Mohamed Sahnoun

Mohamed Sahnoun (Arabic: محمد سحنون‎) (8 April 1931 – 20 September 2018)[5] was an Algerian diplomat who served as ambassador of Algeria to Germany, France, the United States and Morocco as well as permanent representative of Algeria to the United Nations.[6] He also served as the Organisation of African Unity's Assistant Secretary General, the Arab League's Assistant Secretary-general, the Secretary-General of the United Nations's Special Representative for Somalia in 1992 and the Secretary-General of the United Nations's Special Representative for the Great Lakes region of Africa in 1997[7][8] before continuing to work for peace and reconciliation through various UN-related[9] or independent charities.[10][11] He particularly focused on developing intercultural and inter-religious dialogues and on healing wounded memories from past conflicts.[11]

Mohamed Sahnoun
Mohamed Sahnoun.jpg
Permanent Representative of Algeria to the United Nations
In office
Ambassador of Algeria to the United States
In office
Preceded byLayachi Yaker
Succeeded byAbderrahane Bensid[citation needed]
United Nations Special Representative for Somalia [1]
In office
April 1992 – November 1992
Succeeded byIsmat Kittani [2]
Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the OAU in the Congo
Assumed office
UN/OAU Special Representative for Great Lakes Region of Africa [3]
Assumed office
Personal details
Born(1931-04-08)April 8, 1931
Chlef, French Algeria
Died20 September 2018(2018-09-20) (aged 87)
Paris, France
Alma materNew York University [4]

Early years and Algerian WarEdit

Mohamed Sahnoun was born in 1931 in Chlef (known as Castellum Tingitanum during Roman times, Al Asnam during the Umayyad Caliphate period and from 1962 to 1980 as well as Orléansville during the French colonization), in Algeria. He first studied at the Lycée of Algiers and then went on at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was there on the day of the first hostilities of the Algerian War (1 November 1954). As an activist of the FLN, he responded to the call to strike launched by the '’Union générale des étudiants musulmans algériens (Ugema)'’ on 19 May 1956,[12] stopped studying in Paris and came back home in Algeria.

There, he started to work in the 'Social Centers' created by former French Resistance fighter Germaine Tillon with the agreement of Jacques Soustelle (then Governor General of Algeria) in order to alleviate misery, squalor and illiteracy in Algerian populations.[13] In March 1957, the organisation was raided and searched by police, who arrested and detained twelve Christians (among which priests) and twenty-three Muslims. Being one of the managers of the 'Social Centers', Mohamed Sahnoun was part of this group, which was charged with conspiracy and tried in a fairly loudly-trumpeted trial, nicknamed the “Progressive Christians” trial.[13] Mohamed Sahnoun was subsequently detained in the infamous "Villa Sésini [fr]", the torture and detention centre of the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment during the Battle of Algiers. He himself was subjected to torture.[14] Released for lack of conclusive evidence, Mohamed Sahnoun then sought refuge in metropolitan France, in Clichy then in Switzerland in Lausanne. He was unable to go back to Algeria before independence.

During his early years Mohamed Sahnoun also got acquainted with the pacifist NGO Service Civil International in Algeria in 1952–53; he participated in several of their international workcamps and even became the head of their Algerian branch for some time. This provided him with an enduring philosophical background (see infra) and also with an important network of trusted friends who would be of great assistance to him through the events of the 1950s. Mohamed Sahnoun then resumed his studies at New York University where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degrees, both in political science.[15]

Diplomatic careerEdit

At the service of AlgeriaEdit

Mohamed Sahnoun first became diplomatic advisor of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic. In 1962 he travelled with president Ben Bella on his first official visit to the USA, where he met with president John Kennedy who had been one of the supporters of the cause of Algerian independence. As the Algerian delegation was then due to travel to Cuba, Kennedy showed Ben Bella the first secret pictures taken by U2 planes showing Russian missiles launch pads in Cuba. In the name of peace and human security, Ben Bella agreed to convey a message to Fidel Castro making clear how much the American regarded this situation as a casus belli[16] · .[17] Mohamed Sahnoun then held the following positions:

  • Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (1964–1973)[15]
  • Deputy Secretary-General of the League of Arab States in charge of Arab-Africa dialogue (1973–1975).[15]
  • Algerian Ambassador to Federal Republic of Germany (1975–1979)[15]
  • Algerian Ambassador to France (1979–1982). Under his leadership, an agreement was reached between France and Algeria regarding social security and retirement settlement for Algerian workers in France.[15]
  • Head of the Algerian diplomatic mission to the United States (1982–1984)[15]
  • Algerian Ambassadeur d'Algérie to the United States (1984–1989). During his tenure, he organised a state visit by president Chadli Bendjedid to Ronald Reagan, the first official visit ever of an Algerian head of state to the United States.[15]
  • In 1989, Sahnoun is called to take over urgently as Algeria's Ambassador to Morocco, in order to succeed ambassadeur Abdelhamid Mehri, who is himself urgently requested to take the presidency of FLN after the 1988 October riots in Algeria; he becomes simultaneously Algerian Ambassador to Morocco and secretary of the Arab Maghreb Union (1989–1990).[15]
  • His name was mentioned as a possible recourse candidate for the Algerian presidential election of April 1999 but it is finally Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a former foreign minister who had retired from public office since 1981, who stood as a " free candidate " for and from FLN.[18]

