Analysis/Editorials, January 2010
All entities have their own peculiar characteristics. On arriving at UNHCR in June 2005 to take up the position of High Commissioner, I learned quickly of one of these – a predilection on the part of the staff to refer to the organization as "the house." I wondered whether this harkened to the agency's logo, which shows a refugee being sheltered by hands facing each other and joined at the fingertips, resembling a house. In time it became clear to me that use of the term derived from the sense of family people working at UNHCR have. That is by no means to say that UNHCR is a model family, free from dissent or unhappiness, but it is felt to be and indeed is a family, and a home to its 6,708 staff worldwide.
In the family, Sergio, as he is invariably known, occupies a very special place. As this thoroughly researched and thoughtfully presented book by Samantha Power sets out, Sergio cut his teeth at UNHCR. He grew with it and it grew with him – from a small and doctrinally-oriented advocacy office into the worldwide and highly operational organization it remains today. It is an organization where idealism is not apologized for but which is not a goal in itself. As Ms. Power's points out, UNHCR gave Sergio practical opportunities to operationalize his philosophical commitment to elevating individual and collective self-esteem. Put more simply, Sergio was able with UNHCR to promote human dignity.
Sergio drew inspiration from the principles of humanitarianism but he never confused them with solutions to humanitarian problems. As he said, and I frequently also say, there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems, there are only political solutions. It is in getting to such solutions that the UN, when perceived as impartial and independent, can be indispensable. Sergio never compromised on these principles and was thus able to put humanitarianism usefully and appropriately at the service of political solutions to complex problems. While remarkably charismatic, it was his honesty more even than his charm that made him so effective. This struck me most emphatically when I was privileged to work with him on resolving the crisis in East Timor.
Developing friendly relations among nations is one of the key purposes of the United Nations. Doing so based on respect for the equal rights and self-determination of peoples is a key principle. In a referendum with near total turnout, the Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. The will of the people, however, was threatened by the perpetration of violence and atrocities by those desiring a different outcome. Things are rarely black and white but this was – a crucible for the international community.
Helping galvanize international support to bring about an end to the atrocities in East Timor I consider among the most important of the activities I undertook as Prime Minister of Portugal. My role, however, was a very modest one in comparison with Sergio and the Timorese. Very few people in the mature nation state environment of the last and present centuries get an opportunity literally to nation-build. There is no better testimony to Sergio's accomplishments than how they are perceived by the Timorese. In this respect, as Ms. Power movingly points out, the Timorese counted Sergio's death as the martyrdom of one of their own.
Sergio's murder together with 21 others in the bombing of the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 deprived us of an extraordinarily able individual. Ms. Power's detailed reconstruction of that fateful day is almost too painful to read. It is some --though slim--consolation that the United Nations has now dedicated 19 August as World Humanitarian Day. Speakers at the inaugural ceremony in Geneva, including myself, paid homage to Sergio and all the other colleagues killed at the Canal Hotel in Iraq while underscoring the broadening nature of the threat to humanitarian work.
Due to the changing nature of conflict, humanitarian space is shrinking. Today's conflicts have more actors than previously and many of those actors have no respect for humanitarian principles. Providing humanitarian relief in such environments is extremely difficult. At the same time, some governments are taking a firmer line on national sovereignty while traditional distinctions between civilian and military spheres are becoming increasingly blurred. Peacekeepers are sent where there is no peace to keep while militaries are more and more undertaking "humanitarian" work. Roles are confused and mischaracterized, often by some actors deliberately, and the UN and others are increasingly targeted in consequence.
None of these observations would have surprised Sergio. Indeed, as Ms. Power points out, he tried early on to sound the alarm about the increasing danger to humanitarian personnel in the field, noting that some 50 humanitarians had been killed in 1998 and 64 in 1999. In 2008, it was 122, with another 178 kidnapped or seriously injured. UNHCR itself lost three colleagues in Pakistan in six months in 2009. The deterioration of humanitarian space has been dramatic, particularly in conflicts where the tensions and interfaces are similar to those underlying the attack on Sergio and his colleagues in August 2003.
Of the many observations made by Sergio with which I wholly concur --from the impact of an intimate acquaintance with dictatorship to the importance of multiple language ability-- perhaps none is as important as his conviction that it is imperative to talk to all parties to a conflict, including, regrettably but often most importantly, unsavoury elements. The preservation of humanitarian space, which at its most essential means the freedom to provide life-saving assistance, depends on access. Access frequently depends on the de facto authorities, even very bad ones.
Similarly, I share completely with Sergio the conviction that the only way to know what is going on is to be in the field. His advice was directed to a young humanitarian but is certainly not confined to the young. Indeed it is perhaps more important for the older and more experienced: "Be in the field. That is it … That's what's relevant. Nothing else matters." A strong field presence is not only necessary to reach the people we care for but is the best means by which to generate understanding and legitimacy in their eyes. This is in turn the best although far from a complete defence against being attacked.
A great many of us at UNHCR seek to be like Sergio. We begin as idealists, maturity turns us into pragmatists and further maturity returns us to idealism. To paraphrase Abdul Rahman Pazhwak, the Afghan ambassador to the UN, whom the author indicates Sergio was fond of quoting, insofar as the United Nations has an ideology, it is human rights. Sergio came at length to see this, that his core values and beliefs were all set out there – in human rights law. The key to all of them is the promotion of human dignity. That is the flame. That is what he – and all of us – pursue.