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). The Council will also be watching the situation on the ground closely following the evacuation of dozens of MINURSO staff at Morocco’s request.
Key Recent Developments
The fate of the MINURSO mission has been called into question after a public dispute between Morocco and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over comments made by Ban during his early-March visit to the region. The Secretary-General had been trying for several months to arrange a visit that would include meetings in Rabat, and a visit to MINURSO’s headquarters in Laayoune, on the Moroccan-controlled side of the berm. In February, Morocco invited Ban to meet the King on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Rabat scheduled for 7 April, which would have been after the drafting of the annual report of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara. The Secretary-General decided to travel to the region on 2-7 March, but the King was not available to meet him and Morocco did not agree to him visiting the Laayoune headquarters. Following a visit by his Personal Envoy Christopher Ross to lay the groundwork for the Secretary-General’s trip, Ban instead visited the Smara refugee camp, near Tindouf, Algeria, and a MINURSO team site in Bir Lahlou, in the Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, with the intention of visiting Rabat and Laayoune in July. In remarks made during the visit, Ban referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara, triggering an angry backlash from authorities in Rabat. On 15 March Morocco requested that 84 international staffers be removed from the civilian component of MINURSO within three days.
On 17 March, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman briefed members in consultations. He said Morocco had escalated the situation without first attempting diplomatic measures. Feltman reported that the staff members involved perform a wide range of duties, including crucial logistical tasks, and that in their absence the mission could not operate.
Due to divisions in the Council, there was no agreement on issuing a statement. Instead, Council President Ismael Abraão Gaspar Martins (Angola) addressed the media with elements to the press that said that the Council had expressed serious concerns and had decided that members should engage bilaterally in order to ensure the MINURSO mission can continue its work.
On 18 March, Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law and Security Institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, briefed Council members under “any other business” on the implications of a staff pullout. On 20 March it was reported that 73 staff members had left the mission.
At the 21 March noon press briefing, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq echoed Feltman’s point that MINURSO could no longer fully function. He said the UN complied due to logistical and security concerns but compliance does not constitute a determination that Morocco has sovereignty over the territory. Haq added that Morocco had violated its status of mission agreement, and obligations under Article 25 of the UN Charter. He stated that the Secretary-General had not made a mistake in using the term “occupation” and that the term had been used in General Assembly resolutions in 1979 and 1980.
At an informal meeting of Council permanent representatives that same day, Angola proposed a press statement, which it later circulated. The draft press statement expressed deep concern at the departure of a large contingent of MINURSO’s staff in response to the 16 March note verbale by Morocco to the Secretary-General; acknowledged that such actions disrupt MINURSO’s ability to effectively carry out its mission; underscored that the Council deploys peacekeepers to carry out critical functions and that peacekeeping cannot function if member states unilaterally demand the withdrawal of all civilians from missions established by the Council; urged parties to address the circumstances that led to the situation and urged Morocco to allow MINURSO’s staff to return so that MINURSO’s activities can continue; and reiterated its full support for the Secretary-General, his Personal Envoy Christopher Ross and Special Representative and head of MINURSO Kim Bolduc.
Such a statement was unacceptable to several Council members whose assessment of what precipitated the crisis differed fundamentally from those expressed in the Angolan statement. Egypt, supported by Senegal, suggested an amendment that added that Morocco’s note verbale followed “an unfortunate misrepresentation of the UN’s official position on the question of Western Sahara” and removed the language urging Morocco to allow MINURSO’s staff to return to the territory. Consensus was not reached on the draft, and negotiations were briefly suspended. On 23 March, Angola circulated a revised draft incorporating some of Egypt’s revisions, but also retaining original language that some members had objected to. This version was put under silence procedure, but several members apparently asked for more time. Later that evening, New Zealand circulated a shorter version of the press statement that included more neutral language and omitted direct reference to both the Secretary-General and Morocco.
Also on 23 March, Herve Ladsous, head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, briefed Council members under “any other business”. Ladsous delivered a strong message that the military component of MINURSO could not operate without the evacuated civilian staff, and that in the Secretariat’s estimation this situation was unacceptable.
