New UN envoy named after 13-month gap

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has confirmed Dutch Ambassador Peter Van Walsum as his personal envoy for the Western Sahara where a territorial dispute has raged for nearly 30 years.

Van Walsum's appointment was confirmed in New York on Tuesday. He replaces American James Baker who resigned from the post over a year ago frustrated by a lack of progress.

The Polisario movement has been fighting for Western Sahara to be recognised as an independent state since Spain withdrew from the territory in 1976.

In 1991, the UN established a peacekeeping force, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), with plans for a referendum to decide sovereignty in 1992.

But timetables have repeatedly slipped and nearly 15 years after the UN force was set up, a definitive peace appears some way off.

It will fall to Van Walsum to resuscitate negotiations between Polisario and Western Sahara’s neighbouring states.

Northern neighbour Morocco maintains territorial claims on the West Sahara though Mauritania, to the south, relinquished its claims in 1979.

In the most recent plan put forward by Baker in 2003, the former Spanish colony was to be given self-rule for four to five years. After that, long-term residents and 165,000 Western Sahara refugees who have spent nearly 30 years living in camps in neighbouring Algeria, which has backed Polisario, would be able to vote in a referendum.

The referendum options would have included full integration with Morocco, continued autonomy within the framework of the Moroccan state or independence.

Polisario had accepted Baker’s plan but Morocco rejected it.

According to diplomats, Morocco is reluctant to agree to any solution that may bring about a loss of sovereignty.

Mohamed Bennouna, Morocco’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, told IRIN from New York, that Morocco welcomed Van Walsum’s appointment.

“We consider the nomination of Mr Van Walsum… will without a doubt help the parties and the states of the region break out of the impasse and progress towards a mutually acceptable definitive political solution,” Bennouna said in a statement read to IRIN.

Van Walsum represented the Netherlands on the UN Security Council in 1999 and 2000. During that time he was chairman of the Iraq sanctions committee.

One of the instructions Van Walsum received from the Dutch Foreign Ministry before serving on the Council was to raise Africa’s profile.