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Since 1st March, 1999
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Iraq death stirs India memory Iraq death stirs India memory
- Slain UN envoy had a brush with Delhi in Bangla liberation war

New York, Aug. 20: Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq who was killed yesterday, cut his diplomatic teeth in Bangladesh during that country’s war for liberation.

Vieira de Mello, who UN diplomats believe was being groomed by the US to take over from Kofi Annan as the next secretary-general, was field officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) based in Dhaka in 1971-72 when East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh.

Just 23 years old at that time, the Dhaka assignment was his first field job in the UN and second assignment in the world body. For two years prior to that he was an assistant editor at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The stint in Bangladesh did not, however, endear Vieira de Mello to India. Indira Gandhi’s government did not allow UNHCR to establish any presence at camps in India for refugees from what was still East Pakistan.

What is more, New Delhi also objected to any UNHCR presence at reception centres for refugees in East Pakistan.

Within India, the responsibility for providing relief to refugees was firmly with the ministry of labour and rehabilitation although the UNHCR had been allowed to open a representative office in New Delhi shortly before the Bangladesh crisis snowballed.

Indian government statements at that time, in fact, described those crossing over from the eastern border as “evacuees” so that UNHCR would have no role in their welfare and to make it clear that they would have to return home at some stage.

For Vieira de Mello, his then boss in Dhaka, John Kelly, and UNHCR representative in India, Pijnacker Hordijk, dealings with New Delhi became more difficult when Sadruddin Aga Khan, the then UNHCR, accepted President Yahya Khan’s invitation and went to Pakistan in June 1971.

Indira Gandhi viewed the visit as an endorsement of the Pakistani junta’s human rights violations in East Pakistan and Aga Khan received a cold reception in New Delhi when he arrived there from across the border.

Early impressions become powerful influences in shaping career attitudes, but with Vieira de Mello’s tragic death, Indian diplomats with long association with the UN no longer want to speculate on what his attitude to India may have been if he had become the UN’s next secretary-general.

When Kofi Annan’s second term expires on December 31, 2006, he is likely to be succeeded by an Asian or a Latin American. Since there are no emerging favourites from Asia, Vieira de Mello was widely considered to be the choice from Latin America.

Although Annan has a working relationship with Washington in contrast to that of his predecessor, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Americans see Annan as his own man.

At a time when the UN is the major obstacle to the Bush administration’s unilateralist policies, the White House would like someone who can be considered an ally to head the world body.

President Bill Clinton’s UN envoy, Bill Richardson, said on television last night that the Americans had “accepted” Vieira de Mello as the UN chief in Baghdad when his name was proposed by Annan.

Vieira de Mello was possibly targeted by terrorists yesterday not only because of this acceptance to the US. The UN diplomat played a key role in creating Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council, persuading many reluctant Iraqis to join the body.

He travelled to Iraq’s neighbouring countries urging them to back the council. He was also very close to Paul Bremer, the US administrator, who agreed to call the body a Governing Council — instead of Advisory Council — at Vieira de Mello’s suggestion.

Vieira de Mello also played a crucial role in getting the UN Security Council to grant recognition to the council as a legitimate body of Iraqis, probably signing his death warrant with such action.

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