Meet the Envoys: Trends in Envoy Profiles and Appointments


Nora Gordon

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

Since the first UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, was appointed in 1948 to serve as UN Mediator in Palestine, multilateral institutions have increasingly deployed envoys to mediate conflicts between and within countries, and more recently conflicts involving non-state actors. In 2013, some 52 multilateral envoys were working in 29 locations around the world. How does Count Bernadotte stand in comparison with these 52 envoys? At the spritely age of 53 at his time of appointment, if he were appointed in 2013 he would be among the youngest envoys, whose average age was 64.2. He would also be among many fellow Europeans, who make up 33 per cent of multilateral envoys in this sampled year, although the highest percentage of envoys in 2013 were African.

Although more women envoys have been appointed in recent years, Count Bernadotte’s gender matches 94.2 per cent of the envoys that year. His experience and status would put him in good company with these mediators, as high-profile envoys are commonly sought after. This essay analyzes some key trends in the profiles of the envoys of 2013, including status, gender, nationality, age and region.

Why Are There More Envoys?

The overall number of active UN multilateral envoys, including those involved with border disputes, joint/double-hatted envoys, and heads of regional missions, more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, increasing from 6 to 16 envoys. A key reason behind this growth is enhanced emphasis on conflict prevention. The role of special envoys in mediation of disputes, and their efforts to defuse tensions before conflicts escalate, are in high demand. Experience has shown that as a conflict intensifies over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to resolve. This has fueled a renewed focus on conflict prevention among multilateral institutions involved in peace and security. In 2010, the then-UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Lynn Pascoe, noted a re-emergence of preventive diplomacy and mediation, describing these tools as cost-effective options for addressing crises.

Interest in prevention has continued to grow since Pascoe’s time. Current USG Jeffrey Feltman has said prevention should begin before conflict is even visible, to keep unaddressed low-level tension from becoming more serious. Conflict prevention is central to DPA’s current strategy. Feltman describes Good Offices of the Secretary-General and his Special Envoys as “pivotal in preventing conflicts from erupting and in bringing wars to an end … Our Special Envoys are perhaps the most visible manifestation of the Secretary-General’s good offices mandate”. Although prevention efforts do not always halt the escalation of conflict, mediation and conflict resolution are crucial for achieving security and reconciliation in the long term.

Another reason the tool of envoy deployment has been used more frequently is that governments are more likely to comply with this approach. For governments, cooperation with an envoy is a more palatable alternative to UN Chapter VII involvement and inclusion on the Security Council’s agenda.

The growing importance of rising powers in global decision-making, along with a shift in the U.S.’s approach to diplomacy, have also contributed to the increased demand for mediation and conflict resolution. President Barack Obama’s call for a “new era of engagement” revealed a shift toward intensified multilateralism with a new focus on conflict prevention and negotiations.

Increased interest in mediation can be seen through the strengthening of analytical capacities and technical expertise at the UN Department of Political Affairs, such as mediation lessons learned and best practices. Other international and regional organizations are also responding to greater demand for conflict prevention through the development of peace and mediation support mechanisms. The Peace and Security Architecture of the African Union (APSA) contains a number of conflict prevention initiatives including Africa’s Continental Early Warning System, which became fully operational in 2009, and the Panel of the Wise, first appointed in 2007, which supports the Peace and Security Council and Chairperson in conflict prevention.

Envoys and mediators from multilateral institutions are more commonly used to negotiate peace agreements.According to research from Uppsala University on 70 formal peace agreements signed from 2001-2011, 84 per cent were brokered by third party facilitators or mediators. Of those mediators, 51 per cent came from multilateral institutions or ad-hoc multilateral coalitions; 30 per cent were state governments; and 3 per cent were third party individuals, including a former head of state, and an NGO representative. By contrast, from 1975-1985, only 24 formal peace agreements were recorded. Half of them were brokered by state governments and 37.5 per cent had no facilitator at all. Only three involved multilateral institutions.

The growing number of envoys means that there is a risk of crowding on the ground. Envoys are increasingly required to work together effectively to avoid duplication and maximize efficiency. The appointment of double-hatted envoys is a trending practice that multilateral organizations have utilized in order to streamline efforts.

Aside from the increase in numbers of envoys, what are the current trends in envoy profiles? In order to address this question, this essay utilizes confidential surveys and interviews conducted by CIC during spring 2014 with actors from nine multilateral institutions: the UN, AU, EU, OSCE, ECOWAS, OIF, IGAD, OAS, and the Commonwealth.

