The challenges facing the new UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara

Veteran Staffan De Mistura faces a long list of open fronts between Morocco and the Polisario Front in his latest diplomatic dance
De Mistura

REUTERS/DENIS BALIBOUSE  -   UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura

An unusual climate of tension and despair pervades the unspeakable region of Western Sahara. The same microclimate pervades the Algerian province of Tindouf, an area located just a few kilometres from the open conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which is vying for control of the territory 40 years after Spain's withdrawal, and which is home to thousands of Sahrawi refugees.

The strenuous efforts of the United Nations, which considers Western Sahara a "non-self-governing territory" pending decolonisation, but at the same time does not recognise it as an administering power, have fallen on deaf ears. The parties involved, which include both Algeria and Mauritania, but not Spain, have shown themselves incapable of unravelling a dispute with historical overtones.

UN Security Council Resolution 2548, passed on 30 October 2020, reaffirmed the UN's commitment to 'assist the parties to achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the framework of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations', but did not ease tensions.

Nor has MINURSO (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) made any progress in the meantime. The UN advocates a referendum on self-determination, originally scheduled for 1992; Morocco, however, has delayed the holding of such a vote and has proposed a limited autonomy plan for the region instead.

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  A helicopter transports MINURSO members in the militarised zone in Western Sahara

Even less fortunate has been the extensive roster of UN special envoys to Western Sahara, who have come up against a steadfast immobility. The last diplomat to leave his post was former German President Horst Köhler, who resigned in May 2019, unhinged by an entrenched and seemingly unsolvable conflict with similar characteristics to the division of the island of Cyprus, but less serious than the conflicts in Libya or Syria.

Two years after the institutional paralysis, Western Sahara met on 6 October last with the new profile charged with bringing Morocco and the Polisario Front closer together in the dispute over a coastal strip rich in phosphates and fishing grounds where the Alaouite Kingdom controls 80 per cent of the territory and where it is trying to establish an international trade centre.

Staffan Domingo De Mistura (Stockholm, 1947) was appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to replace the resigned Köhler. The Italian-Swedish diplomat became the last bullet in the chamber, as he hardly occupied any space in the pools. So much so that as many as 12 previous candidates were rejected by Morocco, the Polisario Front or, failing that, the UN Security Council.

De Mistura was the only one with the capacity to bring Morocco and the Polisario Front into agreement. Although Rabat was slow to accept his candidacy, the 74-year-old diplomat had the approval of the Saharawis from the outset. The Security Council's ambitions were also satisfied with his profile, which brings four decades of experience and a strong humanitarian focus.

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  Members of MINURSO touring Western Sahara

In his long and prolific diplomatic career, De Mistura has served as Director of the UN Information Centre in Rome (2000-2001), Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for South Lebanon (2001-2004), Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq (2007-2009) and Afghanistan (2010-2011), and ultimately as UN Special Envoy for Syria. A post he left in 2019.

His extensive career in the UN ranks has given him first-hand knowledge of disputes in countries such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia and Iraq. De Mistura also hit the ground running during his discreet appearance in Italian politics. In 2013, the diplomat served as deputy foreign minister for then Italian prime minister Mario Monti. An experience that lasted less than 30 days.

De Mistura nevertheless carries a thick stain on his record. During his tenure as special envoy in Syria, the Italian-Swedish man tried to set up a national unity committee comprising both opponents of the al-Assad regime and members of his government. The plan, which was thwarted at the outset, provoked an avalanche of criticism against him, accusing him of being a collaborationist and bowing to Russian interests.

De Mistura finally announced in October 2018 that he would step down at the end of November for "personal reasons". Like Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, his predecessors in Syria, he left the country without success. Before moving to his new assignment, the diplomat served as a professor at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) at Sciences Po Paris and as a visiting fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.

Open fronts

His new commitments will undoubtedly be much more complex. De Mistura will assume sole and exclusive responsibility for matters related to the referendum and, while MINURSO will support his functions, he will ultimately bear the full weight of developments as the highest representative of the United Nations. In short, the diplomat will have to grapple with a conflict that has run aground and has more and more open fronts.

PHOTO/ARCHIVO  -  Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali

The last round of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario took place in 2019 without significant progress. That same year, Köhler had called the parties involved in the conflict to hold a meeting in Geneva, with the novel participation of Mauritania and Algeria. The lack of success caused tensions to re-emerge in November 2020, when the Polisario Front ended the three-decade ceasefire and reopened a war that has remained at a low intensity.

A year later, De Mistura will be influenced by the recent tensions between Morocco and Algeria, which formalised their disagreement on 24 August following statements by the Algerian foreign minister, who, with the backing of President Tebboune, formalised the rupture of bilateral relations with the Alawi kingdom. In this sense, the diplomat will have to moderate the interlocution between the parties, a scenario in which Algeria exerts pressure in favour of the Polisario Front.

Morocco has repeatedly accused Algeria of supplying arms, ammunition and military training to the Polisario Front, accusations on which the group has not taken a position. This backing is explained by the long-standing rivalry between Rabat and Algiers, which have been fighting for regional hegemony for decades. This is a trump card that Algeria intends to use to destabilise Morocco.

Also at stake, to De Mistura's displeasure, are the interests of foreign companies, concerned about security in the region, and the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which overturned the fishing agreements between Morocco and the European Union for operating without the consent of the Polisario Front in Western Saharan waters. The dance begins.