UN names new envoy for Western Sahara

Thursday October 07 2021
Staffan de Mistura

Staffan de Mistura, then United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, speaks in Geneva on September 4, 2018. He was nominated on October 6, 2021 as the organisation's envoy to the Western Sahara conflict. PHOTO | AFP


United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday named Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara.

This comes at a time when the territorial contest between Western Sahara and Morocco continues unabated.

Therefore, part of de Mistura’s job will be to prevail upon parties⎯Morocco and the Polisario Front backed by Algeria⎯ to return to the table and agree on the future of the region that was once a Spanish colony before Morocco claimed it.

Mistura will replace Horst Köhler of Germany who left the position in May 2019, following unsuccessful bid to revitalise the mediation.

“Mr de Mistura will provide good leadership on behalf of the Secretary General.  He will work with all relevant interlocutors, including the involved parties, neighbouring countries and other stakeholders, guided by Security Council resolution 2548 (2020), and other relevant resolutions,” the UN said on Wednesday.

A veteran diplomat, de Mistura has been the Secretary‑General’s Special Envoy for Syria, where the world’s largest refugee and displacement crisis has persisted for years, dividing the UN Security Council’s permanent members.


His profile which is available at the UN shows that he has also served as Special Representative of the Secretary General for Afghanistan and Iraq, Personal Representative of the Secretary General for Southern Lebanon and Director of the United Nations Information Centre in Rome.

His latest appointment has been welcomed by the US government.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country “warmly welcomes” the appointment as it will bring “considerable expertise” from de Mistura’s past experience in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

“We strongly support Personal Envoy de Mistura’s leadership in resuming the UN-led political process to advance a durable and dignified resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara,” he said.

Though claimed by Morocco, parts of Western Sahara have been under the Polisario Front that runs an entity called the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In 1981, Morocco quit membership of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor of the African Union, in protest of the OAU’s admission of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic into its fold.

Morocco returned to the AU in 2017, having failed its application to join the European Union.  But the question of the future status of Western Sahara remains unresolved, despite both jurisdictions being members of the African Union.

In the past, the UN has made efforts to mediate between Western Sahara and Morocco, with the seemingly tangible step being the Baker’s Plan, a referendum proposal by former Personal Envoy James Baker, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council.

And while countries like Kenya, within the African Union, have called for Western Sahara’s ‘self-determination’ to be fulfilled, the question has always been who takes part in a referendum that could decide independence or autonomy of the region. Both sides had, at one time accepted a referendum, but disagreed on identity of voters before Morocco declined to endorse any plebiscite that would involve deciding on Western Sahara’s independence.

The UN had been trying to resolve the matter since 1988 when then Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar first made proposals to settle the question. The proposals presented two options. The people in Western Sahara would assimilate into Moroccan culture and become one people, or pursue self determination and go separate ways.

However, it was difficult to decide on which population data to use to resolve the crisis. On their part, Polisario Front wanted the last Spanish census conducted on the territory in 1974 to be used, upon which any Moroccan who moved on the territory afterwards would be locked out of the referendum.

This impasse stalled the referendum plan, and both sides eventually refused to engage.