebrenica, he argued, the UN could not now trust the Indonesians. Since the UN had already rightly decided to evacuate Timorese UN staff, he endorsed a proposal that was gathering momentum at Headquarters: to send a small Australian contingent to the UN compound to protect the non-UN Timorese who had sought shelter there” (Power, p.295). The Security Council agreed at sending an international force.

One of the drastic changes in Vieira De Mello’s thoughts can be seen in his interpretation of this UN international force, which was composed by rescuers that were war fighters, not peacekeepers. Indeed, he said: “whenever lives of civilians are at risk and a rapid international intervention is necessary, the only effective solution is the establishment of a multinational force.” “Peacemaking was not a job for lightly armed blue helmets. But it was a job that had to be done, and one that UN officials could use their pulpits to urge be done” (Power, p.298).

With the Resolution 1272, the Security Council decided to create the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The aim was giving all legislative and executive authority to a foreign UN administrator, who had to govern East Timor for at least fifteen months. Vieira De Mello stayed in the island for two and a half years.

His first priority was building governing structures, also establishing a good relation with the leader of the Timorese independence, Xanana Gusmao. “As administrator, he had to find a way simultaneously to offer short-term solutions and to nurture the Timorese capacity to govern themselves in the long term. He repeatedly stressed that the UN was there not to rule, but to ensure that tax revenue was collected, the garbage was picked up, and schools were refurbished and run. The UN mission would recruit and train a Timorese civil service, but in the meantime the UN itself would supply basic services” (Power, p. 307-308).

Sergio knew that the Timorese people wanted to live in their independence. The independence they had voted for, so “they would not suffer UN rule for long” (Power, p.308).

As the last referendum didn’t went out well, he decided to postpone the elections. He thought that the Timorese people was not powerful enough to govern itself autonomously.

“He tried not to act like a governor – Just call me Sergio”, he used to say in order to gain people trust and proximity.

However “the Timorese were jobless, homeless, and hungry. They saw few signs that their country was being rebuilt. They did not control their own destinies. And they grew angry” (Power, p. 313). The so called confrontation phase had initiated: the Timorese people began to see the UN presence as a second occupation and started to protest.

He decided to take a different approach from before, he understood that the UN had to be felt like a strong and valuable organization, who was in charge and able to protect the Timorese people. He wanted to gain respect back and so: “we chose not to opt for the usual and classical peacekeeping approach: taking abuse, taking bullets, taking casualties and not responding with enough force, not shooting to kill. The UN had done that before and we weren’t going to repeat it here”, he decided to “present a bellicose face of the UN” (Power, p.324).

He just wanted to normalize the situation with Indonesia up to the long term. Stability was his purpose and he did everything to achieve his goal.

After this first period of government, he arrived to the idea of creating a co-government in order to share the power with the Timorese people: this process has been called Timorization. So, he created a cabinet, divided between four Timorese and four Internationals. Doing so, he started to gain approval and respect from the Timorese people and its officials.

“But he was never able to redress the greatest source of frustration in East Timor: the UN rules that forbade him from spending money directly on the country. Rebuilding the country and revitalizing the economy were tasks left to the UN Development Program, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Since these agencies and funds worked slowly, the UN mission took the blame for leaving little tangible behind” (Power, p.331). He had many clashes with the Headquarters because he wanted concrete results, he wanted to show the people that the UN action was beneficial on the ground and quickly. In 2002, he thought Timorese people and leaders were finally ready to achieve their independence and he gave a symbolic key to Gusmao. The UN flag had come down and the red, yellow, black and white Timorese flag was raised.


Sergio Vieira de Mello has been one of the most interesting and fascinating UN officials. A controversial man, hardly criticised but admired for his courage and for his determination in achieving results, always in the name of the Organization he worked for.

For me, as an International Relations scholar, discovering his life and his experience has signified improving my knowledge of dealing with diplomacy and international cooperation. Through the difficulties he had to face, I had the chance to really understand the obstacles in doing this kind of job. My personal opinion is that he had to develop a new way of negotiating, in order to improve international tragic situations. He had to forget, “black-box” his principles, the past and the crimes, in order to find effective and immediate solutions. His aim was to help the people directly in the field, protect them and gain their respect.

His life is a fundamental example that we should keep in consideration for our future.

BOOK: CHASING THE FLAME; Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World by Samantha Power


Samantha Jane Power is known as one of the most influential women in the scene of International Relations. She is an Irish native, then American journalist, war reporter, human rights scholar and Government official. She served in the National Security Council from 2008 to 2013 and as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, during the administration of President Barack Obama. She says that “being at the UN is like trying to get heard at an Irish dinner table” (The Guardian, 2018). Before becoming Ambassador she was the special adviser to the President on foreign affairs and human rights.

Other than politics, she has been a professor of “Global leadership and foreign policy” at Harvard.

Her previous book “A problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” published in 2003, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best book on U.S. foreign policy.




 The aim of this paper is to analyse the controversial figure of the UN-diplomat Sergio Vieira De Mello, going deeply through the work by Samantha Power. Indeed, the analysis will focus on his idea of “doing diplomacy”, not behind a desk in an office but in the field.

In order to better understand his contribution to the UN’s activity, it is important to go through his life and his ideas. The first part will be centred on his life in general, while the second part will analyse more in detail some particular events that best show his way of dealing with the issues from the sphere of the International Relations.

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