Thinking Terror I: Peace in the Ruins Is Easy, Research Time, 07/06/2016

This biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello is one of the best biographies that I’ve read in quite a while. I think the last one I read that was as good as Samantha Power’s treatment of the murdered diplomat’s life was Louis Althusser’s autobiography The Future Lasts Forever.*

* Just check out Althusser’s Wikipedia page for how disturbing the last years of his life were. We’re talking some Lynchian-intensity psychological terror here.

Vieira de Mello’s life is a catalogue of lessons about the potentials and limitations of seeking peace in our violent world. And he was willing to take incredible risks for the sake of peace. 

Sergio Vieira de Mello in Cambodia, where he was in
charge of making sure hundreds of thousands of refugees
returned to the country, even on barely functional buses
that could barely run on what was left of the roads.
Here’s an example. It’s 1991. Vieira de Mello’s first major global assignment was overseeing the peace settlements in Cambodia, and the return of refugees there from camps on the Thai border in time for elections. That peace settlement were between the forces of the country’s dictator Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge guerrilla organization.

You know, the Khmer Rouge who killed more than two million people in a three-year period. The literal Killing Fields. Vieira de Mello’s job was to get them to sign a peace treaty. Hun Sen – standard authoritarian dictator that he is – was no fun either, as he rarely hesitated to kill and torture political enemies. 

Vieira de Mello hiked across dangerous stretches of Cambodia to Khmer Rouge territory on the first outreach of the international community. Welcoming horrifyingly violent men who purposely set about systematic class-based genocide to the table for peace talks.

That's the terror of what the United Nations’ policy of impartiality in conflicts was built to accomplish. The thing is, it’s a necessary terror. You have to deal with monsters, because monsters can rarely be beaten by force. You have to deal with monsters so that they return to our society and everyone comes to understand that we’re all people.

When I sit down and write Utopias, it’ll include many chains and threads, different ways to understand how we develop, use, and relate to our ideals. Stories about Vieira de Mello will be narratives of how the United Nations embodies so many paradoxes of putting ideals into practice. 

That’s the United Nations as an institution as well as Sergio Vieira de Mello the person. 

The overall purpose of the UN is to progress humanity along the road to genuine world peace. In that sense, it’s a pacifist organization, at least in its founding ideals. But it’s also an organization that was formed in the shadow of the Holocaust. So the institution is also invested – from its birth – with the knowledge of the true horror we can all accomplish.

Ieng Sary, the old guy in the white, looks like any
annoying old guy you might run into at a convenience
store complaining about the ATM's service fees. He
was one of the central planners of the torture and murder
of millions of Cambodians in the name of building a
utopian vision of his country as a giant collective farm.
The United Nations – a global diplomatic institution born in the knowledge of humanity’s most horrific monstrousness, yet imbued with the faith that peace is possible through though work in the gritty material of the world.

Yes, that sounds like a very good strain to include.

A couple of chapters after Vieira de Mello shakes hands with Ieng Sary, one of the architects of the Cambodian genocide, he’s meeting Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. To anyone who paid attention to cable news in the 1990s, those names are chilling. They’re the face of ethnic cleansing and the terror of nationalism.

Even though Cambodia fell into dictatorship just a few years after the 1993 elections that Vieira de Mello’s work helped make possible, he arrived more than a decade after the 1975-8 genocide. 

The Khmer Rouge still made insurgent attacks against Hun Sen’s government, but the war was over. By the 1990s, politics in Cambodia was a power game played in the ruins of a country.

His relationships with the Bosnian Serb leadership was very different. The UN was one of the last lines of defence against a genocide in progress. Bosnia, particularly the capital Sarajevo, was in the middle of a war that would reduce that country to ruins.

You can be impartial when the most brutal fighting is over and all sides have something of an interest in brokering something resembling peace. Impartiality is still an ethically good stance – you’re the negotiator settling the end of a conflict.

A morality of impartiality can’t work for a war in progress, particularly a war where one side (or even worse, both) is dedicated to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet going into Bosnia, that was all Vieira de Mello had. . . . To be continued

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