Book Review - Chasing The Flame
Samantha Power's book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, would have received much more, and well-deserved, publicity if she had not made a stupid comment to a journalist regarding Senator Hillary Clinton. As a result, she resigned from Barack Obama's campaign and this has probably affected her promotion of the book. It is a shame because it is indeed a fascinating book regarding the complex and frustrating internal workings of the United Nations through the prism of another fascinating figure: Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was Brazilian, born in 1948 and he died in Baghdad in 2003 after a bombing of the hotel that housed the UN there. The bombing, we now know, was organized by Al Zarkawi. August 19, 2003, the day of the bombing marked the beginning of the collapse of Iraq into chaos and the arrival of Al Qaeda. As many of the actors involved also stated, it was the end of the innocence of the UN, as a multilateral agency independent from the great powers.
Sergio Vieira de Mello's life spanned the Cold War and its proxy wars, the independence struggles of Africa and South East Asia and the conflicts brought about by the end of the Cold War in Yugoslavia. His life ended as warmaking entered a new chapter: the new wars and the massive failure of the doctrine of preemption.
Samantha Power's book follows Sergio Vieira de Mello's life chronologically, weaving together personal and professional life. Vieira de Mello was a UN man. He believed in the mission and the values of the UN. He dedicated his entire life to it, at the expenses of his family life and his relationships with his sons. Just the list of the countries where he served during his 35 year tenure, in various positions with various UN Agencies, is quite amazing: Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Lebanon, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Iraq.
He was an imperfect man, a womanizer, a "charmeur" as we would say in French, a charismatic leader. He was also a man dealing with an imperfect institution, bogged down with bureaucratic red tape, corruption sometimes, the hypocrisy of the Permanent 5 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power). As a result, Vieira de Mello ended up in situations with inadequate mandates and resources to solve enormous problems, whether it is repatriating refugees from Thailand to Cambodia, protecting civilians in Sarajevo, entirely creating a nation in East Timor or simply finding the independent and relevant role for the UN in occupied Iraq.
I have to say that the chapter covering the bombing of the UN Canal hotel, "August 19, 2003" is incredible. I felt like an anvil had dropped in my stomach and kept that feeling even after I was done reading. The chapter describes at length what happened after the bombing by following the people close to Vieira de Mello and a few improvised rescuers. Vieira de Mello was no immediately killed but survived for several hours. He was in bad shape and the Coalition forces had made no plan for major bombing attacks, so, the personnel and equipment to deal with such situations were simply not available. So, Sergio Vieira de Mello died in the rubbles.
As Samantha Power ends her book, she offers the following,
"By the time Sergio Vieira de Mello went to Iraq, he knew too much. He knew that governments were prone to define their national interests in the short term and to neglect the common good. He knew that dangerous armed groups were feeding off of individual and collective humiliation and growing in strength and number. He knew that they were often more nimble and adaptive than the states that opposed them. And he knew that the UN, the multinational organization that he believed had to step up to transnational security, socioeconomic, environmental and health concerns, had a knack for 'killing the flame' - the flame of idealism that motivated some to strive to combat injustice and that inspired the vulnerable to believe that help would come soon.
Vieira de Mello made mistakes and delivered few unvarnished successes that could be guaranteed to last (the world being too complex for guarantees). Nonetheless, as long as he was around - treating the most intractable conflicts as if peace were one phone call away, eschewing diplomatic hierarchy in the frantic pursuit of solutions, and remaining unflappable, impeccable, and seemingly untouchable by while the shells rained down around him - a flame continued to flicker somewhere.
He is now gone. But what are we to take from what he saw, what he learned and what we lost? Where, in other words, do we go from here?" (517)
The five lessons from Sergio Vieira de Mello
"Legitimacy matters, and it comes from both legal authority or consent and from competent performance." (523)
And for Vieira de Mello, only the UN could confer legitimacy to military interventions. Any mission, be it humanitarian or peacekeeping, stands a better chance of succeeding and will be better understood and tolerated by the population if it is perceived as legitimate. In East Timor, Vieira de Mello was given enormous powers. His mandate basically allowed him to run the whole country. At least in the initial stage, this was not seen as a problem because the UN had also organized the referendum that had given the East Timorese the opportunity to voice their longing for independence from Indonesia. UN officers themselves had been heroic in protecting civilians when Indonesians and Timorese militias committed atrocities after the vote.
Legitimacy is also inextricably tied to competent performance. Can the UN get things done? Power's book shows what the UN is actually really go at: organizing elections, taking care of refugees, repatriation, humanitarian work. But Vieira de Mello was frustrated both in Kosovo and East Timor with the fact that the UN had a lot of lawyers and bureaucrats but no standing teams of engineers specialized in infrastructure, agriculture, law enforcement, banking, etc. when these kinds of competence are crucial to rebuild countries. As Power states
"Legitimacy would turn on being seen to play by the rules and by bringing concrete improvements, which would require acute cultural sensitivity and tangible skills." (524)
2. Engage All Kinds
"Spoilers, rogue states, and nonstate militants must be engaged, if only so they be sized up and neutralized." (523)
Conflicts have multiple parties and often involve unsavory characters. These must be engaged. This is a lesson that Vieira de Mello brought to life in his work in Cambodia when he talked to the Khmer Rouge as well as Hun Sen's militias. He did so as well in his work in Bosnia, negotiating with Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic, as well as Slobodan Milosevic, all mass murderers and war criminals. He was of course strongly criticized for this. And sometimes, his eagerness to engage got him too blindingly close to these guys, earning him the nickname "Serbio". At the same time, in these situations, tasked with the duty to protect civilians without military capabilities, what choices were available? His role, in these conflicts, as UNHCR, was to protect civilians until a political solution could be found. Such political solution could only come from the countries on the UN Security Council and we all remember their disastrous performance with Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
It is indeed a recurrent theme of the book: the UNSC drafts impossible mandates and does not provide the means for the field teams to successfully implement the mandate's requirements. The UNSC recommends the deployment of peacekeepers but does not step up to the plate to provide troops and capabilities. What becomes very clear in the book is that most of these missions could have been relative successes if the people on the ground had been given the means to accomplish what they were deployed to do. Moreover, the UNSC has a short attention span: whereas reconstruction of a country can take years, mandates and resources are only awarded for a few months. And of course, there is always the conflict between the instructions coming from the UN Headquarters in New York, and the reality on the ground. Quite often, as Power describes, Vieira de Mello had to break the rules because the rules simply did not work in the situation in which he found himself, like when he devolved UN power to the East Timorese.
