Choosing Envoys Wisely


Bart M.J. Szewczyk

This is the third essay in a series of seven that looks at the role of multilateral envoys in peacemaking.

Special envoys are, by definition, agents appointed by a principal or a group of principals for a particular task. Yet their scope of power and authority varies across institutions. Different international organizations have made distinct decisions in terms of selecting special envoys; defining their mandates; deploying, financing and supporting an envoy’s support team; and establishing report and oversight mechanisms. These formal decisions occur in the context of informal customary practices, which are for the most part beyond the scope of this study.

Whether by design, default or accident, these constitutive choices become more apparent through a systemic analysis across international organizations and across stages of the institutional process of envoys. Each of these steps is an opportunity for the principals to create and maintain control over their special envoys in order to achieve desired policy objectives. Conversely, inattention to the overall structure in which envoys operate can lead to unintended consequences.


The selection of special envoys has two types. Within some institutions, envoys are chosen by a wide group of political stakeholders. In other organizations, they are appointed directly by the head of an institution, although there may also be informal consultations and vetting with other relevant actors.

Within the European Union, EU Special Representatives (EUSR) are appointed by the Foreign Affairs Council (the EU national ministers for foreign affairs, defense and development who meet collectively on a monthly basis) at the suggestion of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), who also chairs the Council’s meetings. While there is no formal nomination process, the HR generally leads the process. The ten current EUSRs act as the “voice” and “face” for the EU on specific policy areas. Generally, EUSRs tend to be selected from among diplomats and foreign policy experts rather than political leaders, with the notable exception of a few EUSRs in Bosnia such as Paddy Ashdown (former head of the Liberal Democrats party in the United Kingdom) or Miroslav Lajčák (former foreign minister of Slovakia).

Similarly, the African Union special envoys (titled variously as special representative, special envoy, high representative and chairperson) are selected by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) and the AU Commission Chairperson. The PSC, patterned on the structure of the UN Security Council, has fifteen members elected by the AU Assembly for two- or three-year terms. AU special envoys tend to be former African heads of state or government, such as Thabo Mbeki of South Africa or Alpha Konaré of Mali.

In the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc of eight countries in Eastern Africa, special envoys are appointed through an endorsement of their nomination by respective member states. Notably, IGAD representatives have been appointed in pairs for each conflict (in Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan), providing a potential tension in the unity of institutional representation.

Uniquely, the Quartet Representative, currently Tony Blair (former UK prime minister), was selected by the Quartet Principals: UN Secretary-General, U.S. Secretary of State, Russian foreign minister and EU High Representative. Although this institutional model is an outlier in the analyzed group of special envoys, it also illustrates the range of possibilities of institutional representation whereby one individual is a multi-hatted envoy of actors relevant to the particular conflict.

In contrast to the EU and AU, special envoys at other international organizations tend to be chosen by the respective institutional heads. Sometimes, leaders of multilateral organizations find it useful to appoint an envoy informally for a particularly sensitive mission, allowing the scope for plausible deniability in case that becomes necessary.

At the UN, the Secretary-General has the sole prerogative of appointing special representatives, envoys, and advisers. In practice, however, the selection is made after an informal process of consultation with actors relevant to a particular situation, such as partner countries, warring armed groups and other governments and international actors. The selection of the different types of special appointees is oftentimes communicated to the Security Council by letter from the Secretary-General to the President of the Council, who then acknowledges the selection. There are currently over 50 special envoys, representatives and advisers to the Secretary-General. These are also sometimes dual-hatted as head of mission to a particular country.

In NATO, the Secretary-General has periodically appointed special representatives for specific issues, such as women, peace and security (in 2012) or for the regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia (in 2014). In these two cases, both individuals had already been serving within NATO, one as a deputy ambassador to NATO and the other as NATO’s spokesperson.

At the OSCE, special representatives are selected by the Chairperson-in-Office, a position which rotates every year among foreign ministers of OSCE member states. The current thirteen OSCE special envoys, more like the EUSRs rather than the AU special envoys, are generally drawn from diplomatic and military services. The OAS Secretary-General appoints representatives from among OAS permanent staff, outside diplomats or political leaders, such as Bill Richardson (former governor of New Mexico and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations). At the time of writing, there were five OAS special envoys.

Likewise, the International Organization of la Francophonie (OIF) has two special envoys appointed by the OIF Secretary-General. Both are political leaders from their respective countries, Belgium and the Ivory Coast. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Commission President selects special envoys, of whom there are currently five. The Commonwealth of Nations had three special envoys in 2013, selected by the Commonwealth Secretary-General at the recommendation of the Political Affairs Division, as determined by consultation between the Good Offices Section and the relevant Regional Section.

