January 2006 Monthly Forecast

Posted 22 December 2005
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Western Sahara (MINURSO)

Expected Council Action
In January, the Council will be briefed by the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum, as requested in Security Council resolution 1634 (28 October 2005), which also extended the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2006.

This is expected to begin a process of discussion about the future of MINURSO.

Key Facts
Between 1884 and 1976, Western Sahara was colonised by Spain. During the late period of Spanish administration, Sahrawi resistance movements, such as the Popular Front of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, (or Frente Polisario),  seeking self-determination, obtained support from the United Nations, including mention in successive General Assembly resolutions of the right to self-determination.

As Spanish control of the territory weakened, Morocco and Mauritania expressed claims over the territory. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), in an Advisory Opinion requested by the General Assembly, ruled that there was no basis of territorial sovereignty on the part of Morocco or Mauritania which overrode the right of the inhabitants to self-determination.

Morocco moved forces into the Spanish Sahara in late 1975.  As Franco was dying, Spain agreed to hand over Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania without conducting a referendum on self-determination.  Morocco’s movement into the territory was deplored by the Security Council in resolution 380 (6 November 1975). 

The actual Spanish withdrawal from Western Sahara in 1976 was immediately followed by the founding of the “Saharan Arab Democratic Republic” (SADR) by the Polisario. Serious fighting broke out between the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies on one side, and the Polisario on the other side. In 1979, Mauritania dropped its claims on Western Sahara, and the Mauritanian sector was taken over by Moroccan troops.

In 1979, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) called for a referendum in support of the right of self-determination of the Sahrawis. In 1982, after 26 OAU member states recognised SADR, it was admitted to the OAU Council of Ministers. In protest, Morocco, a founding member of OAU, withdrew from the organisation.

After the establishment of a ceasefire in 1991, the parties agreed on a settlement proposal, including the holding of a referendum on self-determination. MINURSO was created in 1991 to implement this referendum, including a process of identification of eligible voters, and has been renewed regularly since that year, for periods up to six months.

After several years of disagreement over the identification process, in 2001 James Baker, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy at the time, suggested a framework for the referendum. The Polisario rejected the terms of the referendum, because it would allow all settlers to vote, including Moroccan residents who by then outnumbered the Sahrawis.  Baker then produced a revised plan, but this was rejected by Morocco.

Van Walsum recently characterised the situation as “quasi-irreconcilable.” Morocco and the Polisario agree on the desirability of a referendum. However, Morocco opposes including the option of independence.  The Polisario position is based on long-established UN decolonisation principles, flowing from General Assembly resolution 1514 (1960), that the right of self-determination must include independence among other options. Morocco has signaled that it may be willing to accept some form of autonomy in Western Sahara, but the Polisario insists that a referendum as envisaged in the final Baker plan should be part of the process.

Key Issues
The first issue for the Council will be to determine whether there are any new options to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, including exploring any leverage that would affect their positions.

But a secondary issue is looming. Because the peace process has been stalled for so long, questions are likely to be raised about MINURSO’s future. Options include complete withdrawal or a change of mandate. In either case, Council members will also be weighing possible impacts on regional stability.

Council Dynamics
Leadership on the issue has traditionally been through a group of friends of Western Sahara composed of France, Spain, the US and Russia.

France has always supported Morocco. Although the US also has strong ties with Morocco, it has remained more neutral over the years and was a strong supporter of the Baker plan. At present, France and the US seem to support a solution based on the Moroccan idea of an extended autonomy for Western Sahara.

The US has been active in attempting to improve the atmosphere for future progress. US diplomats conducted negotiations that led to the liberation of Moroccan prisoners by the Polisario in August 2005. On the other hand, the US is keen to explore new options, including a rationalisation of peacekeeping operations where peace processes are stalled. The threat of MINURSO’s termination may be an option that Council members see as a lever to induce the parties to reach an agreement. However, there is bound to be controversy about  this option.

Council dynamics are also likely to be impacted by wider considerations. Counter terrorism objectives, such as the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative, point to the value of securing a lasting solution for Western Sahara sooner rather than later.

The Polisario also has allies, such as Algeria and Russia (as well as key AU members outside the Council, including South Africa and Nigeria). But Algeria is leaving the Council at the end of 2005.

Morocco’s refusal to consider independence as an option in the referendum stems from a fear that the loss of Western Sahara would create a deep political crisis. Moreover, the costs-both financially and in Moroccan lives as a result of the occupation-make it extremely difficult to give up the territory. But this must be set against the strong tide in the UN, and especially in African politics, in support of the right of self-determination of former colonised territories.

Underlying Problems
The main challenge to the process has long been the criteria for eligibility to vote. Originally, it was expected that all Saharans counted in a 1974 census and aged 18 years would have the right to vote. This solution met the Polisario’s demand for a limited voting pool excluding those it has regarded as foreign to the territory. Morocco, however, has wanted to expand this pool to make all residents eligible. The problem has become more acute with the growth of Moroccan settlers over the years.

