United Nations Transition Assistance Group

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Group.png United Nations Transition Assistance Group   WebsiteRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Parent organizationUN
UNTAG was established by the UN Security Council 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]

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]

Settlement Proposal

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.

Brazzaville Protocol

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. In May 1988, US President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Moscow and agreed that progress should be made. Following the Moscow summit, a quick succession of talks took place in London, New York, Geneva, Cairo, and Cape Verde aimed at a negotiated regional peace settlement for Southern Africa. The Congo's capital Brazzaville hosted the final round of negotiations culminating in a preliminary agreement pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978 which called for the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia. Known as the Brazzaville Protocol, this agreement also committed Cuba and South Africa to withdraw their troops from Angola, and was initialled on Tuesday 13 December 1988 by representatives of Angola, Cuba and South Africa.[3] Participants at the Brazzaville negotiations included South African Defence Minister Magnus Malan, Foreign Minister Pik Botha, Head of Military Intelligence General van Tonder, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, French not-so-secret agent Jean-Yves Ollivier and Finland's Martti Ahtisaari.

New York Accords

United Nations Commissioner for Namibia Bernt Carlsson, the prime target on Pan Am Flight 103, 21 December 1988

The New York Accords (Tripartite Accord and Bipartite Accord), which gave effect to the Brazzaville Protocol, were scheduled to be signed the following week at UN headquarters in New York on Thursday 22 December 1988.[4]

United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, who would have assumed control of the country until Namibia's first universal franchise elections had been held, was unable to attend the signing ceremony, being one of 259 passengers and crew killed when Pan Am Flight 103 crashed at Lockerbie on 21 December 1988.[5]

Following the UN Commissioner's death at Lockerbie, South African foreign minister Pik Botha went ahead and signed the Tripartite Accord on 22 December 1988. However, instead of handing control of Namibia to the United Nations, Pik Botha put the apartheid regime's Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar, in charge. No investigation by the Scottish Police, the CIA, the FBI or the United Nations has ever been conducted into the evident targeting of Bernt Carlsson on Pan Am Flight 103, despite the branding of apartheid South Africa as a "terrorist state" by Governor Michael Dukakis, Democratic nominee in the 1988 US presidential election campaign.[6]


On 16 February 1989 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted the enabling Resolution 632, deciding to "implement Resolution 435 (1978) in its original and definitive form". Nordic countries were already focusing on their respective military and civilian contributions to UNTAG, as well as on the related question of impartiality during the transition process. While all the Nordic countries sent election observers to Namibia – and Norway and Sweden contributed civilian police monitors – it was, however, only Denmark and Finland that eventually participated in UNTAG’s military component, the former with a logistical unit and the latter with a full infantry battalion.

Sweden barred by South Africa

Sweden had traditionally contributed troops to the United Nations peace-making and peace-keepng operations and had at an early stage declared its readiness to do so in the case of Namibia too. However, South Africa – which in 1978 had already questioned a possible Swedish participation – opposed any military forces from Sweden, arguing that Sweden through its support to SWAPO was partial. Informed about Pretoria’s position during an official visit to Zimbabwe, Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson reacted in the strongest terms. Addressing a conference on Southern Africa organised by the Socialist International in Harare, he stated on 15 February 1989:

"It has been reported that South Africa does not wish to see any Swedes in the UN operation. We have been accused of not being impartial enough. Negotiations are still going on at the United Nations, but I want to make two things very clear:
"1. No person and no nation can be neutral in the struggle against apartheid and for independence. Not even the United Nations is neutral, that is what UNSCR 435 is all about.
"2. Sweden may or may not participate in the United Nations forces in Namibia. We are still preparing to do so. But whatever the outcome of the negotiations in New York, I can assure you that South Africa will never be able to prevent the government of Sweden or the people of Sweden, from giving political support to the process of independence in Namibia. And our commitment to initiate development co-operation with a future independent and democratic Namibia is as firm as ever."

Five days later UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar informed the Social Democratic government that due to South Africa’s opposition the United Nations would not request any military contribution to UNTAG from Sweden. Back in Stockholm, Ingvar Carlsson regretted the decision, commenting:

"It goes without saying that Swedes in the service of the United Nations must act impartially. They represent the United Nations, not Sweden. It is equally natural that the Swedish government has condemned South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia and – in accordance with appeals from the UN General Assembly – has given humanitarian assistance to the liberation movement, SWAPO. There is no contradiction between these two viewpoints. Sweden’s offer to participate in UNTAG was for us a natural link between earlier and future support for Namibia’s people. The amount that the UN operation was estimated to cost us – about 200 million SEK – will now be set aside for development co-operation efforts for a free and independent Namibia."

On 22 February 1989 – only two days after the UN Secretary-General’s communication of the decision – SIDA and SWAPO held consultative talks in Luanda on the co-operation during the financial year 1989/90. Formal official aid negotiations between the parties took place in the Angolan capital on 9-12 May 1989, respectively led by Jan Cedergren, Deputy Director-General of SIDA, and the SWAPO president Sam Nujoma. In fact while most countries reduced their contacts with SWAPO, in the case of Sweden they were considerably intensified just before and during the UNTAG period, which began on 1 April 1989. As noted, official Swedish and SWAPO delegations met on no less than six occasions between December 1988 and February 1990. The direct Swedish allocation to SWAPO was, finally, increased by almost 10 per cent or from 73 million SEK in 1988/89 to 80 million SEK in 1989/90. The budget for SWAPO’s activities inside Namibia was raised from 14 to 17.5 million SEK, or by 25 per cent. This was in contrast to Finland. With Martti Ahtisaari in charge of the UNTAG operation in Windhoek and a Finnish infantry battalion deployed in northern Namibia, in 1989 the Helsinki government decided to terminate the direct, official assistance to SWAPO.[7]

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.

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 Republicfor 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, witnessed by apartheid's newly-released prisoner Nelson Mandela. On 23 April 1990, Namibia became the 160th Member of the United Nations.


Cedric Thornberry, who was Chief of Staff to Martti Ahtisaari, published several books and many articles about UNTAG including:


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Pan Am Flight 103: It was the Uraniumarticle6 January 2014Patrick HaseldineFollowing Bernt Carlsson's untimely death in the Lockerbie bombing, the UN Council for Namibia inexplicably dropped the case against Britain's URENCO for illegally importing yellowcake from the Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia.
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  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"
  3. "Protocol of Brazzaville"
  4. "Agreement Among the Peoples Republic of Angola, the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of South Africa"
  5. "U.N. Officer on Flight 103" The New York Times December 22, 1988
  6. "Dukakis Backers Agree Platform Will Call South Africa 'Terrorist'"
  7. "Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa: Solidarity and Assistance" by Tor Sellström (2002)