Vieira de Mello, who left his post in New York as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to serve in Iraq, was in the final days of a temporary four-month assignment to help rebuild the war-torn nation.
In Iraq, the 55-year-old Brazilian worked to facilitate the development of an Iraqi interim administration. To this end, he filled the difficult role of mediating between Iraqi groups and the U.S.-led coalition.
Since his arrival in the country in June, Vieira de Mello had also focused on establishing full human rights, as well as restoring Iraqi sovereignty to the Iraqi people as soon as possible.
“I have been sent here with a mandate to assist the Iraqi people and those responsible for the administration of this land to achieve freedom, the possibility of managing their own destiny and determining their own future,” he said upon arriving in Baghdad.
Upon news of Vieira de Mello’s death, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement, “The loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a bitter blow for the United Nations and for me personally. The death of any colleague is hard to bear but I can think of no one we could less afford to spare.
“Those who killed him have committed a crime, not only against the U.N., but against Iraq itself,” Annan added.
Vieira de Mello was one of the United Nations’ most experienced diplomats in conducting humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in some of the world’s most dangerous locations. He worked with the Geneva-based Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 1969, and was considered a “fast-rising star” among the United Nations’ most respected diplomats.
He served in peacekeeping posts during conflicts in Bangladesh, Sudan, Peru, Mozambique, Lebanon and Cyprus, building a record as a capable administrator.
Following the genocide in Rwanda, he served for several months in 1996, working as humanitarian coordinator for East Africa’s Great Lakes region. Also in 1996, he was named assistant high commissioner for refugees.
He continued to ascend the diplomatic ladder at the United Nations, becoming one of two dozen undersecretary generals in January 1998. His new portfolio included the coordination of all the United Nations’ humanitarian operations.
The next year, he served as a special U.N. envoy in Kosovo, following NATO-led bombing raids to end violence in the breakaway Yugoslav province. He spent three months as temporary administrator of the province, after NATO troops landed in the troubled Balkan region.
Later that same year, he shifted his focus to Asia, becoming the U.N. transitional administrator in East Timor. From October 1999 to May 2002, he oversaw U.N. efforts to ease the half-island region’s transition from an Indonesian province to an independent, democratic state.
In September 2002, he succeeded former Irish President Mary Robinson as high commissioner for human rights, becoming one of the organization’s top officials.
Vieira de Mello studied philosophy and humanities in Rio de Janeiro and at the prestigious University of Paris (Pantheon-Sorbonne). He was fluent in several languages.
Upon learning of Vieira de Mello’s death, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of mourning to honor his countryman, saying the U.N. worker was “a victim of the insanity of terrorism.”
Vieira de Mello was separated from his wife, and is survived by two sons.