But the bottom line is that all actors have to be engaged and talked to. It does not mean an endorsement of what they have done, but it is necessary to understand these characters for the sake of protecting civilians and, may, providing peace. At the same time, Vieira de Mello was a supporter of the International Criminal Court. After all, Milosevic was treated as a head of state for the sake of signing the Dayton Accord, but he still ended up in a jail at the ICC where he died. The same fate probably awaits Joseph Kony. Engaging does not mean lack of accountability. In this respect, Power shows the evolution of Vieira de Mello, from an uncompromising attitude that everyone had to be engaged to a lower willingness to appease mass murderers.
3. Law and Security First
"Fearful people must be made more secure." (523)
For Vieira de Mello, freedom from fear comes first, as an absolute. Security therefore should be the first priority. No mission can succeed if security is not established right away. It has always been a problem for the UN because it does not have a standing police force, soldiers are not police officers and member countries are always reluctant to loan out police officers to the UN. "Security first" is of course a lesson that the Coalition should have heeded in Iraq. As Power puts it,
"He saw elections in the developing world often bring hard-liners to power precisely because fearful citizens voted not for who would govern best but for extremists who stoked fears and then promised to offer safety. And again and again he watched as promising postwar transitions collapsed because of a failure to fill the security void." (526)
It happened in Cambodia where political violence was allowed to resume. It happened in Kosovo where Albanian gangs ethnically cleansed the Kosovar Serbs, and of course, that is exactly what's been happening in Iraq.
In 2000, Vieira de Mello endorsed the new norm of "responsibility to protect", that is, to protect civilians from government violence (as in the case of repressive states) or from government's inability to stop violence against civilians (as in the case of failed states).In such cases, the, civilians should be able to turn to the international community for protection and expect it to be responsive. Of course, this is a controversial doctrine as a lot of states, especially repressive ones like China, hold on to a strong version of sovereignty. But in global times, as Vieira de Mello put it, "there is no longer such a things as a distant crisis."
4. Dignity is the Point
"Dignity is the cornerstone of order" (523)
Vieira de Mello did not start as really big in human rights but his position evolved over time and when he was appointed High Commissioner on Human Rights, he got to know the human rights community better and to see their point of view. Indeed, as part of the UNHCR, humanitarian work sometimes required cutting corners on individual human rights for the collective goods. Human rights and humanitarianism were sometimes in conflict.
But what never varied with Vieira de Mello was his constant concern for dignity at both the individual and collective levels. You cannot humiliate individuals and countries and expect them to welcome you. And his concern for and specific attention to human beings never wavered, from his refusal to wear a flak jacket in Sarajevo because the Bosnians didn't have any to wear, to his running an underground civilian evacuation network there, to specifically helping individuals he had met in war-torn areas, his attention to human dignity was always front and center. As Power puts it,
"He thought 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 of the fact that the future of the places he worked belonged to the individuals who lived there. Well-meaning foreigners could bring money, political leverage, or technical expertise, but they were there to support local leaders and processes and to build local capacity." (531)
And his bending the rule were often in the pursuit of such goals and he did so especially in East Timor where he transferred power from the UN to the Timorese even though, this was not what he was supposed to do, according to the rules. This is also why he was mindful of getting a specific role for the UN in Iraq, clearly separate from the coalition authorities. When it came to state-building, his motto was "be humble."
5. Complexity, Humility and Patience
It is easy to look at all the places where Vieira de Mello worked and declared them all failures. Most of them are still politically unstable and some are economically depressed. But how long is it supposed to take to rebuild a state? Can we seriously expect such a task to be done within weeks, months, or even years? Especially without providing the adequate means for such reconstruction?
Most UN agencies depend on funding and capacity from member states that often talk the talk but do not walk the walk when it comes to stepping up to the place. And when they do, there are often strings attached. For instance, Vieira de Mello had to deal several times with the failed leadership of Yasuki Akashi simply because Japan was a major donor. Moreover, member states do not loan out their best and brightest to the UN. They keep them to themselves, so, the bureaucracies are often staffed with people of limited competence.
So, yes, from the outside, it looks like failure after failure, but compared to what? What other arrangement would have worked better? Can we seriously say that the world would be a better place without the UN? Seriously.
This is truly a great book that seamlessly weaves together the personal and the institutional and offers enormous insights in the workings of the international community. This amorphous designation comes to life through the different actors involved in the various conflict zones Vieira de Mellogot involved in. And let me say that I never had much respect for Kofi Annan and Iqbal Riza because of Rwanda, and whatever I had is now completely gone.
Cross-posted at the Global Sociology Blog