The departure of Hörst Kohler and John Bolton from their positions in the United Nations and US government respectively has left the push for a long-awaited referendum in Western Sahara in limbo once again.
Chosen as UN Special Envoy to Western Sahara in 2017, Kohler pushed to restart talks between the involved parties that had been stalled since 2012. Despite not resulting in any agreement, the fact that Kohler managed to bring Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the POLISARIO Front together at the negotiating table was itself an accomplishment. Following talks this past spring, the parties agreed to meet again, likely early next year. In spite of this success, Kohler departed his post on health grounds this past May. The momentum he helped build for Western Sahara now risks being stalled.
Despite this departure, the Polisario Front still had hopes that one figure could help push the United Nations movement forward: US National Security Advisor John Bolton. Appointed by the Trump Administration in April of 2018, Bolton was seen as a rare figure in American politics in that he wholeheartedly believes the Sahrawi have a right to a referendum on their self-determination. His experience with the conflict – which dates back to his work in the 1990s with the then UN Envoy James Baker and his time as US Ambassador to the UN in the mid-2000s – gave the Saharawi hope that he would press this issue with the Trump Administration, and in turn, with the UN. These hopes were crushed, however, when Bolton was fired by the Trump Administration in September this year.
With his firing and the departure of Hörst Kohler, the lack of leadership is clear. The push for the referendum in Western Sahara has lost two prominent figures, and there are no clear alternatives to take up the reins. Now, more than ever, the international community needs to bring the issue back to the forefront with the UN Security Council. We need activists across the world to join our action and write to UNSC members. Find out more here.