But for George W. Bush’s illegal and misguided war on Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, would be alive today. Mr. de Mello devoted most of his life to the U.N.’s mission to protect human rights and achieve international peace and security. He served in some of the toughest trouble spots in the world, including Lebanon, East Timor, Yugoslavia, Peru, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Sudan, Cambodia and Mozambique.
Sergio Vieira de Mello went to Iraq at the request of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan for a four-month humanitarian commitment. One month short of his return to Geneva, Mr. de Mello was buried alive in rubble from a suicide truck bomber who targeted the United Nations in Baghdad.
Ignoring the pleas of millions of people around the world and most of the United Nations members, Bush had persisted in his march to war. Contrary to Bush’s assertions, Saddam Hussein never posed an imminent threat to the United States. Until Bush unleashed “almost biblical” firepower on Iraq, al Qaeda was not operating there. Yet since the U.S./U.K. became the occupying power, Iraq has become fertile ground for outside jihadis.
Many Saudi Arabian Islamists have crossed the border into Iraq to prepare for a holy war against the U.S./U.K. forces, according to The Financial Times. The Arab satellite television channel al-Arabiya broadcast a statement purportedly from al Qaeda, which urged Muslims around the world to travel to Iraq to fight the U.S. occupation, and claimed that recent attacks on U.S. forces had been carried out by jihadis.
The blast that killed Mr. de Mello and 19 others, and wounded more than 100 in the U.N. compound in Baghdad Tuesday, was likely the handiwork of the same forces that bombed the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad 12 days before, killing 11 people. Osama bin Laden has long decried the United States’ role in the first Gulf War, the punishing sanctions against the people of Iraq, and the United Nations for “supporting the oppressive, tyrannical and arrogant America [in Afghanistan] against those oppressed who have emerged from a ferocious war at the hands of the Soviet Union.”
In the twisted minds of the terrorists who likely executed the worst attack on a U.N. civilian operation in its 58-year history, the United States and the United Nations are linked. Yet Bush’s new doctrine of “preemptive war” is a clear violation of the U.N. Charter. And in spite of intense pressure by Bush, including threats and bribes, the members of the Security Council refused to hand him a resolution sanctioning his war on Iraq. Bush accused the United Nations of becoming “irrelevant.”
When he was sent to Baghdad, it was Sergio de Mello’s dream “to assist the Iraqi people and those responsible for the administration of this land to achieve freedom, the possibility of managing their own destiny and determining their own future.” He empathized with the Iraqi people who resented the foreign occupiers. “It is traumatic,” he said. “It must be one of the most humiliating periods in their history. Who would like to see their country occupied?” He wanted “to make sure that the interests of the Iraqi people come first” as they rebuild their country.
Sergio de Mello’s death is an unspeakable tragedy for the cause of world peace. “I can think of no one we could less afford to spare,” observed Kofi Annan. And Salim Lone, Mr. de Mello’s spokesman in Baghdad, said, “He was a wonderful guy. He was the U.N. in a way.” Mr. Lone added, “I grieve most of all for the people of Iraq because he was really the man who could have helped bring about an end to the occupation. An end to the trauma the people of Iraq have suffered for so long.”
We must emerge from this tragedy by redoubling our support for the United Nations. As Iraqis, Americans, and many from other countries continue to die in Iraq, Bush must relinquish control of Iraq to the United Nations. It is the arrogance of occupation that creates roiling hatred against the occupier. Mr. de Mello was confident that Iraqis distinguished between the U.N. and the foreign occupiers. The end of the occupation would empower the people of Iraq to take control of their own destiny. Then Sergio Vieira de Mello will not have died in vain.
MARJORIE COHN, a professor of law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, is executive vice president of the National Lawyers Guild.