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 to the kitchen to make hot chocolate and a slice of papaya, but plans for a leisurely breakfast were dashed when I realized that a sunrise blackout had cut milk. We had to settle for Ovomaltine diluted with water. He did not complain. He took my hand in his and said to console me that we would soon be back in Rio de Janeiro. The promise was accompanied by her frank smile and a hasty kiss. Then he took the briefcase and we headed to the Hotel Canal, where our office was. We met again hours later. He was no longer smiling then. Trapped in the rubble of a burning building, he struggled to maintain consciousness while I tried unsuccessfully to rescue him.
The terrorist attack on the United Nations headquarters in Iraq on August 19, 2003 killed 22 UN officials, including my husband, the Brazilian UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello. At the time of his death, Sergio held the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had been sent to Iraq to help the country build a post-war democratic government, and I accompanied him as an economist to continue discussions on the future of oil in the region. I worked seven years at the UN. We suffer side by side with excessive heat and insecurity, difficulties at work and mistrust of the population, but we also share the dream of a better future.
It never occurred to me not to accompany him to Iraq. After all, we were a family. We live together in Geneva, New York and East Timor, it would be no different in Baghdad. Still, the UN refused to acknowledge my role in Sergio’s life. I was excluded from the list of survivors of the attack and, despite having witnessed the tragedy, my statement was left out of the investigations. The different treatment was due to my marital status; Without a document proving that we were husband and wife, it simply did not exist for the organization.
This is a difficult attitude to understand when the history of the United Nations in promoting human rights is taken into account. Both in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the organization promotes the existence of various unconventional forms of families. This is an important recognition to protect women living with their partners without a document proving this union. After all, it is these women who suffer the most prejudice and their rights are ignored when they lose partners in tragic events.
While officially recognizing this, the UN bureaucracy in its internal statute continues to promote the traditional concept of family, that is, constituted solely by marriage. Due to this paradoxical situation, the organization where Sergio worked for 34 years refuses to follow the determination of the Brazilian law, which guarantees that Sergio and I had a civil union. The Brazilian judgment, obtained as a result of a ten-year lawsuit that carefully examined the evidence presented by all parties, is clear and final. The Brazilian government also confirmed to the United Nations that, according to the ruling, our family “has the same status as marriage for all legal purposes.” However, the organization persists in its Victorian values.
This patriarchal mentality, which protects anachronistic values, violates the basic right of any woman: that of her role being recognized, her figure legitimized and her existence confirmed as the companion of the man with whom she has chosen to live. It also harms human dignity by inciting political and social disadvantages, stereotypes, and prejudice.
Sergio used to say that it is necessary to expose equality between people with actions, not with words. Sixteen years have passed since then. It is time to honor him, and to many others like him, respecting his personal choices and legitimizing the family and the woman who accompanied him in the last years of his life instead of burying them under prejudices that no longer find space in the times. current. It is time for the UN to end the inconsistency between the official discourse and its internal policy so that the victims denied by the system find the peace and dignity they deserve. Sergio, as the UN’s moral conscience on human rights, would agree.
Carolina Larriera He is an economist and worked for almost a decade at the UN. He was in Baghdad during the attack on the headquarters of the organization that killed Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.
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