Human rights issues also lie in the background as Moroccan authorities still detain about 150 political prisoners, and there are around 500 Sahrawi civilians who have “disappeared.” Also, approximately 150,000 Sahrawis are living in refugee camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf, where allegations of human rights violations by Algeria have been reported. In his last report, the Secretary-General called on the parties to allow the High Commissioner for Human Rights to approach the parties. Morocco has also called for investigations with regards to the Polisario’s alleged torture of Moroccan prisoners it later released.

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UN Documents

 Selected Council Resolutions
  • S/RES/1634 (28 October 2005) extended MINURSO until 30 April 2006 and requested the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to provide a briefing within three months.
  • S/RES/1598 (28 April 2005) extended MINURSO’s mandate by six months.
  • S/RES/1495 (31 July 2003) supported the peace plan proposed by Baker as an optimum solution on the basis of agreement between the parties.
  • S/RES/690 (29 April 1991) established MINURSO.
  • S/RES/658 (27 June 1990) endorsed the settlement proposals.
  • S/RES/621 (20 September 1988) authorised the appointment of a Special Representative to Western Sahara.
  • S/RES/380 (6 November 1975) deplored Morocco’s movement into the territory.
  • S/RES/377 (22 October 1975) requested the Secretary-General to consult with the parties.

 Most Recent Secretary-General’s Reports

 Selected Letters to the President of the Council

  • S/2005/605 (27 September 2005) Letter from Algeria
  • S/2005/602 (23 September 2005) Letter from Morocco

 Selected Exchange of Letters between the Secretary-General and the President of the Council

  • S/2004/492 (15 June 2004) announced the resignation of Baker and charged Álvaro de Soto with the task to continue the political process.
  • S/1997/236 (17 March 1997) appointed James Baker as Personal Envoy to Western Sahara.


Historical Background

6 November 2005

The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, announced the launching of a process of consultation with the parties on granting autonomy to Western Sahara.

11-17 October 2005

The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara visited the region and met with the parties.

18 August 2005

The last 404 Moroccan prisoners were released by the Polisario.

29 July 2005

The Secretary-General appointed Peter van Walsum as his Personal Envoy.

11 June 2004

James Baker resigned from his position as Personal Envoy to Western Sahara. Álvaro de Soto, Special Representative for Western Sahara at that time, took over the political process.

July 2003

Baker returned with a revised version of his plan, including safeguards that won Algerian and Polisario support. Moroccan settlers were able to vote, but Morocco rejected the plan.

23 May 2003

Baker proposed another plan (Baker Plan II) which provided for a referendum in four to five years time and offered the inhabitants a choice between independence, autonomy or complete integration with Morocco. The plan was accepted by Polisario, Algeria and the Security Council but was rejected by Morocco.

20 June 2001

Baker presented a “Framework Agreement” (Baker’s Plan I), in which the referendum would be replaced by a vote on limited autonomy. Morocco would control the territory while the Sahrawis would have had exclusive competence over local issues. The framework was accepted by Morocco but rejected by the Polisario.

September 1998

The process of identifying eligible voters was completed.

September 1997

The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, James Baker, conducted a successful round of talks between the parties which led to the adoption of the Houston Accords.

May 1996

The identification process was suspended. The civilian police component of MINURSO was withdrawn and the military component was reduced.

29 April 1991

Resolution 690 established MINURSO with the mandate to implement the settlement proposals during a transitional period in which the referendum would be organized. The plan also created an identification commission to determine voters.

30 August 1988

The two parties agreed on the UN “settlement proposals,” which pushed for a ceasefire (effective in 1991) and the holding of a referendum to enable the people of Western Sahara to choose between independence and integration with Morocco.


Morocco withdrew from the OAU to protest against the presence of the Polisario at the OAU summit.


The SADR was admitted to the OAU.


Mauritania renounced all claims on Western Sahara. Morocco took over the Mauritanian sector of Western Sahara.

27 February 1976

Morocco annexed Western Sahara. The SADR was founded and announced an armed struggle to achieve the right of self-determination. Fighting broke out between the Polisario and the Moroccan and Mauritanian armies. The population fled to refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria.

26 February 1976

Spain withdrew from Western Sahara.

14 November 1975

Spain ceded Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania after the signature of the Madrid Accord.

6 November 1975

The “Green March” over the border between Western Sahara and Morocco moved around 350,000 Moroccans into the territory.

31 October 1975

Moroccan troops crossed the frontier and clashed with Polisario guerrillas.

16 October 1975

ICJ Advisory Opinion was issued.


Frente Polisario was formed and launched its first raids against Spanish colonisers.

Other Relevant Facts

 Special Representative of the Secretary-General

 Francesco Bastagli (Italy)

 Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy

 Peter van Walsum (Netherlands)

 Size and Composition of Mission (31 October 2005)

235 total uniformed personnel, including 27 troops, 202 military observers and 6 police, supported by some 131 international civilian personnel and 97 local civilian staff

 Key Troop Contributing Countries

France, Russia, Egypt, Korea, China, Ghana, Malaysia


 1 July 2005 – 30 June 2006: $ 47.95 million (gross)

Useful Additional Sources
Western Sahara, Anatomy of a Stalemate by Erik Jensen, Lynne Rienner Publishers, November 2004
Endgame in the Western Sahara: What Future for Africa’s Last Colony? by Toby Shelley, Zed Books, 2004

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