Spencer Ackerman on Sergio’s Legacy

Over on the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman writes a piece about what Sergio Vieira de Mello meant to the UN system. It’s a great piece. Definitely worth a read.

Vieira de Mello represented a transformation toward a more activist U.N. diplomat — one more comfortable settling disputes and tending to humanitarian crises in combat zones than smoothing over hurt feelings at U.N. headquarters in New York. “He never got muddy, despite wading in the mud so frequently,” said [ friend of UN Dispatch James] Traub, meaning that both literally and figuratively.

While Vieira de Mello might have been the best of that trail-blazing generation, he most certainly is not the last. Among the places that generation is proving its mettle is, ironically, the country where Vieira gave his life: Iraq. Right now, the Swedish diplomat Steffan de Mistura has thrown himself into the thick of Iraq’s toughest problems.

I’d also be remiss not to mention Lakdhar Brahimi, who served briefly as Algeria’s Foreign Minister in the early 1990s, became a career UN official heading missions in Haiti and South Africa in the early to mid 1990s. He’s most known, though, for three things: 1) He’s the namesake of the “2000 Brahimi Report” on how to restore UN peacekeeping after its failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. This report is hugely influential and paved the way for UN’s peacekeeping more recent successes in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire. 2) He was also the UN’s top person on Afghanistan. And following the US-led toppling of the Taliban, he negotiated a ceasefire among competing militias and ethnic groups and paved the way for the constitution writing process and for the election of Hamid Karzai. 3) After his success in Afghanistan, the Secretary General sent him to Iraq to help restore the UN mission–which pulled out after the attack on the UN compound. He mediated between top Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani and CPA head Paul Bremmer, convincing the Americans to scrap their “Iraqi Interim Government” and convincing Sistani to be patient about holding elections. The eventual 2005 elections and “purple finger moment,” which at the time was billed as a great success, was Brahimi’s doing. It’s just a shame he was not empowered to do more.

Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian who is spearheading the UN’s diplomacy toward Myanmar, is also a go-to problem solver. It is hard to call Myanmar a “UN success,” but on purely humanitarian concerns, he has done a great deal to get humanitarian access to the people of Burma. Jan Elliason, former Sweedish Foreign Minister, is also a person to watch. He was president of the General Assembly during the major debates over UN reform in 2005 and was later tapped as Special Envoy for Darfur. He’s known as a skilled diplomat, though he was in a near impossible situation on Darfur.