This is a joint post with Lauren Young.
A dashing Brazilian man who keeps a flakjacket in his midtown Manhattan office, two firefighters from New York and Miami, a terrorist attack, and an attempted rescue using nothing but a string and a ladies handbag. Would you believe that this is a film about the United Nations? Sergio, which premiered on HBO this month, is the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, an extraordinary public servant who died in the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq. The film (based on the book by Pulitzer-prize winning author Samantha Power) is a tribute to his leadership and service in the world’s worst troublespots.
Sergio Vieira de Mello began his career with the United Nations in Bangladesh, at the age of 23, and continued to mediate conflicts for the next three decades in countries such as Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mozambique, and Lebanon.
One of his greatest successes was in Cambodia, where he negotiated with the Khmer Rouge for the repatriation of some 360,000 refugees. Some years later, he shepherded East Timor to independence as head of the UN transitional administration. Sergio was not without flaws, and was often accused of moral relativity, promiscuity, and denial of family responsibilities. The film stresses that Sergio had turned over a new leaf at the time of his death, but this justification is somewhat irrelevant. Whatever his personal failings, it is impossible to argue that they negate the enormous impact of his humanitarian work in some of the worst places on earth.
The film is dramatically structured around the events of August 19, 2003—the day of Sergio’s death and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Real footage of the chaos inside his office in the wake of the explosion is wrenching, as are images of his fiancée Carolina Larriera searching for him outside the rubble. Interviews with the two American firefighters who were the first responders on the scene are used to create a detailed account of the prolonged attempted rescue from a deep pit created by two collapsed floors. The firefighters work alone with only a woman’s handbag and string to clear the rubble. With a rusty saw, they cut off the legs of Gil Loescher to save his life. But Sergio dies before he can be pulled from the rubble.
The film serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is to work in the most fragile areas of the world. At CGD, we are currently trying to get a handle on how donors can best provide assistance and how long they must stay to have a positive impact. Various clips in the film serve to remind us of just how difficult this can be. One example is the culture clash between the various players, including the US and UN. The US insists that it must fortify the UN HQ with tanks and other military equipment. While the US sees this as essential, the UN sees it as an obstacle to its ability to provide humanitarian relief and other services.
In the end, it is probably best to avoid accusatory questions of responsibility for security or disaster planning. Sergio is a celebration of a unique individual, one whose loss is still felt during times of international crisis. There are few better arguments than Sergio’s life work as to why we need a strong and effective United Nations in the 21st century.