Geneva bids farewell to human rights crusader

Vieira de Mello's former bodyguards carried him to his final resting place Keystone

Hundreds of mourners have attended the Geneva funeral of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq.

This content was published on August 28, 2003 - 16:05

Vieira de Mello was killed in last week’s bomb attack on the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad, along with 22 other people.

An estimated 500 people attended the service at Geneva's Saint Paul's church, including family members, friends, colleagues and high-ranking UN and city officials.

The service was opened by Vieira de Mello's sons, Adrien and Laurent, who stressed that their father's legacy had to be continued.

"The revolting and incomprehensible attack of August 19 killed our father and many of his colleagues… but his assassins did not really kill him because his legacy and ideals of helping the people of this world will live on in each of us,” said Laurent.

East Timor’s foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, told swissinfo that nothing could have kept him away from the funeral.

Vieira de Mello took the lead in the UN's operations in East Timor, overseeing the territory's fractious transition from Indonesian province to independence. It is viewed by many as his greatest achievement.

“Even if I was not here in an official capacity, I would have come anyway... There is no way I would not come," said Horta. "I came from very far away to say farewell to him as an individual."

Louise Fréchette, deputy UN secretary-general, and Nane Annan, the wife of UN secretary-general, Kofi, were present, as well as the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger.


Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told swissinfo that there was still a sense of shock among Vieira de Mello's former colleagues over his death.

“Some people still don’t believe that he is dead... It hasn’t really sunk in," said Janowski. "He worked for the UNHCR for 25 years and he was one of the best-known people - everybody knew him extremely well.

"Certainly something like this has never happened before to the UN, and people are asking themselves to what extent we can expose UN staff to that kind of danger,” he added.

Members of the public also turned out to pay tribute to the 55-year-old Brazilian, who spent much of his career at the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva.

One woman, who declined to give her name, travelled from the French capital, Paris, to pay her respects to a man she admired but never knew.

Following the ceremony, Vieira de Mello’s body was buried in Geneva’s “Cemetery of Kings” during a private service. He will lie alongside the Swiss protestant leader, John Calvin, and writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Vieira de Mello’s funeral was originally scheduled to take place in the French border town of Thonon-les-Bains, where he and his family lived.

But the Geneva authorities invited the family to bury him in the Cemetery of Kings, which is reserved for figures who have marked Swiss or international history.

Dedicated humanitarian

Vieira de Mello began working for the United Nations in 1969, when he joined the office of the Geneva-based UNHCR.

He later served with humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, East Timor and Peru, as well as other hotspots around the world.

Throughout his career, “Sergio”, as he was known to most UN staff members, gained a reputation as both an effective international troubleshooter and as a witty, gracious and patient leader.

In fact, many of his colleagues and staff members saw him as a future UN secretary-general.

“Throughout his life, Sergio worked as a humanitarian in many difficult places and he was appreciated by all of us as a human being and as a professional,” Elena Ponomareva, the UN’s public relations chief, told swissinfo.

“He was a very busy man, but he always found the time to say hello to people and to remember their names… and it didn’t matter whether that someone was a member of the cleaning staff or a high-ranking official,” she added.

In September 2002, Vieira de Mello was appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

In May this year he was asked by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to take a four-month leave of absence to head the organisation’s efforts in Iraq, where he died in the August 19 suicide blast.

Terror targets

The attack, which left nine other UN staffers dead, raised fears among many international organisations and aid agencies that they, too, could become terror targets.

Earlier this week, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross announced that it was scaling back its operations in Iraq as the result of bombing.

According to Françoise Belmont of the UN Environment Programme, the attack has left many field workers feeling vulnerable.

“Nobody is sheltered anymore and if the people who try to help are attacked, we don’t know where it can lead to… It’s also a serious blow to human rights,” Belmont told swissinfo.

Bernardo Mariano of the UN’s Migration Office in Geneva agrees that Vieira de Mello’s death has jeopardised the organisation’s humanitarian efforts. But he argues that the best way to honour his life is to carry on his work.

“Sergio’s death represents a huge loss for the UN, and of course the question now is whether these types of incidents will become a trend,” he said.

“But I don’t think we should give up, and we should pursue our goal of offering help to those who need it most… so that Sergio’s efforts, and those of the others who lost their lives, will not have been in vain,” he added.

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

In brief

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, was buried in Geneva’s “Cemetery of Kings”.

The 55-year-old Brazilian was killed - along with 22 others - in last week’s terrorist attack on the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad.

Vieira de Mello, who began working for the UN in 1969, spent much of his career in Geneva.

His wife, Annie and two grown sons were joined by hundreds of mourners, including UN and city officials, at Thursday’s religious ceremony at Geneva’s Saint Paul’s church.

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