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Envoy Vieira de Mello a Brazilian hero

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Sergio Vieira de Mello, 1948 - 2003

H e was a man accustomed to difficult and dangerous situations, and that is part of why United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan laments his death as a personal loss and one that will be felt deeply throughout the UN system.

Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, 55, died on August 19 in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, where he had served since May 27 as Annan's special representative to aid in the rebuilding of Iraq. He was the victim of a bomb blast at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

Vieira de Mello held the post of UN Under-Secretary-General as well being the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva declared an official three-day mourning period when he received confirmation in Brasilia of Vieira de Mello's death, and decribed it as "the insanity of terrorism".

The president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, who was meeting with Lula at the time, said Vieira de Mello's death was a "tragic sign of our times", as it is increasingly more difficult to achieve peace than it is to win wars.

Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948. He was not a Brazilian diplomat, but rather an employee of the United Nations since 1969, the year he began work with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Geneva.

Since then he served in official missions around the world, often in the middle of conflict. He worked to help refugees-the displaced, victims of ethnic, religious and political conflicts-in Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Pakistan, Peru, Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In Lebanon, for example, he served from 1981 to 1983, when that country was a battleground and site of massacres in the context of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

He served in Cambodia in 1992 and 1993 during the UNTAC era when he was Country Director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. During that time Vieira de Mello oversaw the enormous task of repatriating approximately 370,000 Cambodians from refugee camps along the Thai border, a process that is generally considered one of UNTAC's more important achievements.

"The repatriation effort depended on many people's efforts," said Scott Leiper, who as head of WFP in Cambodia in 92/93 worked closely with Vieira de Mello, "but Sergio was the one who oversaw it all. He had to negotiate with the Thai military, the Khmer Rouge, the opposition, government authorities, all to achieve the mission assigned to him."

Leiper, like others, believed Vieira de Mello might have one day been the UN's Secretary-General. "He had the skills and the respect for the job, but he would have been someone who worked his way up from the bottom," said Leiper. "He would have been [as Secretary-General] a great source of inspiration for the people in the UN. He was a natural leader ... he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way, but if you were on his team he went out of his way to provide support."

In 1999 he accepted a position that marked a major step in his career within the UN system. He became the interim administrator of East Timor during its transition to independence, achieved last year after four centuries as a Portuguese colony and 26 years under iron-fisted Indonesian rule.

Vieira de Mello's 33 years of experience made him an ideal choice to take on the thorny responsibility of representing the United Nations in the reconstruction of Iraq, occupied by a US-led coalition.

On August 17, the Brazilian agency Estado published what was his last interview with his native country's media. In the interview he described the occupation of Iraq as traumatic.

"This must be one of the most humiliating periods in the history of the Iraqi people; I know I wouldn't want to see foreign tanks in Copacabana [Rio de Janeiro's most famous beach districts]," he said.

Vieira de Mello expressed hope that in 2004 it would be possible to hold parliamentary elections in Iraq to pave the way for a new government and an end to the mandate of the occupying forces.

"I think I have experienced more dangerous situations: here in Baghdad I don't feel as much in danger as in other places where I worked for the United Nations," Vieira de Mello said in the interview, parts of which Estado did not release until August 19.

When asked if he thought the UN's offices in Iraq could be a target for terrorists he responded, "I don't think so. The UN is highly respected by the local population. The Iraqis see the UN as an independent organization, a friend, in contrast to what they feel towards the occupying forces."

The death of Vieira de Mello "is a loss that cannot be compensated", said Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim. "But he leaves us with the memory of a man who fought for peace, for reconstruction, always in the defence of human rights, the rights of those who suffer most, and the rights of refugees."

His contribution to human rights "will not be forgotten", Amnesty International said in a statement.

Marcio Thomaz Bastos, Brazil's justice minister, said Vieira de Mello was a "martyr for the cause of peace", whose vocation was "the path of harmony, of overcoming differences, and of tolerance".

* Additional reporting from Phnom Penh by Michael Hayes.

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