Conflict & Justice

The man who wanted to save the world

SP says de Mello's experiences as a peacemaker offer lessons for the future: He was where the news was. He joined the UN at the age of 21 and dealt with so many conflicts, including around the dawning age of terrorism in Lebanon in the 1980s. he had a millennia of wisdom. He had a nose for where the action was. (He was there by choice and design, him and Kofi Annan were friends for a long time. What was it that enabled de Mello to be able to negotiate and do business with warlords?) I think he had studied philosophy and had a fascination with evil, sociopathic behavior, etc. his basic belief was in something called black boxing, that even with the world's worst villains, you had to in the first instance take them at their word. He was the first official to meet with the Khmer Rouge and ask them if they would be part of a peace agreement in Cambodia. The rest of the world thought he was mad. (And in the Balkans that backfired). Yes, people saw him as too accommodating. But also what happened is that it backfired for Bosnians and the UN peacekeepers were not able to protect them and that was a turning point for de Mello and made him realize that there were some people you could just not do business with. (What are some of the lessons he learned?) He learned a lesson about dignity. For de Mello, dignity was the cornerstone of stability. Refugees in refugee camps were living without dignity and he thought the UN needed to figure out a way to help these people live in dignity or there would be trouble down the road. (Bring us to Iraq: why did he take the job there?) He didn't want to take the job, just having come back from East Timor. He also knew the UN did not have a big role in Iraq and they'd be behind the US. Annan was concerned about the perceived loss of UN perception and Annan asked de Mello to go to help restore some of that image. (What was he able to accomplish there?) He got Paul Bremer to create a governing council so Iraqis see they'll be partially in charge of their destiny. (What happened on August 19th of 2003 when there was this major bombing at a hotel where he was conducting a meeting?) Everyone saw then that Al Qaeda had come to Iraq in the wake of the invasion and the insurgency would take aim at anybody who was assisting civilians in Iraq. De Mello tried to create an anti-Green Zone which would help the Iraqis feel safe and at home and normal. De Mello was under the rubble for three and a half hours before dying lying on a flag ironically that he cherished. What is so tragic for Mello and the UN mission in Iraq is that no planning had been done by the US military up to that point for dealing with large scale terrorist attacks on civilian targets. This was a hugely primitive operation for a superpower like the US to undertake and de Mello paid the price.

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