- A diplomatic light-weighter has been appointed the new "Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara". Peter van Walsum, the Dutch Ambassador to the UN is to take charge of the Western Sahara conflict after this important post has been vacant for 13 months, when ex-US Secretary of State James Baker gave up.
Surprisingly little information has been released about the important appointment, further indicating that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has lost interest in the 30-year-old conflict over Moroccan occupied Western Sahara.
The press was only told about Mr van Walsum's appointment indirectly yesterday, as Mr Annan's spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said that the "Secretary-General, in a letter, has informed the Security Council President of his decision to appoint Ambassador Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara."
Mr van Walsum was to "help assess the situation and to explore with the parties, neighbouring states and other stakeholders how best to overcome the present political impasse," Mr Dujarric informed. As a first step, Mr Annan had "requested the ambassador to establish contacts with the parties and neighbouring States to ascertain their views on the best way forward."
Asked whether Mr Annan's new Personal Envoy was to try to open up a new dialogue between Western Sahara's exiled government and Morocco, Mr Dujarric made sure to keeps expectations low. Mr van Walsum was only to travel to the region on "a political mission to see if we can actually move this process forward," the spokesman said.
The low-profiled presentation of the new Envoy by Mr Dujarric added to the unusual lack of a press release by the UN, which usually presents such appointments in great detail.
The new Envoy indeed is equally low-profiled as the announcement of his appointment. Serving as the Netherlands' Ambassador to the UN for many years, his most important appointment has been a temporary post as Chairman of the UN's Iraq sanctions committee. Following orders from Amsterdam, Mr van Walsum also has been particularly engaged in African affairs as the Netherlands were represented in the UN Security Council.
The Dutch diplomat however never has been seen as a heavy-weighter in the UN system. According to an interview he made with 'Radio Netherlands', Mr van Walsum during a Security Council trip to Kinshasa had to remind US Ambassador Dick Holbrooke that he was to be treated with equal respect after the US representative was given a red carpet to government buildings, but the Dutch representative not.
Mr van Walsum again risks being placed in the shadow of an American colleague. His predecessor as Mr Annan's Envoy for Western Sahara, Mr Baker, only managed to get some movements in the stalled peace process due to his personal influence, direct line to the White House and the importance of the US to Morocco and its neighbours. The new Dutch Envoy is not in the same position.
After Mr Baker quit his mission one year ago - frustrated by a lack of progress - Mr Annan and the UN have shown little interest in solving the Western Sahara conflict. The UN Security Council new routinely renews the mandate of the failed UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara, MINURSO, every six months. MINURSO, meanwhile, has no powers to intervene in the current wave of repression in the occupied territory.
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