At the service of the United NationsEdit

  • Senior Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).[19]
  • Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Somalia (April to November 1992).[19] In this position, the efficiency of his diplomatic style is unanimously recognised and promising results are achieved;[18] however his peacebuilding action was interrupted by the lack of efficient backing from the UN[20] and by the US military impatience to intervene. Mohamed Sahnoun resigned in protest. The intervention led by the US-backed Unified Task Force (code-named Operation Restore Hope) actually ended in utter disaster.[21]
  • Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the OAU in the Congo (1993).[19]
  • Special Adviser to the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the Culture of Peace Programme (1995–1997).[19]
  • United Nations/Organization of African Unity (OAU) Special Representative for the Great Lakes region of Africa (1997).[19]

Studies and reportsEdit

Personal commitments with NGOsEdit

  • Board member of International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) from 1990 to 1996, and from 2003 to 2009.[23]
  • President of Initiatives of Change International, Swiss-based iNGO which promotes effecting social change beginning with personal change, and works particularly on reestablishing dialogue and trust between opposing parties as a contribution towards peacebuilding, good governance and sustainable economic development (2007–2008).[24]
  • President of the Caux Forum for Human Security (2008–2012),[25] a project which brought together 300 people active in human security, aiming to build a worldwide coalition of conscience that recognises the importance of building trust among actors at all levels to achieve meaningful change.
  • Vice-president of the board of University for Peace (UPEACE), UN-mandated organisation, established in December 1980 as a Treaty Organisation by the UN General Assembly; senior advisor for the Africa and Middle-East UPEACE programmes and chair of the UPEACE consultative Council for Africa.[26]
  • Co-chair of the International Advisory Board for the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.[27]
  • Member of the Earth Charter Commission and served as a member of the Earth Charter International Council.


  • In 1994, Mohamed Sahnoun published "Somalia: The Missed Opportunities",[28] a book in which he analyses the reasons for the failure of the 1992 UN intervention in Somalia; he shows in particular that, between the start of the Somali civil war in 1988 and the fall of the Siad Barre regime in January 1991, the United Nations missed at least three opportunities to prevent major human tragedies. When the United Nations tried to provide humanitarian assistance, they were totally outperformed by NGOs, whose competence and dedication sharply contrasted with the United Nations' excessive caution and bureaucratic inefficiencies. If radical reform was not undertaken, warned Mohamed Sahnoun, then the United Nations would continue to respond to such crisis in a climate of inept improvisation.[29]
  • In 2007, Mohamed Sahnoun also published (in French) a largely autobiographic novel set in Algeria in 1954, Mémoire blessée ('’Hurt Memory'’); its main character, Salem, '’a man of faith and dialogue'’, is jailed and tortured because of his convictions. He is however rescued by French people, some civilian, some military and some ecclesiactic – who all take great risks to shield him. The book is clearly an evocation of the events which marked the author's younger years (see above the early years and Algeria wars section), but it also calls for human solidarity and the protection of the weaker.[30]


Mohamed Sahnoun met pacifism in 1952 in Alger through the Service Civil International NGO. He had read the book by Pierre Ceresole, the Swiss founder of this organisation, and even more importantly the book by Romain Rolland on Gandhi, "which was practically my bedside book at the time.[31]" These ideas stayed with him through his long professional career, where he was from the onset a man of dialogue, trying for instance to establish appropriate communication between communities about Congo through the UNESCO-backed World Assembly of Youth (WAY), or as a leading figure of the OAU, particularly when African countries were confronted with the problems stemming from the borders inherited from colonialism, or in his different missions for the UN. His participation for several years in the very international and religiously mixed Service Civil International NGO also played a role in his understanding the sources of conflict and brought him to invest in how to heal the memory injuries resulting from past conflicts.[31] He reinforces further this reflection in his later career years as he more and more commits in favour of human security, for instance though The Responsibility to Protect project (2001) or through his organizing from 2008 to 2012 of the Caux Forum for Human Security, with the following five themes: Healing Memory, Just Governance, Living Sustainably, Inclusive Economics and Intercultural Dialogue[32] Very committed to interreligious diversity and dialogue, Mohamed Sahnoun rose strongly against the idea of Clash of Civilizations, saying for example: "I said to Huntington during a discussion in Washington, there is no such clash. Take the Somalian example: from a religious point of view, Somalis are more or less all on the same wavelength. But because of total insecurity, they split into clans and sub-clans. That's why I want to develop intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. "[24]


