"Sergio" Inspires But Glosses UN's Independence and
War Criminal Engagements
Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis
NATIONS, June 18 -- HBO's new documentary "Sergio," which
premiered Thursday night at United Nations Headquarters, is
explicitly intended to make viewers, primarily in the United States,
have more respect for the work of the UN. It juxtaposes the career of
Sergio de Mello, negotiating with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and
Paul Bremer in Iraq, with the hours in which de Mello lay trapped in
the rubble of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad following the truck bombing
for which Zarqawi claimed credit.
the film devotes extended talking head monologues to one of the
Americans, Andre Valentine, who tried to dig de Mello out while
urging him to pray. F*** prayer, he quotes de Mello as responding. At
the premiere, which was the single time in the film that the audience
The rest was mostly sombre interviews with de Mello's
co-workers, including his deputy in East Timor Peter Galbraith, now
deputy with the UN in Afghanistan, and his Francophone bodyguard Gaby
Pinchon. While a documentary, there are fuzzy reenactments of the
truck bomb being constructed, and the subsequent digging in the
a reception afterwards, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that there
are many Sergios in the UN system and that protecting UN staff is
still an uphill struggle for resources from member states. Ban didn't
address the criticism that the UN often keeps security levels and
precautions low in order to placate governments. Similarly, HBO's
"Sergio" does not meaningfully address the criticism of de
Mello and the wider UN as being too quick or cavalier in engaging
with war criminals.
documentary mentions it in passing, but quickly concludes that it was
the only way to get the work done. It barely covers de Mello's time
in the Balkans, when he came to be called Serbio for his engagement
with hardliners in Belgrade. Some have pointed to Ban's public praise
for Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa in similar terms. There may be a
rationale, but neither the film nor the speech afterwards offered
film shows de Mello at a press conference in Baghdad, bristling at a
reporter who questioned whether the UN was just working for the
Americans there. De Mello insisted that he and Kofi Annan were
But in reality, a Secretary General is
responsive to member states of the UN and especially the five
permanent members of the Security Council, which hold veto power over
a first and second term. A Special Representative like de Mello
operates under a mandate written by the Council, subject to the veto
of any of the five Permanent members. This isn't, and shouldn't be
(described as), total independence.
Sergio in Cyprus in May 2003
liked to swim when he went to his native Brazil with his constructive
fiancee Carolina. As he lay covered with rubble, Carolina begged to
be allowed to help dig him out. She was told that it was de Mello,
and his his pit mate, who survived by having his legs sawed off.
Fine, she said, as long as he is alive. Then she learned that he was
dead. She attended the premiere, along with Samantha Power, on whose
book the documentary is based.
screening was an echo, thirteen months later, of another
held at the UN, in which Ms. Power announced the Freedom from Fear
Social Action Campaign, to which eBay's founders Pierre and Pam
Omidyar are contributing $350,000 as a matching grant, and which Ms.
Power said would result in an
Thursday one wanted
to ask Ms. Power, whose first book called genocide the "Problem
from Hell" and who is now a major Obama administration adviser,
for her views on the slaughter this year in northern Sri Lanka.
of Ban Ki-moon's bodyguards blocked the entrance, then demanded to
"What question do you want to ask?" A little taste of Sri
Lanka, right in the UN. Actually, the spread at the reception
included pasta and roasted red peppers; Under Secretaries General
from Stefan de Mistura to Terje Roed Larsen listened to Ban's speech.
One officials told Inner City Press that when Ban said the UN has
many Sergios, he gulped his wine. "No we don't," he said.
official next in line for the Iraq post, UNDP perennial deputy Ad
Melkert, was there, perhaps tipping his hand. Downstairs outside the
screening room, new U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who Ms.
Power praised as a courageous in her open remarks, chatted with
Zimbabwe's Ambassador. One wag remarked, Serbio lives. Many people
wish that it were so. Rest in peace.
* * *
From the archives, May 13, 2008:
Chasing the Flame
with Cheese Cubes, US Progressives at UN Launch Campaign Funded by eBay
Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Muse
13 -- Under a red light and with a broken microphone, the founders of
the celebrated biographer of Sergio de Mello launched a campaign
in the UN's Delegates' Dining Room. Samantha Power, with the requisite
about her falling-out with Barak Obama's campaign, announced the
Fear Social Action Campaign, to which eBay's founders Pierre and Pam
contributing $350,000 as a matching grant. Those who are expected to
were invited to an event about Power's book about de Mello, "Chasing
The goal is to make Americans care
more about foreign policy, by jazzing it up with de Mello's story. The
campaign's first steps, or "products" as Power called them, are an
HBO documentary and a feature film based off the book.
Power spoke of synergy between Borders
bookstores and the AMC movie theater chain: after a screening, a
professor could be in the bookstore to talk about it. Perhaps there'll
affiliated line of coffees, one wag mused as the sunset reflected off
mirrored buildings on Long Island City.
Beyond the joke about Power being
exiled from the Obama campaign for overly energetic criticism of
Clinton as "a monster," Obama's name came up repeatedly. The
audience was told they must be chomping at the bit, and not only the
cubes, to get to a television and watch the night's West Virginia
Power described de Mello, or at least one of his phrases, as
Samantha Power on a panel, cheese cubes and
eBay not shown
mentioned was Obama's letter to U.S. Ambassador
Zalmay Khalilzad earlier this year, demanding that the U.S. not support
statement about the blockage of Gaza until the statement also condemned
Power mused about the responsibility to protect, mentioning "Burma,
and Iran" and speaking of bringing "law to lawless places." She
said that "if China is to change" and be "brought in," it
will happen "in capitals."
It was a decidedly less diverse
audience than one usually finds at events in the UN Delegates' Dining
Room. To a sociologist's eye, these were affluent Americans, loyal
supporters of all things UN without
following any of it too closely. The on-again off-again microphone was
about -- "this is not a metaphor for the UN," Power said. But perhaps all of it is, a metaphor...
* * *
These reports are
usually also available through Google
News and on Lexis-Nexis.
here for a Reuters
AlertNet piece by this correspondent
about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click
for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National
Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an
undefined trust fund. Video
UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA
Reporter's mobile (and weekends):
earlier Inner City Press are listed here, and some are available
in the ProQuest service, and now on Lexis-Nexis.
2006-08 Inner City Press, Inc. To request
reprint or other permission, e-contact Editorial [at]