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Reviewed by:
  • Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
  • Bertrand G. Ramcharan (bio)
Samantha Power , Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (New York, Penguin Press, 2008), 535 pp+Notes.

Sergio Vieira de Mello served as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for a period of eight months after a long career in the humanitarian area. He served in United Nations field operations, as UN Humanitarian Coordinator, and as Special Representative of the Secretary-General in, among other places, East Timor, Kosovo, and Iraq. He was a charming man with a gifted intellect, particularly in his area of study, philosophy.

Samantha Power has written an engaging book that brings out the intelligence, charm, and experience of this fine man, as well as his commitment to the United Nations and its Charter. The book tells of his life, his different assignments, his challenges, and his period in the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This review will be devoted to the human rights parts of the book.1

Power writes that by the time de Mello faced the possibility of being assigned to Iraq, in his eighth month on the job as High Commissioner, he was still struggling to define his role. He was ill at ease with the succession of appointments, meetings, and trips, which he found frustrating. He had, according to her, never seen himself as a "human rights type" and did not feel temperamentally suited for a job that required more bluntness than any other in the UN system. He did not see becoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a great career move and had "little human rights background."

Power notes that he did not think much of the cadre in his new office. He thought many of them were measuring their impact not by the lives they bettered but by the number of human rights conferences they planned, or the number of human rights treaties they invoked. He vowed to make the office more operational. He initially conceived of his role as that of an emergency "first respondent": [End Page 1024] He could swoop down into a place where abuses were being carried out and attract a burst of media coverage. He did not last long enough in the job to put these thoughts into practice. We should say for the record that the staff of the Office of High Commissioner contained numerous fine and committed people, absolutely dedicated to advancing the cause of human rights, which they spent time studying at universities across the world.

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Power writes, de Mello struggled to distance himself from the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR), which he saw as an embarrassment to the United Nations and to human rights. He was irked by the natural association people made between him and the Commission. He earned a degree in philosophy and this was the part of his job that he liked most. He favored "holistic democracy." He considered that human rights were the foundation for interstate stability. He wanted human rights to matter to geopolitics. He saw human rights as closely based on the rule of law. He sought to balance respect for a country's right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks with efforts to make sure that it respected international rules in the process.

He generally preferred, she adds, to raise his concerns about state practices behind closed doors. After his meeting with President Bush, US officials came away from the meeting thinking, "This is a reasonable guy we can do business with." In an interview on the BBC program HARDtalk, the moderator, Tim Sebastian, felt it necessary to ask him, "Is the human rights commissioner too scared to speak out against the United States?" He did, however, publicly urge that the prisoners in Guantanamo be tried or released and described Guantanamo as a "legal black hole."

As Power notes, de Mello's predecessor, Mary Robinson, exited office after five years under attack from different quarters, including major powers, for her outspoken defense of human rights. De Mello, according to Power, is known...


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