  • A secondary school bears his name in the city of Oued Sly in Chlef, Algeria, his birthplace.
  • 2007 "Elizabeth Haub Prize for Environmental Diplomacy" (link is external)'. The award, which recognizes significant achievements in the field of environmental law and diplomacy, was conferred on 14 May at a ceremony in New York.[33]


  • Phillip C. Naylor, Historical Dictionary of Algeria, Scarecrow Press, Oxford, 2006 ; p. 400
  • United Nations press releases
  • Interview of Mohamed Sahnoun by Katherine Marshall in the Huffington Post onn 10 May 2011 [10]


  1. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help); External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help)
  3. ^ United Nations Press Release
  4. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help); External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. ^ [1] Archived 12 May 2019 at the Wayback Machine (in French)
  6. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help); External link in |website= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help)
  7. ^ "UNITED NATIONS OPERATION IN SOMALIA I (UNOSOM I) - Background (Full text)". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  8. ^ Press release of the United Nations on 27 January 1997: Mohamed Sahnoun of Algeria nominated UN/OAU special representative for great lakes region of Africa [2]
  9. ^ UPEACE – University for Peace [3] Archived 31 August 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ International Institute for Sustainable Development "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 December 2013. Retrieved 9 January 2014.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ a b Initiatives of Change, interview with Katherine Marshall [4]
  12. ^ Henry Clement-Moore, L'Ugema (1955–1962) : témoignages, Casbah Éditions, Alger, 2011
  13. ^ a b Sybille Chapeu, Des Chrétiens dans la Guerre d'Algérie: l'action de la mission de France, Éditions « Atelier Ed De L'», Paris, 2004
  14. ^ Les ennemis complémentaires: guerre d'Algérie, par Germaine Tillon, Éditions Tirésias, 2005, p. 216
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h "Mohamed Sahnoun". Retrieved 22 September 2017.
  16. ^ Ainsi était le "Che" par Ahmed Ben Bella, Le Monde diplomatique, novembre 1997 [5]
  17. ^ Interview de Mohamed Sahnoun par Katherine Marshall dans le Huffington Post le 10 mai 2011 [6]
  18. ^ a b Phillip C. Naylor, Historical Dictionary of Algeria, Scarecrow Press, Oxford, 2006 ; p. 400
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Source : United Nations press release, 27 January 1997, last consulted 7 March 2015 [7]
  20. ^ In his book entitled "Somalia: The Missed Opportunities", Mohamed Sahnoun clearly showed that when the United Nations tried to provide humanitarian assistance, they were totally outperformed by NGOs, whose competence and dedication sharply contrasted with the United Nations' excessive caution and bureaucratic inefficiencies, their main Somalia envoys operating from the safety of their desks in Nairobi. The refusal of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then UN Secretary General to accept this criticism led to the early end of Mohamed Sahnoun's mission in Somalia
  21. ^ Interview of Mohamed Sahnoun et Cornelio Sommaruga by Richard Werly and François d'Alançon, in Oser la Paix, Éditions Autrement, Paris, 2011, ISBN 978-2-7467-3053-3, p. XVI.
  22. ^ Haines, Steven; Kassimeris, George, ed. (2010), "Chapter 18, Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide, Crimes against Humanity and the Use of Force", The Ashgate research companion to modern warfare, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 307–329, ISBN 978-0-7546-7410-8
  23. ^ "Our People | IISD". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  24. ^ a b " Un musulman à la tête du centre de Caux ", paper in the Swiss daily Le Temps (Geneva) mercredi 6 décembre 2006.
  25. ^ "HOME | Caux Forum for Human Security". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  26. ^ "About UPEACE". University for Peace. Archived from the original on 31 August 2013. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  27. ^ "About Us: Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect". Archived from the original on 6 October 2014. Retrieved 19 April 2016.
  28. ^ USIP Press Books, octobre 1994, ISBN 978-1-878379-35-1
  29. ^ Book Review by Gail M. Gerhart in Foreign Affairs, March/April 1995 [8]
  30. ^ Mémoire blessée : Algérie, 1957; Presses de la Renaissance, Paris, 2007, ISBN 978-2750902988
  31. ^ a b Interview dans Breaking down barriers 1945–1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International, Olivier Bertrand, Paris, 2008 (in French) [9]
  32. ^ "Holistic Approach | Caux Forum for Human Security". Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  33. ^ Site of the Elizabeth Haub Foundations