Status and the Africa Example

Many multilateral organizations are appointing high-profile envoys to address conflicts. These include heads of state (HoS), former heads of state, and former heads of multilateral institutions. The main reasons for selecting envoys with such prestige is that they tend to have great influence, access and leverage for obtaining results in peace agreements.

AU interlocutors noted a trend of appointing more high profile envoys such as HoS and former HoS. They noticed a distinct advantage to such high profile appointments in that these envoys’ opinions tend to hold more weight and are taken seriously by all parties to a conflict. It can be easier for former or current HoS to interact with HoS and government officials that are involved in a conflict, which helps facilitate conflict resolution. According to an officer at the AU Peace and Security Department, issues can be so complex that they require the access and leverage that comes with high-ranking envoys. Thus, political suitability is a major consideration in envoy selection. In comparison to HoS, former HoS often have more leeway. Their political appointments as President have come to an end, but they still have the ability to leverage countries and actors for support.

AU officials frequently cited the example of former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, Chairperson of the High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan (AUHIP). As a former president with experience negotiating a complicated transition in South Africa and expertise in dealing with rebel movements, Mbeki is highly respected and seen as influential by all conflict parties, factors which informed his appointment. Interlocutors describe Mbeki as having more leverage and using his personal capital in the peace process.

Alpha Oumar Konaré, Chair of the High-Level Panel for Egypt, is also described as having significant influence. As former head of the AU and former president of Mali, Konaré’s stature was a significant factor in his appointment. Also serving on the panel are the former president of Botswana and former prime minister of Djibouti. Sitting heads of state are also frequently called upon by the African Union to engage in mediation, such as the HLP in Cote d’Ivoire, which consisted of five African presidents, and the Ad hoc High-Level Committee on Libya, comprised of five African HoS and the AU Chairperson.

A third example mentioned by several AU interlocutors is Mohamed ibn Chambas, former Executive-Secretary of ECOWAS and Joint AU-UN Special Representative for Darfur. According to one interlocutor, Chambas was “easily accepted due to his stature and could alleviate fears and suspicions [of conflict parties].” He had experience dealing with Togo, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia, which informed his appointment.

There also are several challenges to appointing high-profile envoys. According to one respondent, “sometimes we take for granted that high profile people will know certain things … we need people who know all the daily nuts and bolts of the process, someone who knows all discussions and the complexity. Otherwise we can miss a lot.” When high profile envoys are appointed, technical experts are crucial for backing their processes. A great number of AU officials emphasized that conflict resolution and prevention requires full-time expert-level staff to provide HoS and former HoS with input and analysis.

Some AU interlocutors argued that there are no great advantages to appointing current heads of state unless the conflict is very serious. “They are limited in what they can do and bound by time constraints in a process that shouldn’t be bound by time,” said one interlocutor.

The ability to mediate is not always taken into consideration, particularly for mediators of prominent stature. According to several interviewees, not all envoys have this ability, and it is not possible to sit down and train HoS and former HoS. In addition to ample expert level support staff, one interlocutor noted that development of a stand-by roster of skilled mediators could be beneficial for addressing this issue.

Multilateral institutions overwhelmingly noted that the status of the envoy chosen, whether a former head of state or foreign minister, depends on the context. However, there are differences in how envoys of prominent stature are received. In Madagascar in 2009, AU envoy Ablassé Ouedraogo was the former foreign minister of Burkina Faso. When SADC sent former Mozambican head of state, Joaquim Chissano, AU interlocutors noted that he was instantly shown a greater level of respect. Being a former head of state from the same region as the conflict also contributed to Chissano’s strong influence.

Several other multilateral institutions mentioned the importance of appointing envoys with high-level profiles. One institution found that governments do not generally accept high-level envoys when they do not perceive a pending or existing crisis. These governments prefer to avoid the heightened media scrutiny that high-level envoys can attract to a conflict.


UNSC resolution 1325 in 2000 urged the Secretary-General to appoint more women as special representatives and envoys to pursue good offices missions. However, it was not until March 2013 that Mary Robinson, the first woman to serve as chief UN mediator, was appointed. A 2012 UN Women study noted that the numbers of women participating at the negotiation table in official roles remain remarkably low, making up only 2.4 per cent of chief mediators from 1992-2011. It noted no significant improvement in women’s participation in official negotiation positions since similar studies were conducted in 2010, but found that more consultations with women’s civil society have occurred.

