A direct consequence of Kohler’s resignation, Western Sahara specialists have maintained, is that the UN’s agenda will not feature Western Sahara until October 2019.
Rabat – Four months into the UN’s deafening silence on the prospects of its Western Sahara agenda after the show’s main performer threw in the towel, Western Sahara is once again the notable absentee in UN Security Council’s scheduled meetings for September.
As the UNSC announced its September schedule, the talking points for the upcoming security discussions do not feature the Western Sahara conflict. The glaring omission will likely revive circulating suggestions about the visible stasis that has set in among UN diplomatic circles and informed Western Sahara observers since the untimely resignation of Horst Kohler as personal envoy.
Included in the UNSC’ schedule for September are security concerns as varied as the Libyan crisis, the Syrian predicament, and the global migration crisis and related topics such as human trafficking, among other global security challenges.
The lingering Western Sahara conflict, one of the most complex territorial disputes to date, was conspicuous only by its absence from the schedule. The only possible, vague and arcane reference to Western Sahara is perhaps the agenda for a September 26 press briefing: “Peace and Security in Africa: Partnership to maintain regional peace and security.”
At best, and provided the press briefing manages to circuitously touch upon Western Sahara, this reads more like a face-saving move, so telling a is the sidelining of Western Sahara-linked discussions just a month before the expiry date of the UN Peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
While the omission is not particularly a cause for prolonged contention or wild speculations, as is often the case in this multilayered dispute, the news comes at an emotionally charged conjuncture in the progress of the UN-led negotiations.
A major setback
Last May, Kohler surprisingly resigned from his post as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara. Among Western Sahara observers of different—sometimes exclusive—political and ideological persuasions, Kohler’s two-year tenure was largely seen as a notable success.
In convincing all the four parties, especially Algeria and Mauritania, to be full-throated participants in the political process, Kohler helped gather a momentum that has escaped other UN envoys in almost three decades.
Even for a territorial dispute as historically tangled and geopolitically convoluted as the Western Sahara case, there was palpable hope that it was only a matter of time before the Kohler-moderated process achieved something the international community has failed to even come close to imagining for over a decade.
Where a number of his predecessors—James Baker and Christopher Ross, for example—came across as biased and favoring one side of the conflict, Kohler successfully gained the trust of all the parties. Or at least that was largely the impression, particularly buttressed by the series of the recently held Geneva meetings.
On multiple occasions, either in his written reports to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres or in press statements from his office, Kohler repeatedly made it clear that the point of the settlement process was to devise a working formula for a mutually acceptable and politically negotiated solution. As a result, words and concepts such as realism, pragmatism, political feasibility, and compromise-based solution, emerged as the founding principles of the UN-led process under the German diplomat.
“There is no doubt that Kohler’s sudden departure is a major setback for the UN political process to help the parties to the conflict to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution,” MWN’s editor-in-chief Samir Bennis wrote in May amid the what-is-next-saturated speculations after Kohler announced his resignation.
Bennis continued, this time throwing in an even more pertinent observation: “Kohler breathed new life into the political process and thanks to his charisma and his gravitas, he enjoyed the relative trust of all parties. With his resignation, the political process is likely to return to square one. As an immediate result, it is likely that there will be no roundtables until early next year or even later.”
Who will replace Kohler?
Beyond Kohler’s formally announced reasons for resigning (his health conditions), there have been alternative suggestions for why the German “really left” amid perceived momentum. But for all the resulting contention, more often than not informed by observers’ stance on the Western Sahara dossier, a resounding agreement among observers has been that, for better or worse, replacing Kohler is set to be a pain in the neck for the UN-led process.
A direct consequence of Kohler’s resignation, some specialists recently told Moroccan outlet le 360, is that the UN’s agenda will not feature Western Sahara until October of this year, when the UNSC will once again meet to deliver on whether to renew the mandate of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara.
“The past 100 days have seen a breakdown in this [Western Sahara] matter,” political scientist Mustapha Sehimi told le 360. “There is a crisis of perspective.”
Questions abound as MINURSO’s mandate reaches its end. Who will replace Kohler? Will Kohler’s replacement be an American or a European? Or should UNSG Guterres appoint an African or Asian diplomat as his personal envoy?
Amid this uncertainty, there seems to emerge a picture of “back to square one” or even “business as usual,” giving the known ideologized voting, or the alliance-inspired politicking during UNSC proceedings.
By all perceptible evidence, maintaining the momentum Kohler achieved in two years will prove an even more daunting task for the next personal envoy than was the case when the German diplomat took over what mostly looked like mission impossible, a doomed and hostility-beset dossier with scant hope of resolution in at least a decade.