Personal tributes from the Royal Family, the government and the UN poured in Wednesday following the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s top envoy to Iraq and the former head of the UN’s repatriation program in Cambodia, in a suicide bombing Tuesday at a Baghdad, Iraq, hotel housing the UN’s office.
Vieira de Mello worked in Cambodia during the Untac period from 1991 to 1993, helping stabilize the country in the wake of the Paris Peace Accords and to repatriate from Thailand more than 260,000 refugees.
In a letter of condolence to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, King Norodom Sihanouk described Vieira de Mello as “a true Hero of Humanity.”
“He helped and served with self-sacrifice, great effectiveness, boundless devotion, without seeking personal advantage or glory,” the King wrote. “Our affectionate friendship will always be close to my heart.”
In a separate letter to Annan, Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who also knew Vieira de Mello personally, described him as a “smiling UN representative…who rendered outstanding services to the suffering people of Cambodia.”
His “warm heart and charisma” captured the love and admiration of everyone who met him, the prince wrote. “The world has lost a great man,” he wrote, describing the attack as “a terrible crime.”
Dominique McAdams, UN Development Program country representative and the top UN official in Cambodia, said by telephone: “We are devastated and shocked to hear about his death. Many of us knew him well, and we remember his charisma and charm…. He liked the country a lot.”
She added, “The return of the refugees is really to his credit.” Meanwhile, Minister of Information Lu Laysreng credited him with repairing Cambodia.
The UN office in Phnom Penh flew its flag at half-staff Wednesday in solidarity with Vieira de Mello and colleagues in Iraq, McAdams said.
There were also strong condemnations from many quarters of the way Vieira de Mello was killed. The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 17 human rights NGOs, said in a statement that it was “dismayed at the loss” of Vieira de Mello, describing the attack as a “senseless and unprecedented act of violence,” while Prince Ranariddh called for the perpetrators to be caught and brought to justice.
In Cambodia, Vieira de Mello was based in Phnom Penh but would often travel to Battambang province and the refugee camps scattered along the Thai border, working directly with refugees and responding to their needs.
He also served as director of Cambodian Mine Action Center, which cleared mine fields so that refugees could return in safety and aid agencies could reach them.
“He had a very big impact on the lives of people returning from the border,” Heng Ratana, CMAC director, said. “He was very committed to poor people and to general management.”
After leaving Cambodia, Vieira de Mello continued to return to the country for private visits, the last of which was in July 2002, when he met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong, as well as found time to watch the Brazil-Germany World Cup final, the Phnom Penh Post reported at the time.
Hor Namhong also mourned Vieira de Mello on Wednesday. “I personally knew him as a close friend. This is a great loss for the United Nations,” he was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.
The 55-year-old Brazilian and diplomatic troubleshooter enjoyed a long and varied international career, serving as a UN High Commissioner for Refugees official prior to his Cambodia posting in Bangladesh, Sudan, Mozambique, Rwanda, Lebanon and Peru. After leaving Phnom Penh, he worked for the UN in Bosnia, New York, East Timor and finally as the top UN official in Iraq.
In retrospect, he felt that Untac’s 18-month, $2 billion operation in Cambodia could have been more successful, and was not afraid to voice his misgivings.
“Untac made mistakes,” he told The Cambodia Daily in April 2000 while he was working in East Timor. In East Timor, “we have avoided that horrible impact the Untac foreign presence had on the morals and social values in Cambodia.”