April 2015 Monthly Forecast

Posted 31 March 2015
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Western Sahara

Expected Council Action

In April, the Council is expected to adopt a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another 12 months. Prior to the mandate renewal, Council members expect a briefing in consultations on the situation in Western Sahara from Kim Bolduc, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of MINURSO, and Christopher Ross, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy.

Key Recent Developments

Bolduc, who was supposed to take up her position as Special Representative and head of MINURSO on 1 August 2014, had been unable to travel to her post, obstructed by Morocco, until February.  She arrived in Rabat on 5 February and was received by the Moroccan foreign and interior ministers, the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, and the Moroccan coordinator with MINURSO. (Morocco had delayed Bolduc’s taking up the position because it was displeased that it had not been consulted about the appointment.) On 7 February, she met with the leaders of the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Polisario) in Tindouf.

On 14 February, Ross also travelled to the region in his first tour since March 2014. He met with Sahrawi President Mohamed Abdelaziz and members of the Sahrawi delegation in charge of negotiations. Following talks with Ross, Abdelaziz, speaking on Algerian public television on 16 February called “on the UN to put pressure on Morocco to make arrangements to organise a referendum on self-determination”.  Ross returned to the region again in late March.

The deployments of Bolduc and Ross followed a 22 January phone call involving Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. A readout issued by Ban’s office following the call stated that he acknowledged Morocco’s concerns about the UN-sponsored negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario, confirmed that reports to the Council on this issue “will remain objective and reflect facts” and reiterated that MINURSO will “continue to exercise its existing mandate” as set forth by the Council.

Meanwhile, the deep chasm between the parties’ positions remains. In a 6 November 2014 speech, King Mohammed strongly reiterated Morocco’s position on the issue of Western Sahara, reaffirming that “Morocco’s sovereignty over its entire territory is effective, inalienable and non-negotiable”. The king affirmed that Morocco’s autonomy initiative is the maximum that it can offer in terms of negotiation to achieve a final solution to the conflict. He stressed that Morocco rejects attempts to present the conflict as a decolonisation issue, to reconsider the principles and criteria of the negotiation process or to revise and expand the MINURSO mandate to include such matters as monitoring the human rights situation. Referring to Algeria, he said that he also rejects allowing the “real party” to evade its responsibilities, as well as attempts to place a separatist movement—the Polisario—on the same footing as a UN member state.

On the controversial issue of natural resource exploration in Western Sahara, Hans Corell, then Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs who in 2002 wrote an extensive opinion for the Council on the legality of Morocco’s offering and signing contracts with foreign companies for resource exploration in Western Sahara, published an article entitled, “The Responsibility of the UN Security Council in the Case of Western Sahara”, in the Winter 2015 issue of the International Judicial Monitor. In this piece, he addresses a fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco, “which does not contain one word … about the fact that Morocco’s ‘jurisdiction’ in the waters of Western Sahara is limited by the international rules on self-determination”. He opines that, to be legal, “an agreement of this nature would have to contain an explicit reference to the fishing zone off the coast of Western Sahara, defined by coordinates” and that revenues generated by such licenses would have to be delivered to an “account that can be audited independently by representatives of the people of Western Sahara”. He adds that this applies also to other natural resources. Against this backdrop, he calls for the Security Council to examine the legality of the fisheries agreement, suggesting the Council request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give an advisory opinion on the question in accordance with article 96 of the UN Charter. (Corell’s 2002 opinion said that if exploration and exploitation activities proceeded in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories”.)

In a verdict issued on 13 October 2014, the European Court of Justice stated that Morocco has neither the right nor the authority to grant licenses to European vessels according to the fisheries pact signed with the EU. Also, on 19 December 2014, the American oil company Kosmos Energy began drilling for oil in Western Sahara. 

