RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Sergio Vieira de Mello, 55, the handsome, seasoned U.N. diplomat who was killed in Tuesday's bombing in Iraq, had a resume that read like a road map of the world's trouble spots.
As a favor to his friend, Secretary General Kofi Annan, he'd reluctantly taken leave from his post as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to become chief U.N. envoy in Iraq in June. At the time, the United Nations' relations with the Bush administration were deeply strained by the U.S. decision to invade Iraq without a supportive U.N. Security Council resolution and were further torn by Washington's determination to dominate Iraq's reconstruction.
The Brazilian-born diplomat insisted from the day he arrived that his top priority was protecting the interests of Iraq's people. He warned of disaster if Iraqis weren't given self-rule quickly. "Only Iraqis have the capacity and the right to administer Iraq," he said. "The longer it takes, the greater the amount of frustration and impatience on the part of Iraqis."
Vieira de Mello's mission worried his 90-year-old mother, Gilda. "In Iraq, Westerners are hated," she told the on-line Brazilian newspaper Tribuna da Imprensa last month. She feared her son could be "confused with some American or Briton."
Apparently, the mission worried the diplomat, too. "The United Nations presence in Iraq remains vulnerable to any who would seek to target our organization," Vieira de Mello told the Security Council in July.
In his last interview, published in Monday's editions of the Brazilian daily newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, Vieira de Mello warned that the vast U.S. military presence in Iraq was inciting attacks like the one that took his life a day later.
"This must be one of the most humiliating periods in history for these people. Who would like to see their country occupied? I wouldn't want to see foreign tanks in Copacabana," Vieira de Mello said. He added that American-led coalition forces needed to win over Iraqis by restoring essential services rather than dominating the country.
"The loss of Sergio Vieira de Mello is a bitter blow for the United Nations and for me personally," Annan said in a statement Tuesday.
Vieira de Mello was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 15, 1948, the son of a diplomat, and was schooled in France. At 21 he joined the U.N. High Commission on Refugees in Geneva as a junior editor. He earned doctorates in philosophy and humanities from the Sorbonne in Paris during his U.N. service.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he served in many conflict zones where central authority was weak and refugees numerous, including Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru and Lebanon. In the 1990s, he served in top positions in Rwanda, Albania, the former Yugoslavia and East Timor. He was appointed U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Sept. 12, 2002.
"He was a very close friend of the secretary general, and really was the only one for complicated situations. It is a personal and irreplaceable loss for the secretary general," said Carlos Lopes, the United Nations' representative to Brasilia. "We are talking about a star; he was seen everywhere as a brilliant man. And I am not only talking about the latest crisis, but over the past 15 years."
Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, told reporters: "He was a man who fought across the whole world for the defense of human rights, for the less fortunate, for refugees and against inequalities."
In a statement later, Amorim said, "It is necessary that the brutal death of Sergio Vieira de Mello not be in vain, but that it strengthen us to find rational ways of combating terrorism, through multilateralism and international law."
Vieira de Mello was divorced and had two sons.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Tuesday declared three days of official mourning, calling Vieira de Mello a victim of the insanity of terrorism. Da Silva offered a government plane to fly home his remains.
(Tom Lasseter contributed to this story from Lexington, Ky.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq de mello
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030819 USIRAQ DEMELLO