A legendary United Nations diplomat and humanitarian – Sergio Vieira de Mello left the incredible story and legacy. One chapter was on Ukraine.
On this day in 2003 the brilliant and charismatic Brazilian United Nations diplomat Sergio Viera de Mello was killed in a bomb attack on the UN office in Baghdad, along with 20 of his staff and visitors.
As a tribute to them, August 19 is now observed as World Humanitarian Day.
Sergio was indeed the quintessential humanitarian activist and leader; the stuff of which legends are made. Handsome, highly intelligent, a polyglot, eloquent, charismatic, charming, courageous, enterprising, and one hundred percent committed.
American scholar and diplomat Samantha Power has written a biography about him entitled Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008). More recently, earlier this year, Netflix released a new film biographical drama film called Sergio, which has rekindled interest in this remarkable man.
I had the privilege and pleasure to have worked with Sergio and would like to share with you a few recollections about him. Also, to highlight that within his broad-ranging activities there remains an, unfortunately still largely unknown, significant Ukrainian component too.
I met him in the mid-90s when we both working for the UN refugee agency UNHCR (the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees). I was then the Senior Policy Officer for the CIS at UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters. The High Commissioner at that time, Sadako Ogata, who was Japanese, brought Sergio back from the field to be her Director for Operations.
Sergio had already distinguished himself in Mozambique, Cambodia, Lebanon, and former Yugoslavia. One of the areas he was given responsibility for was to oversee the formulation of a coherent policy towards the new states that had emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I was his principal strategist in the regard.
The challenges were immense. Conflicts and forced displacement within and between these states (in Georgia, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Tajikistan Russia), the need to integrate them into the international legal and humanitarian regime for dealing with these issues, to ensure that the eastward enlargement of the European Union did not create a new “curtain”, iron or otherwise, on the borders of Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus, and what to do with the small nations like the Crimean Tatars who had been deported from their homelands in 1944 and wanted to return.
To address these challenges, in 1995 UNHCR launched a multilateral initiative called the CIS Conference process involving almost all the former Soviet republics, many European states and the US, the OSCE, IOM and Council of Europe. Sergio capably headed it.
I observed from the outset how when dealing with many other problematic regions of the world, he could master his brief and the talking notes prepared for him and chair high-level meetings exuding confidence, knowledge, and constructive ideas.
He was always a gentleman, polite and with an almost mischievous smile frequently present on his suntanned face. He had a great sense of humor, avoided arrogance and was pleasant to work with.
In 1995 UNHCR was also deciding on what its role and presence should be in Ukraine. The newly independent state was not equipped to deal with asylum seekers appearing from war-torn countries, such as Afghanistan, Angola, or even other CIS countries.
At this stage Ukraine had not yet acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention or UN Conventions dealing with Statelessness. But already in March 1993 it made its first request to UNHCR for assistance.
Ukraine was additionally confronted with the complex process connected with the repatriation from Central Asia, and reintegration as Ukrainian citizens, of around 250,000 Crimean Tatars.
UNHCR sent missions to Ukraine in 1994 and 1995, in which I participated, to help develop an approach. In November 1995, Sergio himself came on a fact-finding mission to Ukraine. In Kyiv he met with senior officials, parliamentary deputies, representatives of refugee communities and NGOs.
For the record, and very tellingly about the kind of man he was, he noted in his report that Ms. Mridula Gosh, a Bengali who at that time was a UNV with UNDP, “kindly and skillfully assisted me with interpretation.”
On his return to Geneva, Sergio recommended that the UNHCR operation in Kyiv be regularized and the status of the office strengthened and upgraded. UNHCR should be ready to assist Ukraine with the reintegration of the Crimean Tatars, building a proper asylum system in accordance with international norms , and to “manage migratory flows and to distinguish between refugees and other types of migrants.”
This year, then, UNHCR’s office celebrates its 25th anniversary, which also coincided with the 70th anniversary of UNHCR itself. Ukraine adhered to the Refugee Convention in 2002 and the Statelessness Conventions in 2013.
One further detail. In the 1990s and later, the “obsolete” issue of the formerly deported peoples was not on the legal radar screen for international organizations. One of our challenges was to get the international community to recognize it as a left-over concern which still required a “durable solution”
With Sergio we worked, on and got the category of Formerly Deported Peoples (FDPs) recognized within the CIS Conference process. For this end, in 1997 I organized a special issue of the authoritative journal published by UNHCR, Refugee Survey Quarterly, devoted to the issue of Forcible Population Transfer and Ethnic Cleansing.” Sergio wrote the Introduction while I contributed the article “Forcible Populations Transfers, Deportations and Ethnic Cleansing in the CIS: Problems in Search of Responses.”
It is therefore not entirely coincidental that in 1998 the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev was given UNHCR’s highest award– the Nansen medal.
So, when you remember the inspiring Sergio, or watch the new film about him, remember that he also was instrumental in helping Ukraine, and particularly its Crimean Tatar population.
Bohdan Nahaylo is a British-Ukrainian journalist who worked for UNHCR for almost 20 years (1994-2013) as a senior policy adviser on the former Soviet region and subsequently Representative in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Angola. In the 1990s he worked very closely with Sergio Vieira de Mello at the time when he and UNHCR were developing an approach towards Ukraine and the rest of the CIS area. Mr. Nahaylo has also worked for Amnesty International and was Director of the Ukrainian Service of Radio Liberty (1989-91), and in 2014-14 represented the UN’s Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in Kyiv.