15 March 1948 – 19 August 2003
Sergio Vieira de Mello was born on March 15th 1948 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He lived abroad from a young age having had a father who was a diplomat and a historian. Once back in Brazil, Sergio finished his secondary school education in the Lycée Franco-Brésilien in Rio, graduating with a baccalaureate in Classical Literature. In 1966, in an effort to be close to his father, then Consul General in Stuttgart, Germany, Sergio moved to Switzerland to study philosophy at the University of Fribourg. He subsequently moved to Paris to pursue his education, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1969 and a Master’s degree in 1970, both in Philosophy from the Sorbonne University.
Sergio joined the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a French Editor when Sadruddin Aga Khan was High Commissioner. While holding this position, he finished his third cycle Ph.D in 1974 (with honours) at the Sorbonne. He later obtained his “State Doctorate” in 1985.
Following the proclamation of independence of “East Pakistan” in December 1971, UNHCR undertook an unprecedented repatriation operation. In the context of this gigantic undertaking, Sergio Vieira de Mello then aged 23, was sent to Dhaka to work on ensuring the successful repatriation and reintegration of the Bengali refugees who fled to India to escape the civil war. In the five months of that assignment, Sergio was a witness to the birth of a new state—Bangladesh.
In the summer of 1972, Sergio was again assigned to the field to help in another UNHCR operation in South Sudan. Again at the young age of 24, he actively participated in the repatriation and reintegration of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who had fled the country during the civil war. Upon returning to Europe, he got married in France in the summer of 1973 to Annie.
In the following year, Sergio was assigned to Cyprus, first to South Nicosia, then to North Nicosia as the Head of the UNHCR programme for the island.
On June 25th 1975, Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, became independent, Sergio, accompanied by his wife Annie, left for Mozambique to take charge once again of the repatriation operation and the reintegration of Mozambicans who had fled the country during the war. When the UNHCR Representative in Maputo completed his assignment, Sergio, at age 28, took command of the UNHCR office in the country becoming one of the youngest UNHCR Representatives in the field.
In the beginning of 1978, Sergio was named Regional Representative for UNHCR to Peru. Sergio was just turning 30. He left with his family for Lima where their first son, Laurent was born in mid-1978. Sergio and his family stayed in Peru for two years while essentially negotiating the repatriation, particularly to Europe, of thousands of Latin American refugees who had initially gone to Chile under the Allende regime, and later fled to Peru following the coup d’Etat of Augusto Pinochet.
In January 1980, Sergio returned to Geneva to take up a post in the Personnel Division of UNHCR where he was responsible for shaping the careers of many international civil servants. His second son Adrien was born in the same year.
In November 1981, after having spent 20 months in Geneva, Sergio was seconded by UNHCR as Political Affairs Advisor to the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL). This first experience, as part of a peace-keeping operation, led him to appreciate the complexities of such operations and drew him close to the military. In July 1983, Sergio Vieira de Mello returned to Geneva to resume his functions in the Personnel Division at UNHCR Headquarters.
He spent the next ten years at the Headquarters occupying different positions within the organization. During that decade, he would be named to serve in Buenos Aires, only to be quickly recalled when the new High Commissioner Jean-Pierre Hocké took office in 1986, to serve as his Chef de Cabinet. Sergio benefited from the period of stability in Geneva to finish his doctorate thesis “Civitas Maxima” for which he received a “very honourable “mention from The Sorbonne in Paris in December 1985.
During the years spent at UNHCR Headquarters, Sergio occupied the position of Chef de Cabinet to the High Commissioner, Secretary of the Executive Committee and in May 1988 he became Director of the Asia Bureau and subsequently occupied the post of Director for External Affairs. In the context of his work in the Asia Bureau, he was the main initiator of the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which put an end to the exodus of the Vietnamese “boat people”, who were still leaving Vietnam ten years after the end of hostilities. For that purpose, Sergio managed to bring all stakeholders to the negotiating table, notably the administrations in Washington and Hanoi, which in 1980 was an accomplishment, as the scars of the Vietnamese war were far from healed in both countries.
