Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, a German diplomat, is the new special envoy to head the United Nations referendum mission in Western Sahara, known as Minurso. The mission was set up in 1991, after a cease-fire was brokered between Morocco and a longtime rebel group, Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Polisario Front).
From the start, the mission’s main business has been to monitor the cease-fire and to ensure that the special envoy has the sole responsibility in preparing a referendum on whether the people of Western Sahara, the nomadic Sahrawis, would become independent or integrate with Morocco. The vote, meant to be held in 1992, has been delayed because Morocco wants the area to be an autonomous region of its country while the Polisaro Front wants the territory to be completely free.
Weisbrod-Weber is stepping into a delicate post. He replaces Hany Abdel-Aziz of Egypt, who finished his three-year assignment in April, having worked with Christopher Ross, an American who has been a UN personal envoy in Western Sahara also since 2009, tasked with negotiating a political solution for the region. Morocco, which as a member of the UN Security Council has been allying itself with the West, is most likely to have an effect on the situation going forward. The council is also concerned about Islamic extremists influencing the region, as recent incursions demonstrate in northern Mali. Minurso operates with a $63 million budget and about 500 military, police and civilian personnel.
“Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber’s appointment is a very welcome development after months of delay due to Moroccan heel-dragging,” Dean Bialek, United Nations director for Independent Diplomat, an advisory group whose clients include the Polisario Front, wrote in an e-mail message to PassBlue. “It is important that he moves quickly to restore the neutrality, integrity and effectiveness of the UN presence, which have been gradually eroded by Moroccan pressure and interference, as made clear in Ban Ki-moon’s most recent report on the situation in Western Sahara.”
The appointment coincides with the UN mandate there recently renewed after contentious negotiations between the Polisario Front and Morocco. These tensions have been simmering for more than three decades, with plenty of flare-ups, hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into Algeria and accounts of human-rights abuses. The 1991 cease-fire partitions Western Sahara from Morocco along an east-west berm that Morocco built and planted with landmines.
Western Sahara, which was part of Spain until 1976, has a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, is north of Mauritania, west of Algeria and south of Morocco. After the Polisario Front pushed Spain out, the territory was seized by Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario rebels, supported by Algeria, fought for the territory against the two countries, and eventually Mauritania gave up its claim, but Morocco has hung on. Recent reports on natural resources suggest that Western Sahara is rich in fisheries and minerals and potentially oil.
Weisbrod-Weber, Bialek said, “must make crystal clear to the parties the need for UN personnel in Western Sahara to have complete freedom of movement and unhindered access within the Territory, as mandated in April by the UN Security Council. Only with these freedoms can the UN deliver on its obligation to report regularly and accurately on the conditions on the ground, including ongoing violations of Saharawi human rights.”
Weisbrod-Weber’s 28 years with the UN have concentrated mostly in peacekeeping in headquarters and in the field. The UN said that “under challenging conditions,” he has “promoted political dialogue, progress in the rule of law, and post-conflict reconciliation” in his work. While director of the Asia and Middle East division of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations since 2008, he was deputy special envoy twice, in 2009 and 2010, for the UN’s mission in Afghanistan.
He also served as chief of staff, from 2006 to 2008, to the UN mission in East Timor, and as director of the Europe and Latin American division in the peacekeeping agency from 2004 to 2006. He has additionally held posts in the Secretariat and in UN field operations.
Born in Hanau, Germany, in 1955, Weisbrod-Weber has a Ph.D. from Free University Berlin. He is married and has three children.