I’m truly honored to be here with you tonight. And thank you to the foundation for inviting me and thank you all for sharing in this moment.
We are here in the memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello and the 21 other men and women, most of them UN workers, who died with him in the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, August 2003.
We remember all those who died, to acknowledge each valuable life cut short, and the families who share, even today, in their sacrifice.
We also remember them for the power of the example they set: brave individuals from 11 different countries, working to help the Iraqi people, at the direction of the United Nations Security Council, and on behalf of all of us.
This is sometimes forgotten: that in serving under the UN flag, they died in our names, as our representatives.
And at their head, Sergio, was a man of extraordinary grace and ability, as so many who knew him would testify.
A man who gave 30 years to the United Nations, rising from a field officer to High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative to Iraq.
From Bangladesh and Bosnia to South Sudan to East Timor, he spent the majority of his career in the field, working alongside people forced from their homes by war, and assisting them with his skill as a diplomat and a negotiator.
Perhaps the greatest testament to his contribution is how much his advice would be valued today.
As the Syrian conflict enters its seventh year, as we live through the gravest refugee crisis since the founding of the United Nations, as 20 million people are on the brink of death from starvation in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and southeast Nigeria, I cannot imagine that there is anyone in the leadership of the United Nations who would not welcome the opportunity to consult Sergio, or to send him into the field once more. He is truly missed.
It is humbling for me to speak tonight in the presence of members of Sergio’s family and his former colleagues.
I never knew Sergio, but I have stood before the plaque in the place where he died.
I felt profound sadness at the fact that the conflict in Iraq – the source of so much Iraqi suffering to this day – had claimed the lives of men and women whose only intention was to try to improve a desperate situation.
But I also saw clearly the value and nobility of a life spent in service to others.
Sergio was a man who never turned down an assignment, no matter how difficult and dangerous – or as others have put it, who “handled one impossible task after another”.
He was a man, to borrow the words of Thomas Paine, whose country was the world, whose religion was to do good.
He will always remain a hero and inspiration to all who follow in his footsteps.
The UN’s work did not end there in the rubble of Canal House 14 years ago.
Hundreds of UN staff have served, and continue to, serve in Iraq, as they do from Afghanistan to Somalia, because the task of building peace and security can never be abandoned, no matter how bleak the situation.
My thoughts on Sergio’s life and legacy derive from my 16 years with UNHCR, the Agency he spent so much of his career serving and representing.
But I also speak as a citizen for my country – the United States.
I believe all of us who work with the UN preserve this duality. The United Nations is not a country, it is a place where we come together as nations and people to try to resolve our differences and to unite in common action.
As a citizen, I find myself looking out on a global environment that seems more troubling and uncertain than at any time in my lifetime. And I imagine many of you feel the same.
We are grappling with a level of conflict and insecurity that seems to exceed our will and capabilities: with more refugees than ever before, with new wars erupting on top of existing conflicts, some already lasting decades.
We see a rising tide of nationalism, masquerading as patriotism, and the re-emergence of policies encouraging fear and hatred of others.
We see some politicians elected partly on the basis of dismissing international institutions and agreements, as if our countries have not benefited from cooperation, but actually been harmed by it.
We hear some leaders talking as if some of our proudest achievements are in fact our biggest liabilities – whether it is the tradition of successfully integrating refugees into our societies, or the institutions and treaties we have built rooted in law and human rights.
We see nations that played a role – a proud role in the founding of the International Criminal Court withdrawing from it, on the one hand; and on the other, we see arrest warrants for alleged war crimes issued but not implemented, and other crimes ignored altogether.
We see a country like South Sudan ushered by the international community into independence, and then largely abandoned – not by the UN agencies and NGOs – but effectively abandoned, without the massive support they need to make a success of sovereignty.
And we see resolutions and laws on the protection of civilians and the use of chemical weapons, for instance, flouted repeatedly, and in some cases, under the cover of Security Council vetoes, as in Syria.
Many of these things are not new – but taken together – and in the absence of strong international leadership, they are deeply worrying.
When we consider this, all of this and more, as citizens, what is our answer?
Do we, as some would encourage us to think, turn our backs on the world, and hope that the storm would pass?