Two New Zealanders pay tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello

New Zeland Herald, 21 August 2003


Phil Goff, New Zealand's Minister of Foreign Affairs

I first met Sergio Vieira de Mello in East Timor in 2000. We got to know each other well through my subsequent visits and the time he spent in New Zealand later that year.

Sergio was a consummate professional and one of the outstanding diplomats of his generation. He combined an acute intellect with excellent interpersonal skills. Above all, he remembered what mattered to people when promises were made; he always kept his word.

The building of relationships was central to his success as the UN's Special Representative in East Timor. He was able to bring together Timorese who had been divided in the resistance struggle, and to harness the goodwill of all those who supported East Timor's quest for freedom. These same skills were being used to good effect in Iraq.

Sergio was not a banal international bureaucrat. He was passionate about his job and worked long hours to ensure the UN mission in East Timor was a success. I recall his strong desire to seek justice for the crimes committed there in 1999. He travelled extensively throughout the country to meet ordinary people and took the trouble to learn the local Tetum language.

Sergio was also deeply compassionate. He was among the first to contact me when New Zealand peacekeepers died in East Timor. He made a point of visiting the parents of Private Leonard Manning after his death, and went to considerable lengths to keep in touch with them, including having them as his guests at East Timor's independence ceremony last year.

It was through the excellent work of our personnel in East Timor that Sergio became a good friend of New Zealand.

He told me he greatly valued our pragmatic approach, and how much he enjoyed working with open and friendly Kiwis. He had also hoped to visit New Zealand again in his new capacity as the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It is a tragedy that will not happen. New Zealand, the United Nations and the international community have lost a great man.

Dr Andrew Ladley, legal adviser to the UN mission in East Timor in 1999

Early one morning in November 1999, about 15 camouflaged and heavily armed guerrillas rushed menacingly into the UN compound in Dili. I was near the front gate.

Our newly arrived team of UN officials, led by Sergio Vieira de Mello, had joined us in Dili straight out of Kosovo. One of the Kosovo team walking with me was visibly shocked at the sight of armed forces apparently rushing for Sergio's office - he assumed this was an attack.

I knew Xanana Gusmao well, and saw him at the head of the bunch. Xanana was angry - he gruffly told me that he had to speak to Sergio, urgently. Up we went. Sergio was mildly surprised, but welcoming, concerned, and absolutely unflustered. The Falantil guerrillas crowded around his office, guns brandished. Five minutes later, General Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the Interfet troops, arrived. He wanted to see Sergio.

A personal memory of the diplomatic skills of a quite extraordinary man.

On that particular occasion, there was of course no armed attack on Sergio's office. This was an angry protest because Interfet troops had aggressively arrested some Falantil.

Sergio promised action, eventually got General Cosgrove into the room with Xanana, lessons were learned, laughter returned. When Xanana Gusmao as President of the newly independent Republic of Timor Leste embraced Sergio at midnight on April 20 last year, it was an embrace of deep friendship.

The UN had delivered to the people of East Timor. Sergio was central to that, no question. Here in New Zealand, many will remember him particularly because he took so personally the death in action of Private Leonard Manning. Sergio put great effort into letting Charlie and Linda Manning know that the UN honoured that ultimate sacrifice.

Many Kiwis will in turn now honour Sergio. He was killed in service to the international community and to the people of Iraq. It was a crime against the UN on an absolutely unprecedented scale. It hurts.