While the AU Chair is a woman, there are no female AU envoys dealing with specific conflict situations. At the time of writing, the only female special representative of the Chair was Bineta Diop, Special Representative for Women, Children and Armed Conflicts, but Diop was not included in this research as she is appointed to address a thematic issue rather than a specific conflict location. However, two out of the five members of the AU Panel of the Wise, which also holds mediation functions, are female. In 2008 the AU appointed Graça Machel of Mozambique as one of three mediators to address the Kenya elections.

Only three envoys, 5.8 per cent of the 52 included in this research, are female. Two represent the European Union, and one the UN. While this is some improvement since the 2012 UN Women study was conducted, the overall data still shows a notable lack of female representation in chief mediator roles, although it must be acknowledged that the criteria for inclusion of envoys in the UN Women study with its mediation focus may differ from CIC’s.

Some studies observe certain character traits to be more prevalent in women, and make the case that those traits are desirable for mediators. However, arguing that women are natural peacemakers and have unique skills that make them inherently successful at mediation is a slippery slope. Character traits that are seen as beneficial to mediation can be perceived as either feminine or masculine and can be adopted by mediators of any gender.

Why, then, is women’s participation in mediation an important issue? According to Bineta Diop, AU Special Representative for Women, Children and Armed Conflicts, female mediators are more likely to prioritize gender issues. Women’s inclusion at the negotiation table sets the stage for the incorporation of women’s issues into peace agreements and reconciliation processes. Studies show that countries with more gender equality are less likely to experience armed conflict. This could be incentive for taking steps to ensure that gender equality is improved through peace agreements, making the case for the inclusion of women.

A 2013 International Peace Institute (IPI) issue brief on women in mediation argues that women can bring different perspectives, mediating styles, and approaches to the negotiation table. The study also noted that a more “robust and resilient peace” is achieved as a result of the participation of women, and that inclusive peace processes are more likely to result in a durable peace. IPI and Diop also emphasize the role of men in contributing to both gender equality and peace efforts.

Furthermore, women mediators are likely to focus on inclusion in mediation processes. Exemplifying this, Mary Robinson has shown great commitment to the participation of women on high-level processes as well as gender equality. The IPI report argued that Robinson’s approach to the inclusion of women in negotiations could be an effective model for other mediators to emulate.

While the idea that more women should be appointed to envoy positions is widely accepted and even incorporated into UN resolutions, progress in this area has been markedly slow. Furthermore, with the emphasis on experience and status in the selection of envoys, it can be more difficult for women to obtain the desirable characteristics of envoys, which contributes to their underrepresentation. Because of the dearth of women envoys, evidence indicating the success of women envoys in helping to facilitate lasting peace agreements has been limited. Perhaps with the growing numbers of women envoys, more studies can highlight the benefits of their leadership, and as a result the numbers of women envoys will grow more rapidly in the future.

Nationality, Language and Religion

HD’s Mediation Ten Years On report noted that in addition to the substantial growth in the numbers of mediators over the last decade, the emerging diversity among mediators was also remarkable. One way that diversity reveals itself is in the regional and national origins of envoys. In this study, 24 envoys are from Africa. There are seventeen Europeans, five from the Americas, three from Asia and the Pacific, and one from the Middle East.

AU officials observed wide-ranging diversity among African Union envoys. When multilateral envoys are chosen, some of the most important factors that play into appointments include country of origin and regional representation, language abilities and religion. There are political reasons behind appointment decisions. In Sudan, for example, the country of origin of the envoy, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, and that country’s relationship with Sudan, was a significant factor. AU officials also recognized that the Sudanese would feel more comfortable with a Muslim envoy, and that factored into the AU’s proposal to appoint Chambas, which was accepted by the UN.

IGAD’s negotiations in Sudan also involved nationality as an important role in envoy selection. The lead negotiator, Seyoum Mesfin, was a former Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, a country that was seen as neutral and accepted by different parties in the conflict.

Religion is an important factor for acceptance by conflict parties, and religious sensitivities can sometimes make a difference in regards to the outcome of negotiations. One interlocutor described a situation in which a high-level panel distributed an idea during an Eid holiday and it was not well received by conflict parties. In Somalia, Al-Shabab argued that mediation attempts were part of Christian crusades.

