HRF Remembers Two Leading Human Rights Activists

Today Human Rights First commemorates the fifth anniversary of the loss of two remarkable human rights advocates, Arthur C. Helton and Sergio Vieira de Mello, who were among the 22 people killed in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003.


Arthur Helton was a respected lawyer and a leading authority on refugee and humanitarian issues. His death was a particular loss for us at Human Rights First, where he worked for 12 years, from 1982 to 1994. Arthur launched the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First and created the pro bono asylum legal representation project here, an innovative model in which volunteer lawyers at the country’s leading law firms partner with Human Rights First to represent indigent refugees. The program Arthur founded, which has been replicated by others across the country, has helped thousands of refugees find safe haven and begin new lives in the United States. At the time of his death, Arthur was Director, Peace and Conflict Studies and a Senior Fellow, Refugee Studies and Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the course of his career, Arthur Helton was a key influence in the shaping of U.S. asylum law and policy. He also studied displaced populations and humanitarian crises all over the world, writing and advocating on refugee issues in Central America, Southeast Asia, Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. He was one of the leading outside advisors to the United Nations on refugee issues, and he pushed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to adopt strong refugee protection policies. Arthur was at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad to meet with Sergio Vieira De Mello, who was then the U.N.’s chief envoy to Iraq.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, who also died in the bombing, joined the United Nations in 1969 and spent the next three decades carrying out humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts, mostly working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Vieira de Mello served on missions in Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru and Yugoslavia. He was appointed as Kofi Annan’s special representative to Kosovo and also played a leading role in East Timor prior to its 2002 independence, serving as U.N. Transitional Administrator. In September 2002, Vieira de Mello was named U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2003, he went to Iraq as Special Representative of the Secretary General, intending to stay for four months before returning to Geneva. Sergio Vieira de Mello brought relief and resolution to some of the world’s most difficult conflicts.

We remember Arthur Helton and Sergio Vieira de Mello and all those who died in the bombing of the U.N. headquarters five years ago today and seek to honor their memory in our work.


Published on August 19, 2008


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