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U.N. remains positive force
Despite all its detractors, the United Nations still makes a positive difference in the world.

Date published: 10/11/2012

By Ed Jones

THE SILVER MANE and stylish suit looked right out of central casting. More than two decades later, I still remember United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello holding forth with a group of editorial writers in a conference room at U.N. headquarters in New York.

With his lightly accented English, the dashing and handsome Brazilian expert on humanitarian operations captured much of what is best about the world body.

Far from the entrenched bureaucracies in New York, Vieira de Mello was a nimble and nuanced roamer of the world. He would do important work to save lives in the new nation of East Timor a few years later.

Often mentioned as a future U.N. secretary-general, Vieira de Mello had helped clear bombs in Cambodia, negotiated the release of hostages in Fiji and aided refugees in Mozambique.

His distinguished service to the world would end in August 2003, when a massive bomb struck U.N. headquarters in Iraq, where the 55-year-old Vieira de Mello had gone as a special representative. He would die, along with 20 colleagues, amid the rubble--a man of peace struck down by the purveyors of violence.

I think a lot about Sergio Vieira de Mello when I hear so many Americans attack the United Nations for its incompetence and uselessness. He reminds me of the high purposes for which the world body was created, and which still guide its best efforts.

You can find the story of Vieira de Mello in a new book by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, titled "Interventions." It's the best book about the United Nations of the many I've read over the years.

Don't expect Annan to seduce you with introspection. Nor will some critics be satisfied by his lack of a full mea culpa for some of the shortcomings of his U.N. service--the failure to do more to stop the Rwandan genocide and the corruption in the Oil for Food program in Iraq.

But Annan offers a clear, thoughtful and persuasive case for why the U.N. is still useful, and why it hasn't been able to accomplish more.

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