A Life at the UN: Sergio Vieira de Mello

“We wanted to publish excerpts of his speeches because they must not be forgotten. Specially speeches about racism, about the functioning of the United Nations, about the Human Rights Commission.”


Ms. Plentz Fagundes interviews Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, George Gordon-Lennox, on his book about the late UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

By Maya Plentz Fagundes

Maya Fagundes: How did you meet Sergio Vieira de Mello?

George Gordon-Lenox:  The first time I met Sergio was at a dinner at the Canadian Ambassador’s house in Geneva. I think Sergio was 21 and had just recently joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I was working at the time at another humanitarian agency in Geneva with the Federation of Red Cross Societies, as an Information Officer.  My wife and I, when we were going home on the car, said “that is a young man who is going to go a long way”. A few years later I joined the UNHCR and there I found this young man, Sergio. We were both working in a unit dealing with a very big refugee problem at that time, ten million refugees from Bangladesh in India.

MF:  The book, that has just been published in partnership with the former spokesperson of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Annick Stevenson, is a beautiful eulogy that speaks about the work of the UN through the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, how noble he understood his task was. Could you tell me how the book project came about?

GGL:   The book was the idea of the publisher, a small publishing house in Geneva called the Editions du Tricorne, that is run by Serge Kaplun, whom I’ve know for a quite few years. Some weeks after the terrible Baghdad explosion that took the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello and others – 21 other colleagues – Kaplun called me and said let’s have lunch and he said “I want to do a book about Sergio Vieira de Mello, I did not know him personally but I was so shocked about what happened that I really feel that I want to do this book.” And he asked if I could help. And I said I would have to think about it and immediately it occurred to me that the one person who could help with this was Annick Stevenson, who had worked very closely with Sergio, and not only as his spokesperson at the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but earlier, in other field missions.  So, I called her and Annick , who was still very shocked by what had happened, said that she really didn’t know about it so, of course she is a professional journalist, she though about it for a moment and then she said yes, OK, if we can work together in this book let’s try to work and do it. That is how it started.

MF: How was the cover chosen? There is this beautiful close-up photograph of Sergio that shows a great deal of determination…

GGL:   Yes, that is a very interesting photo because many photos of Sergio show him smiling or laughing. He was a very open individual and he could be very serious, and, of course, he was also very serious. This photo was given to the publisher by the family. We looked at it and we had this letter, something that Sergio had written very shortly before he died. And the graphic artist who did the whole lay-out for the book, he is a Geneva graphic artist, …Philippe Vallier, he was very struck by all this and he said I think I can do something with letter and the photo, and indeed, there is a look of determination. At the same time perhaps a little worry in that look. He is obviously wondering about something.

MF:  In the introduction of the book you say that you have “sought to illustrate what is most noble and exalting in International Public Service”. Can you talk a little bit about how Sergio represented this ideal?

GGL:  As you know, especially perhaps in these days, International Civil Servants are not always liked. Some people think they are bureaucrats rather too well paid and that sit in desks, driving nice cars and so forth, whereas in reality there are a great many International Civil Servants who are in the field, who are working in refugees programmes and development programmes, working for children, who are working for  human rights and peacekeeping. This is a core of people who have devoted their lives or have decided to devote their lives to the aims of the United Nations.

I am not talking about the Security Council.  I am talking about the United Nations in a very broad sense, of all the tasks that the UN tries to carry out, often in very difficult – and sometimes very dangerous – circumstances.

Sergio joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees when he was a very young man, he had not even finished his studies, his University studies in Paris. He was reading philosophy at the university and I think he was very deeply interested in philosophers like Kant – who had been thinking centuries before of how a worldwide organization could help bring about peace. I am sure that even at the earliest times, when Sergio was doing rather mundane things like translating documents or producing documents for the executive committee of the High Commissioner for Refugees, he was always thinking about these issues.

The fact is, he finished his first doctorate when he was already working for UNHCR and some years later he received a second doctorate from the Sorbonne, in Paris, also on Political Philosophy. This shows how he was someone who was constantly thinking about these things. It is perhaps not surprising that he was appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights because he was someone who felt strongly, and also through his work with the refugees and humanitarian problems in the field. He had strong feelings about Human Rights, about the fact that too often people are persecuted and they have to flee their countries and seek refuge in another country. He linked in some ways this humanitarian feeling with a very keen political sense as well. The sense of, later in his life, diplomacy: that it could be put to the service of Human Rights and Peace.

MF: There was another book that was published just a few months ago, about Sergio Vieira de Mello, what are the differences between the two books?

GGL:  The book by Jean Claude Buhrer and Claude B. Levenson, which is called Sergio Vieira de Mello “ Un Espoir Foudroye”, “A Hope Destroyed”, it is largely based on interviews that this journalist JCB did with SVM and it focuses particularly in aspects of Human Rights. Because that was of course the last post that SVM had at the UN although he had been detached from that post to be the Special representative of the SG in Baghdad, so they are quite different books and very complementary – we are friends with the authors.

MF: Did you exchange information and double-checked facts with each other?

GGL:  Not really, but of course the principal author of the book, Jean Claude Buhrer, was very much in touch with the spokesperson of the HCHR. These are quite separate projects. They are not competitive in any way.

