United Nations Transition Assistance Group

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United Nations Transition Assistance Group deployed in Namibia (1989-1990)

The United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) was established in 1978 by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to facilitate the transition to independence of Namibia, which had been illegally occupied for decades by apartheid South Africa.

It was not until 1 April 1989 that UNTAG and UN Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari could begin the process of transition, which resulted in Namibia's independence on 21 March 1990.

Almost 20 years later, in a message to the annual session of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation on 28 February 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that "facilitating this process" constituted "one of the proudest chapters of our Organisation's history".[1]

United Nations plan

In 1978, Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States submitted to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) a proposal for settling the question of Namibia. According to the proposal, elections for a Constituent Assembly would be held under United Nations auspices. Every stage of the electoral process would be conducted to the satisfaction of a Special Representative for Namibia appointed by the Secretary-General.

The plan envisaged that UNTAG would be at the disposal of the Special Representative to help him supervise the political process and to ensure that all parties observed all provisions of an agreed solution. The UNSC requested the Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative for Namibia and to submit recommendations for implementing the settlement proposal. By UNSC resolution 435 (1978), the Security Council endorsed the United Nations plan for Namibia and decided to establish UNTAG.

Delaying tactics

In 1980, South Africa accepted the plan proposed by the five Powers and in 1981 participated in a pre-implementation meeting at Geneva. However, South Africa did not agree to proceed towards a ceasefire, one of the conditions set by the United Nations for implementing UNSC resolution 435. Negotiations were again stalled when South Africa attached new conditions which the United Nations did not accept, in particular one which linked the independence of Namibia with the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.

In the following years, the Secretary-General and his Special Representative travelled extensively throughout southern Africa, discussing problems, clarifying positions, exploring new concepts and exchanging views with all parties. Various countries promoted talks on the issue -- among them the five Western sponsors of the 1978 proposal and Zambia. Gradually the unresolved matters yielded to the give and take of negotiations.

Tripartite Agreement

The Secretary-General reported in 1987 that all outstanding issues relevant to the United Nations plan, including the choice of an electoral system, had been resolved. Only the condition linking independence to troop withdrawal remained an obstacle. On 22 December 1988, a tripartite agreement among Angola, Cuba and South Africa, mediated by the United States, was signed at United Nations Headquarters. The agreement committed the signatory States of a series of measures to achieve peace in the region, and opened the way to the United Nations independence plan. Under the agreement, South Africa undertook to cooperate with the Secretary-General to ensure Namibia's independence through free and fair elections

At the same time, Angola and Cuba signed an agreement on the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. In accordance with this agreement, the United Nations sent an observer mission -- the United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM) -- to Angola to verify the withdrawal of Cuban troops.

UNTAG activities

The starting date for the implementation of the independence plan was 1 April 1989.

UNTAG was made up of people of 124 nationalities. The authorised strength of its military component was 7,500 all ranks (maximum deployment 4,493 all ranks), supported by almost 2,000 international civilian and local staff. UNTAG's 1,500 police officers ensured a smooth electoral process and monitored the ceasefire between SWAPO and South African forces, and the withdrawal and demobilisation of all military forces in Namibia. During the elections, UNTAG was strengthened by some 1,000 additional international personnel who came specifically for the elections.

Discriminatory laws

Anton Lubowski's Confidential Memo, highly critical of Martti Ahtisaari

In his "Confidential Memorandum on Current Legal Issues" dated 19 June 1989, Anton Lubowski insisted that certain discriminatory laws had to be repealed before a fair election could proceed:

We have confidential information that Ahtisaari has approved a final version of the voter registration law that does very little to address the many problems that were identified in the initial draft.
Among the remaining problems are:
a. There is no provision for a central voters' roll;
b. There is no requirement that voters register in the districts where they live or work;
c. The procedure for Objections to Registration of certain voters is so burdensome that it will discourage objections; and,
d. Counting of votes.


The repeals to date have focused on security legislation. There are four major categories of omissions:

a. Gathering of security information - the South West African Security Police are still in operation. Also, the Administrator-General (Louis Pienaar) still has the power to order that the post be opened and telephone calls intercepted.
b. Discussion of political issues - Nothing has been done to lift the past banning of political publications. Also, the provisions of the Prisons Act and the Police Act which inhibit the publication of particular information are still in force.
c. Broadcast media - No steps have been taken to end the state monopoly on control of the broadcast media, or to ensure equal access for all political parties or alliances to radio and television.
d. Ethnic administrations - AG 8/1980 and the laws providing for the separate administration of the Rehoboth Gebiet have still not been repealed. The AG (Louis Pienaar) argues that this will have no effect on the election, but the ethnic division is in direct conflict with the guarantee in the UNSC resolution 435 plan that Namibia will be treated as a single political entity for the purposes of the election.

