Sergio Vieira de Mello. (Photo: UN)

The auditorium was full in that sunny morning. A young Syrian asylum seeker had mixed feelings. When her name was called, she promptly stood up and stepped onto the stage to receive her certificate of the Portuguese language. She could not believe what she had achieved. With the document ceremoniously handed to her by a Brazilian student, who was also her language teacher, the refugee walked back to her chair and cried with joy.

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The scene took place at the Federal University of ABC, one of 22 Brazilian universities now affiliated with the Sergio Vieira de Mello Academic Consortium which seeks to support both refugees and migrants to learn Portuguese but also integrate more effectively into Brazilian society through academic support and dialogue. The UN High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) created the Sergio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair in the end of 2003 in memory of Sergio following his tragic death.

Sergio Vieira de Mello (L) with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, 2003. (Photo: UN)

Sergio Vieira de Mello: Establishing his legacy in Brazil

As a Brazilian diplomat born in Rio de Janeiro, Sergio devoted almost his entire life to refugees as a UN official. During Secretary General Kofi Annan`s mandate (1997-2007), he played particularly innovative roles in a period of major global upheavals and UN reforms. Following the NATO-led invasion of Kosovo in the summer of 1999, he was in Pristina within days to set up the new UN Transitional Administration. Two months later, he was sent to East Timor as the UN’s Transitional Administrator, or Viceroy as some described him, helping to lead the former Portuguese colony to independence from Indonesian rule. In 2002, Kofi Annan appointed de Mello the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva but was then sent to Baghdad in May, 2003, as the Secretary General’s Special Representative in Iraq.

A brilliant UN diplomat, Sergio liked to describe himself as an “idealistic pragmatic”. He also sought to ensure that the UN operated as independently as possible, regardless of outside pressures, in order to fulfill its mandate. This was clearly made evident in the two documentaries exploring his life, notably En route to Baghdad (2006) and Sergio (2009) as well as the 2020 Netflix biographical drama, Sergio.

Prior to de Mello’s death, US diplomat Paul Bremer, the new head of the US-led Iraq Coalition Authority (a multi-national force only supported by half a dozen countries, including the UK, but not France nor Germany) sought to persuade de Mello to have the UN operate according to Washington’s wishes. Sergio, however, pushed back insisting that the UN had to maintain neutrality and be perceived as such by the Iraqis.

The shattered United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, August, 2003. (Photo: UN)

Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed shortly afterwards in the Baghdad bombing on 19 August, 2003, so one can only assume that he would have done everything possible to ensure that the UN be perceived as neutral and operating in the interests of the Iraqi people. Responsibility for the Canal Hotel bombing was claimed by Jordanian Jihadist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who also maintained that de Mello had been targeted for his responsibility of removing East Timor from Muslim-dominated Indonesia.

A growth in universities willing to embrace broader refugee integration policies

Since the creation of the Vieira de Mello Chair, the number of participating Brazilian universities has steadily increased as the experiences accumulated have become more diverse and committed to a broad refugee integration policy. The initiative emerged from the first national seminar of the Chair in 2010 organized by Brazil`s UNHCR office. This brought together different universities and encouraged the sharing of lessons learned. From then onwards, the national seminar became an annual event and eventually lead to the creation of a Consortium of Brazilian universities.

The original idea of the Chair was to teach refugee law, free-of-charge. But this spontaneously expanded as more universities became involved. They all began to offer other activities to refugees, also without charge. These included access to college courses; facilitation to recognize diplomas; specially-designed Portuguese language courses; health services at select university hospitals, plus law school legal clinics. Undergraduate students played a key role in supporting the refugees.

The Sergio Vieira de Mello Academic Chair is now becoming a powerful instrument for promoting solidarity with refugees. In particular, the internationalization of higher education is leading to a significant strengthening of the universities` own refugee mission. One important dimension is the contribution of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees to the academic environment. Their presence, knowledge, visions and realities as well as their courage and passion represent a rich and powerful asset.

As presented at the December 2019 Global Refugee Forum, such good practice is moving beyond Brazil’s borders. The Consortium is emerging as a promising resource for the Global Academic Interdisciplinary Network (G.A.I.N.), a new initiative sponsored by the UNHCR. This is highlighting the enormous potential of universities worldwide to contribute to the various academic dimensions related to refugee policy and law. But it is also turning the dreams of many thousands of forced migrants and asylum seekers into a reality by empowering at the tertiary educational level.

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues was a senior visiting researcher (Capes-Print Fellowship) at the GCR/University of Duisburg-Essen, In Germany (2019-2020). He is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC, in Brazil. Rodrigues presented the Sergio Vieira de Mello Academic Consortium in the Global Refugee Forum, Geneva, 2019. E-mail:

The biofilm ‘Sergio’, which was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, is now available on Netflix. The film lends a relatively positive if not romantic sense of who Sergio Vieira de Mello was but certainly does not do him justice, particularly for those who knew him well. Yet for those viewers who are not fully aware of what the United Nations does, or tries to do, this is a cinematic primer well worth watching. (The Editors)

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