It is unclear to what extent the choice between the two types of selection processes has practical consequences. Generally, envoys selected by a group of principals could claim greater authority because they represent a larger constituency. Perhaps for this reason, envoys are sometimes dual-hatted or even multi-hatted by several organizations, although in practice they are likely to have one primary institution as the lead principal. But presumably, even when a special envoy is directly appointed by the head of an international institution, that head is responsible to a wider group of actors. Moreover, the effectiveness of special envoys depends on having the political support and confidence of constituents beyond the appointing heads. Nonetheless, these informal channels of control can be more uncertain than the formal power to select an envoy, or block his appointment in the first place.

Upon being selected, a special envoy’s marching orders are enclosed in the mandate of appointment, another mechanism through which principals can guide their representatives’ scope of action toward desired outcomes.


Not surprisingly, mandates of special envoys are generally determined by the principals that select them. For instance, the EU Foreign Affairs Council (and the EU High Representative), the AU Peace and Security Council (and the AU Commission Chairperson), the IGAD Council of Ministers, and the Quartet set forth the jurisdiction and policy guidance for special envoys through resolutions. At the UN, the Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations negotiate the terms of reference for the Secretary-General’s approval. The final mandate documents are typically confidential until released by the UN. Within the OSCE, mandates are defined by the Chairpersons-in-Office in the official appointment letters. The OAS General Secretariat develops mandates for its special envoys, sometimes also in consultation with a host government. At the OIF, the Secretary-General defines the terms of reference on the basis of an evaluation undertaken by the Peace, Democracy, and Human Rights Department and in accordance with the OIF foundational legal document, the Declaration of Bamako. In ECOWAS, mandates are set by the Commission President on the advice of the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace & Security. In the Commonwealth, the Good Offices Section, in consultation with the Regional Section, develops the terms of reference, which are then approved by the Secretary-General after making any necessary amendments.

Mandates vary in their level of specificity and comprehensiveness. In some cases, particularly within the EU, they can be highly detailed and include instructions regarding policy objectives and priorities, strategy and tactics, implementation, reporting, and oversight. In other cases, the constitutive documents appointing special envoys are more general in describing a representative’s role. In terms of duration, some mandates are open-ended, whereas other organizations such as the EU and the Commonwealth generally have a specified time limit after which a mandate is terminated, reviewed or extended.

To be sure, there are benefits and burdens inherent in each approach. Detailed mandates ensure greater mission clarity and can serve to exercise greater control over envoys by their principals. Moreover, within groups of principals such as the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the AU Peace and Security Council, codifying an envoy’s strategy can help prevent unilateral attempts by some principals to shift the strategy in their preferred direction after agreement has been reached.

On the other hand, crisis situations that lead to the appointment of special envoys in the first place can be unpredictable and are not amenable to precise instructions. Less tactical detail provides greater operational flexibility within the overall policy objectives. Particularly where special envoys are directly appointed by the head of an international organization, mandates can be defined as much by informal and unwritten understandings and expectations. These can have the benefit of greater flexibility, as opposed to more rigid formal constitutive documents.

Deployment, Financing and Support

The extent of deployment, financing and support of special envoys depends on the particular mission and institution. Within the EU, budgets and team sizes of special envoys are typically established by the Council decision document appointing the envoy and setting forth the mandate. EUSRs are supported by geographic units within the European External Action Service, as well as by EU delegations in the particular countries covered by special envoys. The existence of EUSRs alongside heads of EU delegation can lead to friction in cooperation and a lack of mission unity. Indeed, the current model is under review and may be replaced by double-hatting specific EU ambassadors as EUSRs. Were the current arrangement to change, however, EU member states acting through the EU Foreign Affairs Council would lose their direct financial control over EUSR budgets, which would then be absorbed into the overall EEAS budget.

At the UN, a specially-designated Mediation Support Unit (MSU) was established in 2006 to provide envoys with proper staff assistance and advice. Envoys are financed in one of three ways: raising new funds from governments; through the Secretary-General’s Unforeseen Fund; or by reallocating funds approved biannually from the special political mission budget. Staffing is mostly by officials from within the UN Secretariat through a recruitment process coordinated by MSU in consultation with the Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations.  MSU also manages a UN Standby Team of Mediation Experts, an “on call” group of advisors that can assist envoys on their missions.

Like the UN, IGAD has a Mediation Support Unit, which is currently finalizing the roster of prospective mediators and a list of technical experts ready for deployment. Missions are financed through direct fund-raising efforts with IGAD development partners or, in the case of preventative diplomacy efforts, under projects already funded at the secretariat level in the IGAD Peace and Security Division. Similarly, ECOWAS is establishing a Division of Mediation Facilitation to coordinate a standby roster of experts and support envoy missions with advisors.  ECOWAS missions are financed mainly through the community levy paid by member states.

In the OSCE, the Conflict Prevention Centre has a Mediation Support Team, which supports the work of envoys through training, retreats, debriefings, expert deployments and operational support. Although there is no standby unit of envoys, there is a roster of OSCE officials who have indicated their willingness to be deployed as “first responders” in support of crisis response actions. The OSCE also maintains a roster of external mediation experts who can be deployed in support of mediation and dialogue facilitation efforts. Envoys are financed either by the country holding the chairmanship in a given year or as part of the general OSCE budget.

