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BOOK REVIEW: Chasing the Flame - Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (Hardback, 640 pages, Allen Lane, rrp £25, available £17.50)

Samantha Power is mostly famous for one thing on this side of the Atlantic. She was the foreign policy advisor on Barack Obama's campaign who had to resign back in March after she was quoted in The Scotsman newspaper calling Hillary Clinton a "monster".

Fast forward nine months, Obama has vanquished both Clinton and McCain in the race to the White House, Clinton is the Secretary of State-in-waiting … and Irish-born Power is back as a foreign policy advisor on Obama's transition team.

Power deserves to be more widely known for more than an inopportune comment in the heat of battle of the Democratic primaries – she's also a Harvard Professor of international relations and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (for her first book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide).

It was during the promotional tour for her second authored book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, that she made her infamous Hillary remarks. The book relates the life and career of de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations Special Representative in Iraq who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad along with colleagues, in August 2003.

De Mello was a larger than life Brazilian, a lifetime staffer with the UN, working for the UNHCR and various other UN agencies and teams over thirty years of international service. His career is also the story of the United Nations over the last few decades. If there was trouble in the world (Bangladesh, Cyprus, Sudan, Mozambique, Peru, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Fiji, East Timor, Iraq), de Mello was sure to follow, dealing in humanitarian aid and refugee rescue and increasingly seen as the UN's trouble-shooter in an ever-more demanding world. Some tipped him as a future Secretary General of the organisation, before his untimely death at the hands of a Baghdad suicide bomber, while serving as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq.

De Mello emerges as a hugely charismatic man: a Scotch-drinking, womanising, workaholic, idealist-cum-pragmatist who earned the devotion of his staff.

Studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in the late sixties, he joined the student protests and, decades later, still carried the scar he earned from the Parisian police for his trouble.

He brought his intellect and moral philosophy to bear on his work with the UN where, from trouble-spot to trouble-spot, he grappled with the terrible political and humanitarian dilemmas the job threw up. That he often faced these huge problems without clear directions from his UN headquarters says as much about the lack of leadership emerging from those States on the Security Council as it does about the bureaucracy of the UN itself.

Through the book, Power explores the political difficulties and humanitarian challenges encountered by de Mello and the United Nations over the last forty years and poses questions as to how the international community ought to respond.

As an avowed advocate of humanitarian intervention in times of human rights crises, Power's presence on the Obama foreign policy team would suggest that the United States is not on the verge of becoming isolationist on the wake of the chastening experience of Iraq. Equally, Power's understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the UN, and her apparent (if not uncritical) admiration of de Mello's attempts to make the system work for the world's most vulnerable, would suggest a future US approach far removed from the kick-the-UN style of the Bush-Bolton years.

If you want a well-told narrative of a man who tried to make a difference in a world at war and a realistic analysis of the will and wisdom of the international community at work, then I thoroughly recommend Chasing the Flame as a meticulously researched and also, at times, rattling good read. If the £25 price tag for the hardback seems a little steep, maybe you can persuade a loved one to make it a Christmas gift, wait for the paperback out in March or, do as I did, and support your local public library!

This is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of book reviews for Belfast and Beyond. Sometimes they'll be hot off the presses, other times years old but worth revisiting. Let me know your own thoughts on the books reviewed or tips for ones I should seek out myself or let us know what you think are the best human rights-related books of the year.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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