In general, AU representatives found that the AU could propose certain envoy profiles, which would generally be accepted by the UN or other multilateral and bilateral actors involved in a conflict. UN consultations with the AU to define the needed envoy profile for a given conflict are therefore becoming more common. However, one AU interlocutor observed that the UN argues at times for a non-African envoy, who would be perceived as more “tough” on pertinent issues.


Preferences for appointing experienced and high-profile individuals have made the average age of envoys noticeably high. The average envoy in 2013 was 64.2, more than two years past the retirement age for most existing non-contracted UN staff and less than a year under the retirement age for new staff. Veteran Algerian mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, was nearly 80 years old at the time of his appointment as the UN-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria. Brahimi’s strong reputation as a high-profile mediator with experience in the region informed his appointment. Brahimi had wanted to retire in May 2013, but pressure to follow up the Geneva talks kept him from doing so until he finally stepped down a year later. In addition to frustrations related to the conflict, health issues and exhaustion were factors contributing to Brahimi’s resignation.

Former Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute, Oliver Jackman of Barbados, passed away at the age of 76 in 2007. Three years later, Norman Girvan was appointed as his replacement. Just four years after that, Girvan passed away at the age of 72, also while still in office. At the time of this publication, Girvan had not yet been replaced. While Jackman and Girvan were well known and respected for their experience and intellectual capacities, qualities that tend to coincide with a diplomat’s age, the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute is an example of how appointing older envoys can lead to gaps in mediation processes.

Other envoys have aged while in their positions, and because of many years of experience dealing with a specific conflict are seen as the best choice for continuing to mediate that conflict. Examples include 76-year-old Matthew Nimetz, who has served as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Greece-FYROM talks since 1999, and 66-year-old Andrzej Kasprzyk, who has served as Personal Representative of the Chairman-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference since 1997.

A 2009 Secretary-General report highlights the necessity of developing the next generation of UN mediators. To achieve this goal, the UN must create opportunities for younger UN staff to develop mediation skills and experience. The Secretary-General advocates for partnerships with member states and regional organizations in support of mediation training programs. 

Regions and Distance

Regional organizations and states have increasingly played a role in mediation, and regional actors are often chosen to mediate in regional centers of conflict. The UN has emphasized the increasing importance of partnerships with regional multilateral institutions for addressing conflict. According to USG Feltman, “the crises we face are too complex for any one organization or Member State to address alone.” Feltman has noted the importance of strong partnerships with regional actors such as the League of Arab States in Syria, and the African Union in Somalia and Mali. He also expressed the UN’s efforts toward a strong partnership with ASEAN as the organization grows.

The African Union emphasizes the idea of “African Solutions for African Problems.” This does not mean Africa should solve its problems in isolation, but that it should take a lead role in addressing them, working in partnership with the international community. Out of the 30 envoys working in Africa, 22 are African.

Despite efforts to increase regional engagement in conflicts, envoys are still traveling great distances to reach the countries in which they work. Of the 52 envoys in this study, only seven are actually based where the conflict is taking place. Of the envoys traveling from afar to the countries in which they work, from the incomplete data available in 2014, the average distance was about 7,300 km or more than 4,500 miles. There are some benefits for envoys to have distance from a conflict, such as backstopping at headquarters locations, reducing safety and security concerns, and preserving the perception of impartiality. However, traveling long distances to reach a conflict presents several challenges including time considerations, financing and more effort needed to gain a deeper understanding of the situation on the ground.


A 2009 UN Secretary-General report highlights that political and mediation skills, experience, knowledge, judgment, language abilities and personal characteristics suitable for cultural context are important for mediation. The report also emphasizes characteristics such as good listening and problem-solving skills, the ability to handle stress and criticism, and strong communication. It also noted that careful selection of mediators avoids The Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation; ignorance, arrogance, partiality, impotence, haste, inflexibility and false promises. However, few organizations surveyed for this publication mentioned the importance of specific skills and behaviors in the negotiating room when selecting envoys. Experience and status were much more commonly cited as attributes contributing to envoy appointments.

Some multilateral institutions such as the UN have developed standby units of mediators. These can offer a diverse selection of mediators with relevant skills that can be deployed on short notice to mediate conflicts as needed. The African Union is also developing the mediation component of standby rosters and working to further professionalize mediation at the AU. With multilateral institutions’ growing emphasis on conflict prevention, efforts to select envoys of diverse backgrounds and with a wide range of skills will be even more crucial in the future.

Nora Gordon wrote this piece in her personal capacity and it does not necessarily reflect the views of the State Department.