January 2008 Monthly Forecast

Posted 21 December 2007
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Western Sahara

Expected Council Action
The Council will discuss the Secretary-General’s report on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in April and developments at the most recent talks between Morocco and the Frente Polisario. Peter van Walsum, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, is expected to brief the Council and provide an assessment of the negotiations and perhaps recommendations. The Council is likely to extend the mandate of MINUSRO which expires on 30 April.

Key Recent Developments
On 17 and 18 March, Morocco and the Polisario held the fourth round of talks in Manhasset in search of a mutually acceptable solution to the situation in Western Sahara. Representatives of the neighbouring countries, Algeria and Mauritania, were present at the opening and closing sessions and were consulted separately during the meeting. Peter van Walsum facilitated the discussions.

According to a communiqué issued by van Walsum with the agreement of the parties, the talks focused on implementation of Council resolutions 1754 and 1783. In 2007, these resolutions called on the parties to negotiate without precondition and in good faith, taking into account developments since 2006 with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which would provide for self-determination by the people of Western Sahara consistent with the UN Charter. The talks focused mainly on administration, justice and resources issues. However, the parties agreed to explore establishing family visits between the refugee camps in Algeria and the Moroccan-controlled territory of Western Sahara by land—in addition to the current visits by air—and to continue the talks at a later date. Morocco seemed to relax to a small degree its previous insistence that the talks focus on the political process and not discuss the expansion of confidence-building measures.

Overall it seems that there was very little progress on the political issues since the last round. Again the parties made statements of their respective positions on thematic issues and it seems they remained reluctant to engage in interactive discussions, despite their previous agreement to move the process into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations.

One problem seems to be that Morocco still refuses to even discuss one of the proposals on the table, which includes independence as an option. In response the Polisario refuses to discuss autonomy as the sole option. After the talks, the Moroccan delegation made a statement about its territorial integrity, and said that the choice was not between autonomy and independence but between autonomy and status quo. The Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs Taieb Fassi Fihri, a member of the delegation that attended the Manhasset talks, stated at a press conference that Morocco was ready to engage in substantial discussions about the autonomy plan only. The delegation also attacked attempts by the Polisario to raise human rights issues.

Van Walsum visited the region ahead of the talks and held in-depth consultations with the parties. He met the Polisario Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz and other members of the Polisario leadership on 9 February. He also met senior Moroccan officials in Rabat. Van Walsum said that he was in the region to listen to the views of both the parties and the neighbouring states, Algeria and Mauritania, on how to move into more substantial negotiations and provide for the self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. He also held discussions with officials in Algiers and Nouakchott.

On 25 January, the Secretary-General’s report on the third round of negotiations (which took place from 7 to 9 January) said that the parties remained far apart and that “there was hardly any exchange that could be characterized as negotiations.”

On 4 February, the Council held consultations and adopted a press statement supporting van Walsum’s plan to tour the region ahead of the March round of talks and welcoming the parties’ agreement to move the process into a more substantial phase of negotiations. (It seems that the optimism in that statement may have been misplaced when set alongside the March outcome described above.)

Human Rights Watch reported in January 2008 in its annual World Report that Morocco’s authorities continued to harass human rights defenders and Sahrawi activists in the Western Sahara. Repression of public protests, it says, was fiercer in Western Sahara than elsewhere in the kingdom. The 2007 Western Sahara Country Report on Human Rights Practices published in March 2008 by the US Department of State also noted that political rights for residents in Western Sahara remained circumscribed. It added that “international human rights groups and Sahrawi activists maintained that the Moroccan government subjected Sahrawis who were suspected of supporting either Western Saharan independence or the Polisario to various forms of surveillance, arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and in many cases, torture.”

The Council is likely to adopt a resolution. It has the following options:

  • renew MINURSO for less than six-months, and signal that the presence of MINURSO is seriously linked to progress in the negotiations;
  • expand the MINURSO mandate to include a human rights element;
  • choose either the Moroccan plan or the Polisario plan and require the parties to use that as a basis for negotiations. (This would be a clear departure from previous resolutions which have treated the two plans more or less neutrally, although the Moroccan efforts were defined as “serious and credible”);
  • demand that the parties engage without preconditions in discussions of both plans;
  • decide that the two plans should be put to a binding referendum (This was the initial rationale for the establishment of MINURSO);
  • call on the parties to further engage on confidence-building measures; and
  • simply renew the MINURSO mandate for six months and reaffirm language contained in resolution 1783 and call upon the parties to engage in substantive negotiations.

