Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

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1990 - 1991

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Director of External Affairs, UNHCR, Geneva 1990-1991

• Changing nature of displacement.
• Concerted efforts to revamp and improve UNHCR’s public relations and image.
• Stronger relationship with UNHCR Executive Committee.
• UNHCR's Budget and Staff more than double.
• Start of large-scale Emergency Operations.

UNHCR in early Nineties

1. Sadako Ogata, then Dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, was appointed High Commissioner and replaced Thorvald Stoltenberg in December 1990. While in academia, Ogata also held positions in the UN, chairing the UNICEF Executive Board in 1978-79, serving on the UN Commission on Human Rights and as the Commission's Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Burma (Myanmar). As High Commissioner, she oversaw large scale emergency operations in Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Great Lakes Region. UNHCR's budget and staff more than doubled during her time in office, and the organization became increasingly involved in assisting internally displaced people and other vulnerable civilians in conflict situations, emphasizing the link between refugees and international security, Ogata strengthened UNHCR's relations with the UN Security Council.

2. What distinguished the 1990s from earlier decades was the weakening of central governments shored up by super power support and the proliferation of identity-based conflicts, many of which plunged whole societies into violence. The easy availability and growing power of sophisticated light weaponry had increased the destructiveness of even relatively low-intensity conflict. The profits to be derived from war economies often became the main force perpetuating conflict - and an extremely difficult one to reverse. In the post-Cold War period, civil wars and communal conflicts have involved wide-scale, deliberate targeting of civilian populations. That was the stage upon which UNHCR made its entry into the Nineties. The large scale operations that the organization launched to respond to the major humanitarian crises in Northern Iraq, the Balkans, the Great lakes Region and Afghanistan, represented a major shift in the organization's capacity to engage in several major operation simultaneously. This resulted in a rapid expansion of UNHCR's functions and operations as the international community looked to it to address some of its most acute dilemmas. The organization became involved in situations of armed conflict and started to work side by side with UN Peacekeepers and other multinational military forces to a greater extent than before.


3. Sergio Vieira de Mello was appointed by High Commissioner Thorvald Stoltenberg as Director of External affairs in April 1990. On taking office, Sadako Ogata drew Sergio into her top management team. His first task was to take the lead in rebuilding UNHCR's public image and restoring trust in the organization. The new High Commissioner relied heavily on Sergio to win this battle. Sergio's charisma and adept diplomacy were instrumental in enabling the organization to regain the confidence and trust of its hitherto disillusioned supporters, especially the donors. The response in funding was dramatic and soon UNHCR's budget headed towards a major increase. As then Director of Europe Bureau, John Horekens recalls how Sergio was always a step ahead of the Bureau in the contacts with donors and would then turn to them to follow up these contacts. UNHCR enjoyed an excellent relationship with the donors and the Executive Committee gave the organization its unflinching support.

4. The delicate civil-military relationship that had become the main feature of operations in the major humanitarian crisis countries, especially Northern Iraq and the Balkans, required the High Commissioner and UNHCR to tread carefully. The organization turned to Sergio to craft the right strategies and shape the appropriate diplomatic finesse to steer clear of troubled waters while effectively carrying out its mandate to refugees. He was always in the midst of some of the most challenging dialogues that the organization conducted on behalf of refugees with both State and Non-State Actors as well as the military.

Sergio's tenure as Director of External Affairs witnessed the start of UNHCR's era of major operations starting with northern Iraq and the Balkans Sergio played a major role in successfully organizing the High Commissioner's equally successful high profile visits and missions to the field. His refined diplomacy, power of persuasion and wide network of friends and allies were a real asset for the organization.




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