Democratic elections

Namibia was divided into 23 electoral districts. Registration centres were set up all over the country. Some 2,200 rural registration points were covered by 110 mobile registration teams. Registration of voters began on 3 July 1989. When the process ended on 23 September, 701,483 Namibians had registered, and more than 34,000 had been helped to repatriate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- of some 41,000 registered with that agency.

The elections, held from 7 to 11 November 1989 to choose the 72 delegates to the Constituent Assembly, saw a voter turn-out of 97 per cent. UNTAG monitored the balloting and the counting of votes. On 14 November 1989, the Special Representative for Namibia declared that the elections had been free and fair. SWAPO obtained 41 Assembly seats. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance obtained 21 seats, and five smaller parties shared the remaining 10.


By 22 November 1989, South Africa's remaining troops had left Namibia. The Constituent Assembly met for the first time on 21 November to draft a new Constitution, which was unanimously approved on 9 February 1990. On 16 February 1990 the Assembly elected SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma as President of the Republic for a five-year term. Namibia became independent on 21 March 1990. On that day, in Windhoek, the United Nations Secretary-General administered the oath of office to Namibia's first President. On 23 April 1990, Namibia became the 160th Member of the United Nations.

Historical background

Namibia -- formerly known as South West Africa -- was the only one of the seven African Territories once held under the League of Nations Mandate System that was not placed under the Trusteeship System. The General Assembly recommended in 1946 that South Africa do so, but South Africa refused. Instead, South Africa informed the United Nations in 1949 that it would no longer transmit information on the Territory, on the grounds that the Mandate had lapsed with the demise of the League. In 1950, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that South Africa continued to have international obligations towards the Territory, and that the United Nations should exercise the supervisory functions of the League of Nations in the administration of the Territory. South Africa refused to accept the Court's opinion, and continued to oppose any form of United Nations supervision over the Territory.

In 1966, the Assembly declared that South Africa had failed to fulfil its obligations under the Mandate. It terminated that Mandate, and placed the territory under the direct responsibility of the United Nations. In 1967, the Assembly established the United Nations Council for South West Africa to administer the Territory until independence. It thus became the only Territory which the United Nations, rather than a Member State, assumed direct responsibility.

South African presence "illegal"

In its first resolution on the question, the Security Council, in 1969, recognised the termination of the Mandate, described the continued presence of South Africa as illegal, and called on South Africa to withdraw its administration immediately. In 1970, the UNSC declared for the first time that all acts taken by South Africa concerning Namibia after the termination of the mandate were "illegal and invalid". This view was upheld in 1971 by the ICJ. The Court stated that South Africa's presence was illegal, and that South Africa was under obligation to withdraw its administration. South Africa, however, continued to refuse to comply with the United Nations resolutions, and continued its illegal administration of Namibia, including the imposition of apartheid laws, the bantustanisation of the Territory, and the exploitation of its resources.


In 1968, the Council was renamed the United Nations Council for Namibia (UNCN), when the Assembly proclaimed that, in accordance with the wishes of its people, the Territory would be thenceforth known as Namibia. Later that year, in the face of South Africa's refusal to accept the Assembly's decision and cooperate with the Council for Namibia, the Assembly recommended that the Security Council take measures to enable the Council to carry out its mandate.

The UNCN enacted in 1974 a Decree for the Protection of the Natural Resources of Namibia, under which no person or entity could search for, take or distribute any natural resources found in Namibia without the Council's permission. Any person or entity contravening the Decree could be held liable for damages by the future government of an independent Namibia. Also in 1974, the Council established the Institute for Namibia (UNIN), located in Lusaka, Zambia. The UNIN, which operated until after independence, provided Namibians with education and training equipping them to administer a free Namibia.

Mandatory elections

In 1976 the Security Council for the first time demanded that South Africa accept elections for the Territory under United Nations supervision and control. In the same year, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) condemned South Africa for organising so-called constitutional talks at Windhoek, Namibia's capital, designed to perpetuate the colonial oppression and exploitation of Namibia. It decided that any independence talks must be between South Africa and the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), which UNGA recognised as the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people. UNGA also launched a comprehensive assistance programme in support of Namibia's nationhood, involving assistance by United Nations organisations and specialised agencies.

In 1977, the UN General Assembly declared that South Africa's decision to annex Walvis Bay -- Namibia's main port and vital economic avenue -- was illegal, null and void and an act of colonial expansion. At a special session on Namibia in 1978, the UNGA expressed support for the armed liberation struggle of Namibian people, and stated that any settlement must be arrived at with the agreement of SWAPO and within the framework of United Nations resolutions.[2]

See also


  1. Tsokodayi, Cleophas (2011). Namibia's Independence Struggle; The Role of the United Nations. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-456-85291-7.
  2. "Namibia UNTAG Background"