August 29, 2003

In Brazil, U.N. Envoy’s Death Brings Shock, Anger

By Marcelo Ballve

The headline of the Rio de Janeiro daily Jornal do Brasil put it most starkly: “Brazilian Peace Hero Dies in Iraq Attack.”

The death in Baghdad of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the 55-year-old United Nations special representative in Iraq, has convulsed Brazil.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared three days of national mourning. Every flag in the country was lowered to half-mast; legislative sessions in Brasilia, the capital, were cancelled and devoted to commemorating his legacy.

Beneath the grief, though, a raw nerve has been struck. Brazilians were exceedingly proud of Vieira De Mello’s stature as a peacemaker. He was widely seen as the favorite to succeed Kofi Annan as U.N. Secretary General. His death in Iraq, as a result of a war and an occupation that much of the Brazilian population and its political leadership opposed, was treated as a cruel irony.

Throughout the build-up to the Iraq war, Brazil’s government never deviated from its position that any action against Iraq should first be approved by the United Nations. The death of the star diplomat caused Brazil to revisit its role as a critic of the U.S.-led intervention.

In an interview with Reuters, governing Worker’s Party foreign affairs chief Paulo Delgado praised Vieira de Mello for standing up to the United States: “He took a firm position with the United States, demanding that they re-establish water and electricity in Iraq.”

In a deliberate snub of U.S. occupation forces, President Lula made a series of telephone calls and hastily dispatched a Brazilian Air Force jet so that Vieira de Mello’s body did not have to be transported out of Iraq on a U.S. military aircraft.

Brazil’s media republished lengthy interviews in which Vieira de Mello evocatively described the resentment welling up in the Iraqi population. He openly pushed for full Iraqi control of the country by 2004, a quicker training of an all-Iraqi police force and referred to the occupation as “humiliating” for Iraqis.

In a turn of phrase that was repeated endlessly by Brazilian media, Vieira de Mello asked an interviewer to imagine what it would be like if U.S. tanks were rumbling through Rio: “I wouldn’t like to see tanks in Copacabana,” he said, referring to one of the city’s famous beach neighborhoods.

He also was frank in describing his fear of being a target. Mentioning the tongue-in-cheek Brazilian saying that claims “God is Brazilian,” Vieira de Mello told the Jornal do Brasil that he hoped the saying meant God would offer him special protection.

The conservative Estado newspaper noted that the U.S. military was responsible for providing security at the U.N. headquarters. Only days before the attack, the paper noted, Vieira de Mello personally complained to United Nations authorities that the security at the building seemed inadequate.

The same newspaper, in a blistering Aug. 21 editorial, called the U.S. occupation of Iraq a “dead-end alley” and dubbed the entire Iraq campaign a “disastrous adventure” that had only succeeded in transforming Iraq “into a sort of Mecca for Islamic terrorism.”

Germana De LaMare, columnist for the Rio de Janeiro daily O Dia, argued that the United Nations should now do more to show itself to be independent of U.S. interests. “The attack that took the life of one of our best diplomats shows that the situation in Iraq is becoming more complex, instead of settling down. ... The United Nations should begin to assume a more democratic profile, freer of the interests of rich nations.”

That is exactly what may happen, since Brazil, Latin America’s largest economy, has long lobbied for a permanent seat on an expanded, more inclusive U.N. Security Council, touting itself as the logical representative from Latin America, says Jaroslav Pribyl, editor of the San Diego, Calif.-based monthly Brazilian Pacific Times.

Vieira de Mello’s death comes at a special moment for Brazil’s engagement with the outside world, he says.

Brazil is shedding its recent past of military dictatorships, successfully consolidating its democracy and trying to project itself as a different kind of world power, one committed to a strong role for the United Nations and other multilateral bodies, as well as human rights and fair trade.

Noting Brazil had recently obtained France and Britain’s support for its U.N. Security Council bid, Pribyl says: “It’s about time Brazil got that seat. I think Brazil has good momentum in establishing foreign policy influence, and Vieira de Mello’s example will strengthen its resolve.”

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