Sergio and the other victims (2019)

Sergio and the other victims.

It is time for the UN to put an end to the inconsistency between official discourse and its internal policy so that victims denied by the system find the peace and dignity they deserve

By Carolina Larriera *

The scorching sun that kept Baghdad’s temperature parked at 50 degrees Celsius made our morning start early, as he liked so much. I went into the kitchen to make hot chocolate and slice a papaya, but plans for a quiet breakfast were dashed when I realized that a power outage at dawn had spoilt the milk. We had to settle for Ovomaltine diluted with water. He did not complain. He took my hand in his and said to comfort me that we would soon be in Rio de Janeiro. The promise was accompanied by his frank smile and a hasty kiss. Then he took the briefcase and we headed toward the Hotel Canal, where our office was. We met again hours later. He no longer smiled then. Trapped in the rubble of a burning building, he struggled to maintain consciousness as I tried unsuccessfully to rescue him.

The terrorist attack on the United Nations headquarters in Iraq on 19 August 2003 killed 22 UN staff, including my spouse, Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. At the time of his death, Sergio held the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had been sent to Iraq to help the country build a postwar democratic government, and I accompanied him as an economist to monitor the discussions on the future of oil in the region. I had been a UN staff for seven years. We suffered side by side with excessive heat and insecurity, difficulties at work and distrust of the population, but we also shared the dream of a better future. It never crossed my mind not to accompany him to Iraq. After all, we were a family. We lived together in Geneva, New York and East Timor; it would be no different in Baghdad. Even so, the UN refused to acknowledge my role in Sergio’s life. I was excluded from the list of survivors of the bombing and, despite having been a firsthand witness of the tragedy; my testimony was left out of the official investigations. The differential treatment was due to my marital status.  Without a document proving that we were husband and wife, I simply did not exist for the organization.

This is a difficult posture to understand when taking into account the United Nations record in promoting human rights. Both at the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the entity welcomes the existence of various unconventional forms of families. This is an important recognition for protecting women living with their spouses without a document substantiating their union. After all, it is these women who suffer the most prejudice and have their rights ignored when they lose their partners in tragic events.

While officially recognizing this, in its internal statute the UN burocracy continues to promote the traditional concept of family, that is, constituted solely by marriage. Because of this paradoxical situation, the organization where Sergio worked for 34 years refuses to follow the determination of Brazilian law, which found that Sergio and I lived in a civil union. The Brazilian judgment arrived at the end of a ten-year long legal process that carefully examined evidence submitted by all parties, is clear and final. The Brazilian Government also confirmed to the United Nations that, based on the judgment, our family “has status equal to marriage, for all legal purposes”.  However, the organization persists in their Victorian values.

This patriarchal mentality, which protects outdated values, violates any woman’s elemental right: to have her role recognized, her figure legitimized, and her existence confirmed as a partner to the man with whom she chose to live. It also hurts human dignity by inciting political and social disadvantages, stereotypes and prejudices.Sergio used to say that it is necessary to expose equality between people with actions, not just words. Sixteen years have passed since then. It is time to honor him, and so many others like him, by respecting his personal choices and legitimizing the family and the woman who accompanied him in the last years of his life rather than burying them under prejudices that no longer find space in present times. It is time for the UN to put an end to the inconsistency between official discourse and its internal policy so that victims denied by the system find the peace and dignity they deserve. Sergio, as the moral conscience of human rights, would have agreed.

* Argentine economist Carolina Larriera worked for nearly a decade at the UN. She was in Baghdad during the attack on the headquarters of the organization that killedBrazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.