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HBO's "Sergio" Inspires But Glosses UN's Independence and War Criminal Engagements

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED 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.

   Strangely, 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 laughed.

  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 rubble.

   At 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.

    The 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 one.

    The 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 entirely independent.

   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

  Sergio 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.

  The screening was an echo, thirteen months later, of another reception 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 HBO documentary.

   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.

   One of Ban Ki-moon's bodyguards blocked the entrance, then demanded to know, "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.

   The 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

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Muse

UNITED NATIONS, May 13 -- Under a red light and with a broken microphone, the founders of eBay and the celebrated biographer of Sergio de Mello launched a campaign Tuesday night in the UN's Delegates' Dining Room. Samantha Power, with the requisite jokes about her falling-out with Barak Obama's campaign, 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. Those who are expected to match it were invited to an event about Power's book about de Mello, "Chasing the Flame."

            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 foreign policy professor could be in the bookstore to talk about it. Perhaps there'll be an affiliated line of coffees, one wag mused as the sunset reflected off the mirrored buildings on Long Island City.

            Beyond the joke about Power being exiled from the Obama campaign for overly energetic criticism of Hillary 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 cheese cubes, to get to a television and watch the night's West Virginia primary results. Power described de Mello, or at least one of his phrases, as "Obama-esque."

Samantha Power on a panel, cheese cubes and eBay not shown

   Not mentioned was Obama's letter to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad earlier this year, demanding that the U.S. not support any statement about the blockage of Gaza until the statement also condemned Hamas. Power mused about the responsibility to protect, mentioning "Burma, Darfur 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 really following any of it too closely. The on-again off-again microphone was joked about -- "this is not a metaphor for the UN," Power said.  But perhaps all of it is, a metaphor...

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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here 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 Analysis here

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