Expected Council Action
In December, Council members expect a briefing in consultations by Christopher Ross, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara. The Special Representative and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), Kim Bolduc, may also brief.
MINURSO’s mandate expires on 30 April 2016.
Key Recent Developments
The Council last considered Western Sahara in April prior to unanimously adopting a resolution extending MINURSO’s mandate for one year. The resolution contained no significant changes to the mission’s mandate in spite of several proposals during negotiations from the three African members—Angola, Chad and Nigeria— supported by Venezuela. One proposal was to heed a recommendation made in the Secretary-General’s 2014 MINURSO report that if no progress had occurred by April 2015, the Council ought to engage in a comprehensive review of the 2007 proposed framework for negotiations. To date, such a review has not taken place. Other proposals included increased Council engagement beyond its twice-yearly meetings, and also addressing the issue of exploration and exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara.
On 16 April, the Council met with MINURSO troop-contributing countries, and on 22 April, Council members were briefed in consultations by Special Representative Bolduc and Special Envoy Ross. Bolduc informed the Council that the general situation in MINURSO’s area of operations remained relatively calm, but that confidence-building measures were not at the required level. Ross announced his intention to continue with bilateral consultations and shuttle diplomacy. He also warned that the worsening security situation in the region, the proximity of criminal, extremist and terrorist groups and the increasing frustration of young people constituted a dangerous nexus that could potentially result in instabilities in the region.
Special Envoy Ross visited the region from 30 August to 10 September and again from 19 to 28 October, meeting with the leaders of the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Polisario) in Tindouf, Algeria, as well as with Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation and other government officials in Rabat. Following talks with Ross on 25 October, the president of the Saharawi negotiating delegation, Jatri Aduh, said in statements to the press that the Polisario will “continue to cooperate with the efforts of the UN, but in a limited context”, underlining that “the international community must take responsibility for any reaction which may result due to the prolongation of the conflict”. Ross’s visits to the region were followed by consultations in the capitals of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara countries (London, Washington, Paris and Madrid, with an upcoming visit to Moscow). He travelled back to the region at the end of November.
The AU has paid increasing attention to the issue of Western Sahara. At the 25th AU Summit in June, the Assembly’s decision on the report of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) for the first time called on the UN General Assembly “to determine a date for the holding of the self-determination referendum for the people of Western Sahara”, and on the Security Council “to effectively address the issues of the respect for human rights and the illegal exploitation of the Territory’s natural resources”. The decision was transmitted to the Security Council on 7 July. The PSC issued a communiqué on 26 September, reiterating the AU Assembly’s call.
On the controversial issue of natural resources in Western Sahara, the AU issued a legal opinion in October that set out a number of conclusions and recommendations, including that “Morocco has no right to explore and exploit any natural resources, renewable or non-renewable, located in the occupied territories of Western Sahara or to enter into agreements/contracts with third parties concerning these resources”. The opinion sets out a proposed framework for consideration by the Security Council, including that “[a]ny exploration or exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara must be for the benefit of the people of Western Sahara and in accordance with their wishes”.
On 19 October, the Council received a letter from the permanent representative of South Africa, transmitting a 16 July letter from the Secretary-General of the Polisario, saying that an Ireland-based company, San Leon Energy, plans to commence onshore drilling in August at a site in the territory of Western Sahara, pursuant to licenses granted by Morocco’s state-owned Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines. The company has reportedly conducted exploratory drilling at the site and intends to renew its exploration license.
On 4 November, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on Western Sahara, noting that the situation after 40 years is “increasingly alarming”, and that at his direction, Special Envoy Ross has intensified his efforts to facilitate negotiations without preconditions and in good faith to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. At press time, there were reports that the Secretary-General may visit the region before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the deep chasm between the parties’ positions remains. On 6 November, Moroccan King Mohammed VI conducted his first official visit to Western Sahara since 2006. In a televised speech that day from Laayoune, King Mohammed reiterated that Morocco’s autonomy initiative is the maximum that it can offer in terms of negotiation to achieve a final solution to the conflict and that “its implementation will hinge on achieving a final political settlement within the framework of the UN”.
Human Rights-Related Developments
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent a delegation to Morocco and Western Sahara from 12 to 18 April and to the refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria from 29 July to 4 August. During these missions, the OHCHR team met with a wide spectrum of interlocutors, including officials, local authorities, civil society representatives and victims. As noted by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on 14 September during his opening remarks of the Human Rights Council’s 30th session, the aim of these missions was to increase understanding of the human rights situation and challenges in both Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Tindouf, and to explore ways for cooperation to ensure effective human rights protection in the region. Respect for the rights of the Saharan population remains essential to settling this long-standing dispute, he said.
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. Since the Council last met on the issue in April, it remains to be seen what, if any, progress was made during his recent visits.
Human rights monitoring and agreement on a mechanism that is independent, impartial, sustained and comprehensive is an ongoing issue. The question of natural resources in Western Sahara is an additional key issue.
Given the protracted nature of the conflict and the intransigence of the parties, the risk 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 further fuel the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.
Options available to the Council could include:
• engaging in a comprehensive review of the 2007 negotiating framework, as recommended in the Secretary-General’s 2014 report;
• undertaking a visit to Western Sahara (which would be the first since 1995);
• taking steps towards introducing a human rights component to MINURSO’s mandate; and
• referring the question of the legality of natural resource exploration and exploitation in Western Sahara to the International Court of Justice.
The Group of Friends of Western Sahara—France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US, four of which are permanent Council members—and Spain as the former colonial power lead on decisions pertaining to this issue. Generally, most other Council members do not follow the situation closely. However, the three African members—Angola, Chad and Nigeria—have shown increased engagement on the issue this year, with the support of 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. Chad and Nigeria will be replaced by Egypt and Senegal in January 2016; the former but not the latter recognises the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
The US is the penholder on Western Sahara.
UN Documents on Western Sahara
|Security Council Resolution|
|28 April 2015 S/RES/2218||This was a resolution extending the mandate of MINURSO until 30 April 2016.|
|10 April 2015 S/2015/246||This was the report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara.|
|Security Council Letters|
|7 July 2015 S/2015/515||This was a letter transmitting the decision on the report of the AU Peace and Security Council, adopted by the AU at its 25th session.|
|19 October 2015 S/2015/804||This was a letter from the Secretary-General of the Polisario regarding drilling by an Ireland-based mining company in Western Sahara.|