Hero of our time

The death of Sergio Vieira de Mello in a suicide bombing in Baghdad in 2003 shocked and saddened the

I once worked for the United Nations in Kosovo. One day all the staff were summoned to attend a film commemorating those killed in the suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003. Photographs of the victims scrolled across the screen while the commentator, in grandiloquent style, intoned the victims' contribution to the UN and its cause of peace. Eventually, the oratory reached a peak: these individuals embodied the highest principles of the UN - indeed, of humanity itself.

Bizarrely, no names were mentioned as the pictures were shown. The anonymous roll-call of heroism reminded me of a Communist celebration of the Stakhanovites, workers who dug superhuman tonnages of coal or poured improbable quantities of steel, pour encourager les autres. Like such propaganda, the effect of the UN film was to diminish the humanity of these victims, not elevate it. The commentator wanted us to believe that these people were above the level of the ordinary, much as the UN projected itself (at least to itself) as being above the level of imperfect, self-interested states.

The final photograph in the commemorative slide show needed no name. The handsome, beaming visage caused an instantaneous sad murmur of recognition. Even before his death, Sergio Vieira de Mello was known by everyone across the UN system. The tragic manner of his death, Samantha Power's new book and, moreover, a forthcoming Hollywood biopic have conspired to make him even more widely known: for good or ill, he is an emblem of the UN in the early 21st century.

Power's intent is similar, but more subtle than the UN's film. Her lengthy book sets out to make Vieira de Mello, as she has said publicly, a hero for our complicated and globalised world. The question is, can the man sustain the burden?

Vieira de Mello was born in Brazil, spoke many languages and gained two doctorates in philosophy from the Sorbonne. He believed passionately in the UN and its ideal of a common humanity, transcendent of states and their base interests. He was a skilled diplomat, adept at getting along with all sides, even if they were the Khmer Rouge or Slobodan Milosevic. He managed to get the dysfunctional UN system to produce successful results, such as the repatriation of 360,000 refugees into Cambodia. By the time of his death, he was known as one of the UN's most effective operators. Wherever there was trouble, from Congo to Kosovo to Angola, "Sergio" seemed to crop up, his dress always impeccable, his charm (almost) always irresistible.

The author does not shrink from his flaws. He conducted numerous affairs across the world, leaving wife and children at home for extended periods. His ambition was often overt, but worse was his desire to be all things to all men, perhaps a harmless virtue in most theatres of life, but not, it must be said, in war. As one of his former colleagues told me, "Above all, Sergio wanted to be liked" - and particularly, it seems from this book, by the powerful. It was a quality that helped lead him to his death: George W Bush liked him, and that is why the United States asked Kofi Annan, who obliged, to send him to Iraq. The darker suspicion, never quite resolved in the book, is that the US wanted him because he could be relied upon not to make trouble. Once he was there, it took him a long time to admonish the allies publicly for their many failures to provide security and stability for the country they had occupied.

Power details Vieira de Mello's conduct during the Bosnian conflict. It is not a pretty picture. Like too many others at the UN at the time (including its secretary general), Vieira de Mello took the view that as the UN Security Council had not taken sides in the war, neither should the UN, even when the reality on the ground spoke a different truth. The striving for neutrality went to absurd, if not to say grotesque, lengths.

On one occasion, it fell to Vieira de Mello to judge, on behalf more or less of the whole of the international community, whether Serb forces had withdrawn from the "safe area" town of Gorazde. If he reported that they had not withdrawn, Nato air strikes would follow. Because Vieira de Mello believed that such air strikes were a bad idea (it is not very clear why), he deliberately overstated the extent of Serb withdrawal and failed to report the presence in the town of Serbian soldiers obviously masquerading as police. Let the people of Gorazde be the judge of whether that was the right call.

However, Power concludes that he ultimately did good, for all the messy compromises. And he came to realise that the UN is not above states: it is no more or less than what states allow it to be, and sometimes only states, for all their limitations, have the power - through military intervention, as in Kosovo or Bosnia - to stop genocide and murder. He was an idealist who studied Kant in war zones, but above all a pragmatist who cared more about the results than the sometimes ugly way he had to get them. And it is for this reason that Power wants us, and especially the UN-sceptical United States, at which her book is squarely aimed, to regard Vieira de Mello as a human, compromised, but ultimately worthy hero.

The book's problem is that the life it traces does not, to this reader, warrant the heroic status Power wants us to accord it. Her conclusions are nonetheless interesting, not least because of her own status until so very recently. As a senior adviser to Barack Obama, the likely Democratic candidate for the US presidency, Power emerged as a possible influence in future US foreign policy and thus player in exactly the sorts of horrible dilemmas with which Vieira de Mello grappled.

Her conclusion is that the lesson of Vieira de Mello's life and tragic death is that "dignity" is the thing that intervention, and international engagement, should aim to deliver. At a recent talk here in New York, she stated that dignity is, if anything, more important a goal than human rights or humanitarian well-being.

One incident in the book illustrates this idea. Vieira de Mello meets an Azeri woman in a refugee camp. He asks her what she wants. She says she wants to rise up to the sky, become a cloud, and return to her own land as rain, there forever to remain. It is a beautiful passage. Later, in Iraq, Vieira de Mello speaks of the humiliation of the Iraqis under allied occupation, asking how Brazilians might feel if foreign tanks were parked on Copacabana Beach.

Dignity - it's a persuasive concept. It raises obvious questions about how it is measured and who gets to define it. But, in contrast to the neo-conservative philosophy of imposing democracy or liberty, even at the expense of the lives of the liberated, it gives more account to the objects of policy - them, the others. It dignifies them rather than treating them as objects: a modern version of Kant's dictum that human beings should be treated as ends not means. Yet there is a bigger question: Why have such a concept at all? The Azeri refugee is not saying that she wants dignity; she is saying that she wants to go home. The Iraqis don't want dignity per se; they want security, peace, and not to get killed.

Power's analysis of the paradoxes and challenges of what to do about the Darfurs, Iraqs and Rwandas is sophisticated and thoughtful. She eschews the simplistic dichotomies of whether we should intervene or not, suggesting instead that the how of engagement and intervention is the more important question. She is clearly most aggrieved with those who do nothing in the face of horror (her last book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide won a Pulitzer Prize). Although clearly a believer in the necessity of the UN, she rightly suggests that we should all want it to be better. She recognises that, as in Vieira de Mello's life, there are few easy choices, but you have to get stuck in if you are to make a difference. Clearly, she wants the US to get stuck in, even if Obama wants it out of Iraq.

But there is the lingering suspicion that, in the end, such arguments are still about us, rather than them. I wonder how much of a hero Vieira de Mello is to the Kosovars, the Congolese, the Iraqis and especially the Bosnians. Their voices, though present in the book, are heavily outnumbered by those of westerners. When I lived in Kosovo two years after Vieira de Mello's term there for the UN, people hardly mentioned him, even though he had run their country at a critical period. As for dignity as the objective of policy, I have my doubts. Invariably, if you ask them, Kosovars, Angolans or Iraqis will say clearly and specifically what their needs are (as that Azeri refugee did). Why do we need it to be "about" dignity or, indeed, "about" anything? Why can't we just let them, for once, speak for themselves and let those wishes be our guide?

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat who has also worked for the UN. He now runs Independent Diplomat, a not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group (www.independentdiplomat.com)

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us