Western Sahara was colonised by Spain until 1976. During the late period of Spanish administration the Sahrawi resistance movement Popular Front of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (known as Frente Polisario) sought self-determination and obtained support from the United Nations, including mention in successive General Assembly resolutions on the right to self-determination.
As Spanish control of the territory weakened towards the end of the Franco regime in Spain, Morocco and Mauritania expressed claims over the territory. Morocco moved forces into the Spanish Sahara in late 1975. Under the Madrid Agreement, Spain agreed to hand over Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania without conducting a referendum on self-determination. The Council condemned Morocco’s movement into the territory 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 to 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 UN-brokered 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 plan, including a process of identification of eligible voters, and has been renewed regularly since 1991, 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, submitted a Framework Agreement for the referendum (Baker Plan I). 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 (Baker Plan II), but this was rejected by Morocco.
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 signalled 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.
In January the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy, Peter van Walsum, briefed the Council on his assessment of the situation in Western Sahara. He characterised the positions of the parties as “quasi-irreconcilable.” Van Walsum was also critical of the Security Council’s involvement with the conflict. In his opinion, resolution 1495 (2003) endorsing the Baker’s peace plan as an optimum solution had been a mistake, since the parties had disagreed in principle on how the referendum needed to be conducted.
Although van Walsum was not ready to make proposals in January, he conveyed to the Council his personal views, including that:
There should be a totally new approach to the peace process, since the Baker Plan was already rejected and a mutually acceptable solution on that basis seems unattainable.
The option of independence should not be included in the process of self-determination because it has already been rejected by one of the parties. It would be more productive to explore solutions based on enhanced autonomy for Western Sahara.
Algeria should take part in direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario.
These tentative ideas drew firm responses. Algeria rejected the idea of participating in the negotiations arguing that the problem had to be addressed as a decolonisation issue. The Polisario reiterated its position that independence had to be one of the options, and refused to abandon a solution not based on the Baker Plan.
Morocco announced its intention to make a new proposal of extended autonomy for the Sahrawi territory, but at time of writing nothing has emerged. It is currently being debated among all Moroccan political parties.
In the meantime, van Walsum undertook visits to France, the UK, Spain, the US, the European Union and the African Union in order to assess the position of those actors regarding the conflict.
The king of Morocco Mohammed VI undertook a weeklong tour of Western Sahara in late March in order to reassert Morocco’s control over the territory, and declared that Rabat was not ready to give up an inch of the Sahara. This signals that the autonomy plan will reject self-determination. Following his visit, serious clashes occurred between Polisario sympathizers and Moroccan police, who arrested several demonstrators. Those disturbances, in addition to human rights violations, have been recurrent and are getting worse over time.
If the Moroccan proposal appears to resemble the limited one that Morocco proposed in 2003, it will probably not be welcomed by the Council. The issue is whether a more detailed proposal, involving real extended autonomy for Western Sahara, in effect close to independence, could be offered as a new basis for negotiations.
A related issue is the future of MINURSO. Increasingly, it seems this may depend on credible prospects for overcoming the stalemate. Several delegations, especially the US and Japan, indicated that in the absence of progress on the political side, the mandate of the mission should be reviewed. This issue seems likely to be used as leverage over the parties to find a compromise.
Timing may also become an issue. If the Moroccan proposal is received only shortly before the expiry date, with insufficient time for analysis and a report from the Secretary-General and analysis in Council member capitols, it may cause irritation. An issue may develop as to whether the Council should consider it in April or defer it to a later date.
There is very little support within the Council at this stage for MINURSO’s termination. Most members believe that the force still has a deterrent effect and preserves the ceasefire. In addition, the parties themselves and Algeria, think that the presence of MINURSO is necessary until a political solution is found.
Now that Algeria has left the Council, the position of the Polisario is conveyed through other African states, especially Tanzania. France remains the main supporter of the Moroccan position.
The US might want to take the lead on this issue. Indeed, between 1997 and 2000, John Bolton worked with Baker and co-authored the Baker plan. Bolton has signalled that he would give a special attention to resolving the situation in Western Sahara while serving as the US ambassador to the UN. In addition, the US is seen as a neutral party. In that sense a complete shift from the principles of the Baker plan seems unlikely, given that it was seen as the most balanced solution that could be offered to the parties.
The Council could:
Renew MINURSO for an additional six months without any change.
Rollover MINURSO for a shorter period while asking the Secretary-General to provide an assessment of how the mandate could be revised in the light of any Moroccan proposal that is received.
Decide to phase down the mission (conceivable if no proposal or a manifestly unacceptable proposal emerges from Morocco).
Set in motion a new process of negotiation for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara (conceivable if a highly attractive proposal emerges from Morocco).
|Selected Security Council Resolutions|
|Most Recent Secretary-General’s Reports|
|Selected Letters to the President of the Council|
|Selected Exchange of Letters between the Secretary-General and the President of the Council|
|Other Related Documents|
|Special Representative of the Secretary-General|
|Francesco Bastagli (Italy)|
|Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy|
|Peter van Walsum (Netherlands)|
|Size and Composition of Mission (31 January 2006)|
|225 total uniformed personnel, including 28 troops, 197 military observers, supported by some 123 international civilian personnel and 101 local civilian staff|
|Key Troop Contributing Countries|
|France, Russia, Egypt, Korea, China, Ghana and Malaysia|
|1 July 2005 – 30 June 2006: $ 47.95 million (gross)|