Meanwhile, a report of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) released in February seems to confirm some of Morocco’s long-held accusations against Algeria and the Polisario. Based on investigations undertaken between 2003 and 2007, OLAF reported that large parts of the EU’s humanitarian aid assistance intended for refugees in the Tindouf camps had been diverted for years by Algerian senior officials and Polisario leaders.  According to the report, such diversions were possible in part because of an overestimation by Algeria of the number of refugees and that neither Algeria nor the Polisario would agree to conduct a census of the camps’ population.

On the longstanding question of human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Ramtane Lamamra repeated calls on 3 March in Geneva for the High Commissioner for Human Rights to set up an independent mechanism for monitoring human rights. Also, in an 11 February letter to the Secretary-General, Abdelaziz reiterated calls for a MINURSO human rights monitoring mechanism, the release of all political prisoners, cessation of illicit natural resource exploitation and removal of the berm, the wall that separates the Moroccan-controlled and Polisario-controlled areas of Western Sahara.

Key Issues

A key issue for the Council will be ascertaining what it can do to break the deadlock between the parties and determining whether an alternative approach ought to be adopted by Ross. (In his 2014 report, the Secretary-General recommended that if no progress occurred before April 2015, “the time will have come to engage the members of the Council in a comprehensive review of the framework that it provided for the negotiating process in April 2007”. In the time since that recommendation was written, Ross’ work was largely stalled, and it remains to be seen what, if any, progress was made in his two recent visits.)

Human rights monitoring and agreement on a mechanism that is independent, impartial, sustained and comprehensive is an ongoing issue.

Underlying Problems

Given the protracted nature of the conflict and the intransigence of the parties, the threat of a resumption of military hostilities in the longer term cannot be fully ruled out.  There is also the threat of popular unrest and the recruitment of frustrated Sahrawi youth by violent extremist or criminal networks proliferating throughout the region. Additionally, there have been concerns that the situation could encourage illegal migration to Europe.


One option is for the Council to merely renew the mandate of MINURSO for a period of 12 months, maintaining similar language to that of the current mandate and encouraging progress in the negotiating process and the resumption of direct talks.

Another option would be for the Council to engage in a comprehensive review of the framework that it provided for the negotiating process in 2007, as recommended by the Secretary-General in his 2014 report.

In this context, undertaking a visit to Western Sahara (the first since 1995) would be a related option for the Council.

Introducing a human rights component to MINURSO’s mandate is also an option.

Referring the question of the legality of natural resource exploration and exploitation in Western Sahara to the ICJ is another option.

Council Dynamics

The Group of Friends on Western Sahara—France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US—four of whom are permanent Council members, joined by Spain as the former colonial power, leads on decisions pertaining to this issue. Spain joined the Council this year as an elected member and it remains to be seen how active a role it will play on Western Sahara while on the Council.

The role of other members remains limited and, generally, most do not follow the situation closely. Over the last several years the pattern has been that the Group of Friends negotiates the mandate renewal, and when the draft reaches the full Council, there is often little appetite for further negotiations.

Three current Council members have recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic: Angola, Nigeria and Venezuela. Angola, which is supportive of the Sahrawi position, also maintains diplomatic relations with Morocco, as does Nigeria. Venezuela does not have diplomatic ties with Morocco.

The US is the penholder on Western Sahara.

UN Documents

Security Council Resolutions
29 April 2014 S/RES/2152 This resolution extended the mandate of MINURSO for a year and supported the Secretary-General’s request for an additional 15 military observers, within existing resources.
30 April 2007 S/RES/1754 This resolution called for negotiations without preconditions and extended MINURSO’s mandate by six months.
Secretary-General’s Report
10 April 2014 S/2014/258 This was a report of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara.
Security Council Letters
6 May 2014 S/2014/322 This was a letter from the Secretary-General announcing his intention to appoint Kim Bolduc as his Special Representative and head of MINURSO.
16 April 2007 S/2007/210 This was a letter from South Africa to the Council transmitting the Polisario plan.
11 April 2007 S/2007/206 This was a letter from Morocco to the Council transmitting the Moroccan plan.
12 February 2002 S/2002/161 This was the Corell opinion.