Activists Mourn U.N. Envoy Killed in Iraq

By Marc Perelman

Published August 22, 2003, issue of August 22, 2003.
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Jewish activists mourned the violent death of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and expressed hope that his successors will pursue his efforts to reach out to Jews and Israel.

The high commissioner, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was among at least 18 people killed in Tuesday’s bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, where he temporarily served as the U.N.’s top envoy.

“As U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello reached out to American Jews, often speaking out about combating antisemitism as a human rights concern,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee. “On Israel, he sought to defuse tensions in the Human Rights Commission. His capacity to listen to our concerns about the politicization of that body generated hope for restored relations between American Jews and the U.N. He inspired advocates with his can-do approach.”

Vieira de Mello, a 30-year Brazilian veteran of U.N. peacekeeping operations from the Balkans to East Timor to Africa, was appointed high commissioner in September 2002 by Secretary General Kofi Annan, who dispatched him to Iraq this summer to help the rebuilding effort. The career diplomat, who was 55, had insisted the Iraq appointment be for just four months so he could hold on to his human rights post, in which he replaced former Irish president Mary Robinson. He was to head back to Geneva at the end of August.

Soon after he was appointed, Vieira de Mello reached out to the Jewish community to repair relations strained by Robinson’s outspoken criticism of Israel and her handling of the infamous Durban conference on racism in 2000.

He met with several Jewish groups, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the AJCommittee. In an interview with the Forward last year, he pledged to avoid the systematic singling out of Israel by using private channels rather than public forums to discuss differences. He characterized suicide bombings as crimes against humanity and also insisted on the need to condemn antisemitism.

The ADL’s associate national director, Kenneth Jacobson, said that after the Palestinian delegate made some incendiary statements at the annual U.N. Commission on Human Rights meeting last spring, the ADL wrote to Vieira de Mello. The high commissioner wrote back saying he had privately conveyed his concerns to the Palestinian official.

“He was a top-flight civil servant who really believed in the U.N.; he was very open to our concerns and ready to communicate,” Jacobson said.

While Vieira de Mello also criticized Israel, activists and Israeli diplomats expressed satisfaction that he was consulting more with other U.N. officials — especially Annan — before taking public stances.

Since Vieira de Mello was dispatched to Iraq, his duties in Geneva have been performed by his deputy Bertrand Ramcharan, who has also earned accolades from Jewish activists. Annan could retain Ramcharan in the position or decide to name a different replacement for Vieira de Mello, subject to approval by the General Assembly.

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