Another option would be for the Council to clarify language contained in previous resolutions, in particular specifying who the parties are (as Morocco claims that the Polisario is not the sole representative of the Sahrawi population), or emphasising the necessity for both parties to engage on each other’s plan and show flexibility, as the Secretary-General had recommended in his last report.

Key Issues
The main issue at this stage is whether the Council should explore options to pressure the parties to engage in substantive discussions, or uphold the approach in resolutions 1754 and 1783 which was based on not trying to impose any solution but simply facilitating agreement by both parties, and to this end give more time to the parties. A possible instrument of pressure which had been considered in the past by the US—although never formally proposed in the Council—is linking the extension of MINURSO’s mandate to progress in the negotiations, threatening to withdraw it completely. But the Secretary-General has warned against that—especially in the context of increasing calls within the Polisario to take up arms again.

A separate issue is whether to expand the MINURSO mandate to include human rights elements. An increasing number of Council members appear to consider this an important issue.

Council and Wider Dynamics
Some members, including South Africa, continue to be critical of the Group of Friends (comprising France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US) due to its lack of inclusiveness and apparent unwillingness to engage in substantial discussions with the rest of the Council. The US has the lead in the Council.

France, and possibly also the US, may be inclined to try to tilt language in the resolution in favour of the Morocco plan. Both France and the US have recognised the Moroccan autonomy plan as a serious and credible effort, expressed their support for Morocco’s efforts to help resolve this issue and believe this plan to be a good realistic starting point that could lead to a settlement of this conflict. But others within the Group of Friends remain strongly opposed to this and the existence of these divisions is again likely to influence any outcome to reflect the lowest common denominator—the need for the parties to continue the negotiations and to engage on the substance, support for previous resolutions and for the efforts of van Walsum.

South Africa remains concerned about the reluctance of Morocco to seriously engage. During the 4 February consultations, South Africa emphasised the need for self-determination and called on the parties to engage more in discussions on confidence-building measures. It also reiterated its concern for the absence of discussions on human rights.

During the same consultations, it seems that Croatia and Panama strongly emphasised the need for self-determination. Costa Rica also insisted that MINURSO should be given a human rights mandate (Panama seems to hold this view as well), but also believes that in the absence of progress, the Council should explore an exit strategy for MINURSO. Many have also emphasised the need for progress on the confidence-building measures.

Underlying Problems
Tensions between Morocco and the Polisario are likely to grow if the possibility of renewed conflict continues. Both sides have recently accused each other of conducting unusual military manoeuvres, and it seems that voices are being raised within the Polisario for renewing the fight. This may have prompted Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in March to encourage negotiations by saying that the parties had not yet exhausted all possibilities offered by negotiations. And on 19 March the Spokesperson of the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated Algeria’s attachment to a peaceful solution.

Family visits by land have so far been impossible to organise, although they would be cheaper and would allow more people to be transported, because the land border between Algeria and Morocco is closed. There would need to be a new agreement between Morocco, Algeria and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for land visits to take place.

UN Documents

Selected Resolutions

  • S/RES/1783 (31 October 2007) called upon the parties to continue negotiations taking into account the efforts made since 2006, requested the Secretary-General to report on these talks by 31 January, and extended MINURSO’s mandate for six months.
  • S/RES/1754 (30 April 2007) called for negotiations without preconditions and extended MINURSO’s mandate for six months.

Secretary-General’s Latest Report

Latest Press Statement


  • A communiqué (18 March 2008) was issued by van Walsum with the agreement of the parties after the fourth round of talks.

Other Relevant Facts

Special Representative of the Secretary-General

Julian Harston (UK)

Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy

Peter van Walsum (Netherlands)

MINURSO Force Commander

Major General Zhao Jingmin (China)

Size and Composition of Mission

  • Authorised strength: 231 military personnel and six police officers
  • Strength (as of 31 January 2008): 222 total uniformed personnel, including 27 troops, 6 police officers, 189 military observers; supported by 96 international civilian personnel, 148 local civilian staff and 23 UN volunteers

Troop Contributing Countries

Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Croatia, Djibouti, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Yemen

Cost (approved budget)

1 July 2007 – 30 June 2008: $47.64 million (A/C.5/62/23)

Useful Additional Sources

Full forecast