The Quartet Representative employs about twenty advisors, as well as administrative and security staff. The team is financed through the UN Development Programme by the U.S., the European Commission, Norway, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia and Netherlands. Policy experts are either seconded by partner countries and institutions, or employed directly by the Representative. Notably, the current Representative, Tony Blair, does not receive any compensation for his work nor reimbursement for travel expenses; however, when in Jerusalem, he receives lodging and meals.

Within the AU, funding for envoy missions comes from the general AU Peace Fund or, more commonly, from partners’ contributions (in particular, the European Commission, Denmark, UK and Spain). Envoys have experts working on a six- to twelve-month contract basis, some of whom are seconded from governments and other international institutions. Although there is no standby unit equivalent to the UN MSU, the AU has desk officers that help as experts.

The other institutions in this study—NATO, OIF, Commonwealth, and OAS— have neither any standby rosters of envoys nor experts, but support envoy missions with staff from the particular organization.  They finance missions through their general budgets.

Reporting and Oversight

Report and oversight mechanisms flow to the principals that select and mandate envoys in the first place. For instance, EUSRs formally report to the EU Foreign Affairs Council as well as the High Representative, who can propose to the Council to terminate a special representative’s mandate. Similarly, the AU special envoys report to the AU Commission Chairperson and the Peace and Security Council, as well as the UN Security Council if the envoy is dual-hatted with the UN. Within the UN itself, special envoys report directly to the Secretary-General following the informal process of consultation that precedes their selection. They also brief the Security Council, the General Assembly and other actors relevant to a particular situation. At IGAD, special envoys report to the IGAD Summit and liaise with member states’ high-level authorities in order to conduct their business.

The Quartet Representative regularly updates Quartet Principals on any developments. In addition, his head of mission updates the local representatives of the Quartet through regular meetings and teleconferences with their staff on the ground in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and during visits to capitals.

In ECOWAS, special envoys report to the Commission President on a monthly basis, and sometimes more frequently during crises. Similarly, the Commonwealth special envoys submit reports after each mission visit and, at the conclusion of an assignment, each envoy is required to write a final report with assessments and recommendations. These confidential reports are submitted to the Commonwealth Secretary-General and are also available to the Political Affairs Division. While envoys have no obligation to report to member states, they may brief regional countries and representatives of member states serving on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group as a matter of courtesy. Within NATO, OAS and OIF, special envoys report to the respective secretaries-general and, in addition, may brief member states depending on the perceived need.

Envoys who are dual-hatted or multi-hatted report to their respective institutions, although in practice there is likely to be one organization that is the lead principal. And even envoys that represent a single organization are likely to be more effective if they are able to brief multiple actors relevant to a particular situation.


Crisis situations normally do not allow for reflection on the overall institutional process established to select, mandate, deploy, finance, support and oversee special envoys. Moreover, some design choices such as appointment and oversight are likely to reflect the political structure of a given organization and may be relatively inflexible to change.

Yet, as this brief study shows, there is a range of design choices available to international institutions with respect to the role of special envoy. In particular, given the contemporary ubiquity of special envoys, multilateral organizations could consider establishing permanent budgetary lines to support their activities. Additionally, mediation support units established at the UN and AU are useful institutional models in providing both a readily available roster of potential envoys and policy advisors able to staff and support them. Some crises may necessarily demand ad hoc approaches or require outside experts, but such rosters at the very least provide good default options.

The surveyed institutions also cover the spectrum of choices with respect to mandates, from general to granular and from public to private. An envoy’s terms of reference are instrumental not only to controlling his or her conduct and guiding it in the direction of a principal’s desired policy objectives, but can also communicate to a wider constituency the principal’s strategy in a particular situation and the scope of the envoy’s authority.

On the other hand, some situations may require less disclosure and more discretion, in which case the appointment of an informal special envoy might be considered. Utilized by some international institutions, informal envoys can provide their principals with the same intelligence-gathering and mediation functions, but under the cover of plausible deniability in case a principal perceives a need. Informal envoys are likely to be more feasible in multilateral organizations, in which the institutional head appoints the representatives directly, rather than in institutions such as the EU and AU, where a group of political stakeholders is responsible for selecting envoys. Nonetheless, even those institutions might consider the potential utility of informal representation if the required confidentiality could be maintained.

To be sure, none of the specific choices with respect to special envoys are necessarily linked to their ultimate effectiveness. But their continued and growing use should trigger additional attention to the various phases of the institutional process of special envoys so that the overall structure reflects greater design rather than default or accident. Moreover, there is likely to be significant room for intellectual exchange among the various international institutions regarding their experiences with special envoys and any lessons learned. Since the overall policy objectives of conflict resolution and peacebuilding are common to the surveyed organizations, and the specific envoys and experts sometimes work across various institutions, there is great potential value in further study of the role of special envoys.

Bart M.J. Szewczyk is a member of the Policy Planning Staff, Office of the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State. This article was written and submitted before the author joined the State Department. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government.