UN appoints Western Sahara envoy after two-year search

United Nations (United States) (AFP) –


United Nations veteran diplomat Staffan de Mistura was nominated Wednesday as the organization's envoy to the Western Sahara conflict, nearly two and a half years after the post had become vacant as a dozen other candidates were rejected by either Morocco or the Polisario Front rebel movement.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's nomination of the 74-year-old Italian a "positive signal," after such a long selection process.

Dujarric said De Mistura would be set to take over the position, which has been empty since May 2019, on November 1.

Morocco had initially rejected De Mistura -- the thirteenth name floated for the job -- as envoy in May before finally accepting the nomination under pressure from the United States, according to diplomats.

He will be based in Brussels, where he already lives, according to the UN.

The Security Council plans to discuss MINURSO, the Western Sahara peace mission, during a closed-door meeting next week, before the mission is set to be renewed October 27, likely for one year.

De Mistura "brings more than 40 years of experience in diplomacy and political affairs" to the post, according to a UN statement.

He will succeed former German president Horst Kohler, who stepped down in 2019 after making little progress on ending the conflict despite having restarted talks between Morocco, the Polisario Front and regional powers Algeria and Mauritania.

De Mistura, who speaks English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Arabic, was previously the UN special envoy for Syria from 2014 to 2018 and was the special representative for the UN secretary-general in Iraq in the late 2000s and in Afghanistan in the early 2010s.

The United States "warmly welcomes" De Mistura's appointment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, offering support for a political process to bring a "durable and dignified" end to the conflict.

"We will actively support his efforts to promote a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of Western Sahara and the region," the statement said.

The UN considers Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, a "non-self-governing territory," with the question of its control up in the air for decades. The issue has pitted Morocco against the independence-seeking Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria.

Rabat, which controls 80 percent of the vast soil-rich desert territory -- bordering abundant ocean fishing waters -- has proposed a plan for Western Sahara self-governance under Moroccan sovereignty.

Polisario continues to demand a UN-supervised self-determination referendum, which was agreed to in a 1991 ceasefire accord but has still never taken place.