At the end of 1991, the new High Commissioner for Refugees, Mrs Sadako Ogata, named Sergio as her Special Envoy in Cambodia. He simultaneously assumed the responsibility of the Head of the Division of Repatriation of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC). This operation was considered a successful one for the United Nations. In June 1993, around 370,000 Cambodians returned home to their villages.
On returning to Geneva in the summer of 1993, Sergio had to leave again in the autumn of the same year to Bosnia to take part in a peace-keeping operation. In October 1993, he became the Political Director for UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, then in April 1994, he was stationed in Zagreb as Head of Civil Affairs.
Sergio returned to UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva in October and became Director of Planning and Operations. One of the main accomplishments in this post was the organization of the Conference on Refugees and Population Movements in the Community of Independent States (CIS). The Conference took place in Geneva in May 1996 and adopted a Plan of Action, the goal of which was to control and channel the influx of migration as a result of the break up of the ex-Soviet Republics. In January 1996, Sergio was promoted to the position of Assistant Secretary-General and became the first Assistant-High Commissioner for Refugees.
In October 1996 Sergio Vieira de Mello was again detached from UNHCR and named as Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region. He performed the functions of Humanitarian Coordinator for the three months of his assignment (October-December 1996). He returned to Geneva at the beginning of 1997 to resume his functions as Assistant High Commissioner in UNHCR.
In January 1998, Mr. Kofi Annan, who took office as Secretary-General of the United Nations a year earlier, appointed Sergio Vieira de Mello as Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Head of of the Office of Coordination of Humanirarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York. Sergio undertook, at the request of the Secretary-General, an evaluation mission to Kosovo (UNMIK). Upon his return to New York, he delivered his report to the Security Council and was shortly afterwards named by the Secretary-General as his Special Representative in charge of the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Upon his return to New York in July 1999, he resumed his function as Head of OCHA.
In November 1999, after the Security Council adopted a resolution on September 15th creating the International Forces of Intervention (INTERFRET) and a subsequent resolution on 25th October creating the United Nations transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET), Sergio Vieira de Mello took over as Administrator of UNTAET in Dili. From November 1999 until April 2002, Sergio was the de-facto Governor of East Timor. Timor Leste was later created on May 20th 2002 with Xanana Gusmao becoming its first President.
In September 2002, Sergio was named by the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, as High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva. He remained in his new post until the end of May 2003, when the Secretary-General, asked him to serve as his Special Representative in Baghdad for four months. Sergio arrived in Iraq on June 2nd 2003. On July 22nd , he delivered his report on the situation in Iraq to the Security Council, noting the particularly difficult conditions under which the United Nations had to work in the country.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in Baghdad, with 21 of his colleagues, in the bloodiest attack that ever targeted the United Nations in its long history, on the afternoon of August 19th.
The world was stunned. The deep sense of loss that accompanied Sergio’s tragic abrupt departure grew into a swell of unprecedented grief and despair. It is difficult to select what sentiment best represented the mood of gloom and emptiness worldwide that followed Sergio’s untimely departure but one obituary stand out because of its sheer simplicity... it came from the heart.
Former UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner and close friend Kamel Morjane (presently Tunisia's Defense Minister): "At the UNHCR, where he spent 25 years of his life, he was the brilliant son that his elders would have wished to have. For his peers, like me, he was the colleague or the friend, often both, that one tried to emulate and hold up as an example, but one was never able to equal".
Throughout his long illustrious career, Sergio was supported, encouraged and protected quietly from behind the scene by his wife Annie as both watched with pride their sons Laurent and Adrien grow and bloom into successful young men. As a family, they will continue to miss their beloved Sergio very dearly.
After lying in state in his native Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Geneva, a city that had become a second home to him and whose citizens lined the streets to pay him their last respects, Sergio Vieira de Mello was laid to rest in the Cimetière des Rois (the Cemetery of Kings) in Geneva on 28th August 2003.
May his soul rest in eternal peace