The life story of the former UN envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, epitomises a wider tragedy of our times
If you only read one book about the United Nations, make sure that it is Samantha Power's Chasing the Flame biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello. The excellent reviews that it has received here and here actually do not do it sufficient justice. Whatever you think about the UN, the invasion of Iraq or the various humanitarian crises that took place in the 1990s you will learn something from it.
While many people have extremely strong opinions about "humanitarian interventions", the subject is surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It is a new, and comparatively under-studied, area of work and, although its influence on international relations is clearly growing, it has been subject to very little serious scrutiny.
Power uses Vieira de Mello's career to tell a much wider story about how the UN has grappled with the humanitarian crises of the last few decades. Vieira de Mello served in the middle of some of the world's worst conflict zones and he was responsible for making decisions during some of the UN's most controversial and difficult missions. He defended the concept of humanitarian neutrality during the siege of Sarajevo, when many argued for a tougher line against the Serbs. He also helped to oversee the forcible closure of the Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, which remains one of UN high commissioner for refugees' most criticised actions in its history.