 MF:  Tell me a little bit about the process of writing the book with Ms. Stevenson. How you went about gathering the information, deciding how the structure of the book was going to be. It is organized chronologically, it tells the story of the UN on the field through the story of Sergio’s career at the UN. How did you decide on this structure?

GGL:  We sat down and mapped the structure of the book and then we decided who would write what. It became fairly logical that as I had been involved in the early days of SVM career in the United Nations that I would be more responsible for the early chapters in the book and Annick took over more recent periods where she herself had been involved in some of Sergio’s missions in Cambodia, or in the former Yugoslavia where she was part of Sergio’s team.

Annick was for quite some years editor of the magazine published by the HCR , the Refugee Magazine so she knew a lot about this middle period as well as the later days. And as far as the writing is concerned, strangely enough, although it is not my mother-tongue, I always knew Sergio in French. I sat down and started to write in French and then I would  send it to Annick that would look it over and edit it, and the same with her chapters, she send them to me, so by e-mail – a wonderful way of writing a book – we were apart by a few kilometers most of the time but we kept sending our writings back and forth by e-mail.

Then I rewrote in English what I had written in French and Annick had some help from her husband who is English-speaking to produce English text for the parts of the book that she had written. So, we were able to come out with the book in two languages at the same time which I think is quite unusual.

 MF:  Are you planning to publish these e-mails or put them somewhere in an archive where they could be used for reference by journalists and historians?  Are there any efforts to collect information about Sergio’s career at the UN?

GGL:  That is an interesting idea. I joked recently about the fact that we exchanged a lot of e-mails, however there are a lot of personal things in those e-mails, so we think we wouldn’t publish those. But I think the idea that an archive on SVM is a very good one. We wanted to put on the book at least some of the excerpts of his speeches because I think that it is important that they must not be forgotten. Specially speeches about racism, about the functioning of the United Nations, about the Human Rights Commission.There are some indications in there that should not be lost, and we wanted to put those in. In my part of the book I wanted also not only to pay tribute to one young man working in the HCR office, but also to the HC’s office.

So there is a historical part, is rather brief, perhaps some readers will skip over it, but I wanted to nonetheless show that the humanitarian work at the UN has been going on since its foundation and since the HCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize that that are some very fine people that have been heading that office, including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, who died just the same year as Sergio, in 2003. And others, the more recent HCs for Refugees. I wanted  to show that there is continuity. Another point that struck me very much in writing is how history repeats itself.

This is may seem perhaps a very banal thing to say but one of Sergio’s first field missions was in the Southern Sudan and today there is still no peace in Sudan. If you take a look at Cyprus, where he was involved at some stage, the divided island, where unfortunately the population has not been able to agree on unifying that island 30 years later. There are a number of other examples where these problems that generate human misery go on and on…

MF: So, the idea of collecting all the material that relates to his career could be a very interesting one in the light of precisely the problems that you just mentioned.  It would be very useful for us journalists and historians that want to understand the UN better, the UN in the field, and also in terms of the memory of the institution. Talking about South Sudan, there is a beautiful photograph, taken in 1972, when Sergio had just arrived in Sudan and was taken at the radio booth where he is at the microphone. Can you talk about that period when you where there?

GGL:  I don’t think that I took that photo. The interesting thing about that photo for me was that I had been in that position just before Sergio came, he came to replace me in Juba, in South Sudan. In that time the only way of communication with other UNHCR offices, including our office in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, was by short wave radio. So, the photo shows just how isolated we where back then, very isolated indeed from the outside world. There are other photos in the book that I took, for instance the one at the airport in Santiago de Chile that I took of the Chilean refugees.

MF: Tell me about that period. You were at the Buenos Aires office of the HCR and Sergio was posted in Lima.

GGL:  As you know, it was  a very difficult especially in the Southern Cone in South America, and my office in BA was responsible for 5 countries in South America the office in Lima was covering the Northern part of South America, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, so we were basically dealing with the same refugees at the time. Mainly Chilean refuges who were fleeing from the Pinochet regime and Argentine refugees and earlier on with Brazilian refugees because, as you know, Brazil had a military regime. We were in touch, even as we were not sitting in the same office, it was the period that we were the most closely in touch with Sergio, who was in Lima.

MF: You went to Rio also and you met his mother, at that time…

GGL:   Yes, Sergio and another UNHCR colleague and I were in Rio at the same time and we went to have tea with Sergio’s mother. Sergio has just been given posthumously the Citizenship of Honor for the city of Rio de Janeiro which I think it is a very fitting tribute to him and his mother is going to receive the award. Sergio was so much a citizen of the world, in fact so many people did not know that he was Brazilian. He usually spoke French because he had basically a French education and attended the French Lycée when he was small in Rio. And also other French Lycées, his father was a diplomat that was posted in many countries, including Iraq by the way. Yes, people didn’t realize he was Brazilian. One of his closest friends also tells that when they visited other countries people took Sergio for being one of them.

MF: There is a wonderful anecdote in the book about that…

GGL:   It is true he had that way of listening to people and immediately opening up to them that made them think “ he is one of ours” and so it is very important that his country and his city of birth Rio de Janeiro recognizes Sergio as being one of theirs.

United Nations/Geneva, 01 September 2004

Interview produced, transcribed and edited by Maya Plentz Fagundes

Interview produced, transcribed and edited by Maya Plentz Fagundes