Council members met on 24 March under “any other business” to discuss the New Zealand draft. It seemed that the majority of Council members were amenable to this draft, with the exception of Egypt, France and Senegal who argued that the timing was not right. Council members agreed to meet again later in the day after Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar had made a statement in Rabat. In his statement Mezouar asserted that Morocco’s decision was “sovereign and irreversible”. He said that military contacts with MINURSO had not been disrupted, that Morocco was committed to cooperation to ensure the continuity of the ceasefire, and that it was ready for serious talks but would not ignore the reasons for the current situation.
In their subsequent consultations, members agreed to narrow the discussion to issues directly related to MINURSO, and not the precipitating events, in an effort to find common ground. Finally members were able to agree on press elements based on the New Zealand statement. The agreed press elements stated that members of the Council: had held several meetings on Western Sahara and expressed serious concerns about developments; discussed the issue of the departure of 73 personnel from MINURSO civilian staff; had taken due note of the Secretariat’s briefings on the impact which the continuation of this situation could have on the effective functioning of the mission; recalled that peacekeeping operations and other missions are deployed by the council to carry out critical tasks around the world to maintain international peace and security; and stressed the importance of addressing in a constructive, comprehensive and cooperative manner the circumstances that led to this situation so that MINURSO may resume its full capacity to carry out its mandate as contained in several resolutions. (Fuller details on the Council’s deliberations can be found in our 26 March 2016 What’s In Blue story “Council discussions on Western Sahara”.)
The Polisario has responded to the events by condemning Morocco’s decision. On 21 March Saharawi Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek warned that through its decision Morocco was pushing the Saharawi people to take up arms.
The immediate concern for the Council at this time is to determine how best to manage the crisis surrounding MINURSO in a manner that allows the mission to continue to operate as mandated.
Another main issue is that in light of these heightened tensions, the resumption of armed conflict cannot be ruled out, and the Council may need to focus on how best to mitigate that threat.
The underlying issue is that the parties remain deadlocked and the political process has stalled due to the fact that the parties’ proposals for the basis of a political solution as outlined in 2007 are mutually exclusive. Ascertaining what the Council can do to break the deadlock between the parties and determining whether an alternative approach ought to be adopted by Ross are key issues.
A wider issue is the implications of allowing a member state to insist on the removal of parts of a Council-mandated mission, especially from disputed territory.
Concerning the current crisis, one option would be for the Council to issue a statement urging Morocco to reverse its decision in order to allow MINURSO to continue its work unhindered. Another option would be to agree to a demarche by the Council president. However, given the deep divisions among Council members on how to interpret the situation, this option seems unlikely. A more likely scenario is that Council members will continue to engage bilaterally.
On the mandate renewal, one option is for the Council to merely renew the mandate of MINURSO for a period of 12 months, maintaining language similar to that of the current mandate. Alternatively it could renew the mandate for a shorter period, and set up a process to review MINURSO, which has been a longstanding stagnant mission, in order to determine if the mission should continue in this form given the lack of forward movement in the peace process.
Looking at the situation as a whole, and perhaps with a renewed sense of urgency to resolve the political stalemate, a further 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.
Council and Wider Dynamics
The Council is deeply divided on both the nature of the wider conflict and on the current impasse between Morocco and the Secretary-General. Such divisions have long rendered the Council impotent on the matter and have in recent years impeded efforts by members interested in making changes to the mandate of MINURSO.
Council members who support the Moroccan position include Egypt, France, Senegal and Spain, and it appears that their views cannot be reconciled with those of some other members, particularly those which recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Three Council members have recognised SADR: Angola, Uruguay and Venezuela. Angola and Uruguay also maintain diplomatic relations with Morocco, while Venezuela does not.
These different positions came out clearly in the discussions over a possible statement. Members supportive of Morocco felt strongly the matter was between Morocco and the Secretary-General and did not want the Council to get involved. Even a private Council demarche was unacceptable to these members, who argued that any sort of outcome would hamper bilateral negotiations aimed at calming the situation. These members were also averse to the Council putting pressure on Morocco to reverse its decision. They viewed the crisis as having been precipitated by Ban’s comments and therefore resisted any expression of support for the Secretary-General.
Other members argued that the Council needed to show its support for the Secretary-General, that its credibility was on the line, and one member state could not be allowed to dismantle a Council-mandated mission. These members, who viewed Morocco’s move as a unilateral expulsion of UN staff, argued that allowing such conduct could set a dangerous precedent for UN peacekeeping operations.
The US, which is the penholder on Western Sahara, has recently expressed its support for MINURSO publicly while also saying that it considers Morocco’s autonomy plan serious, realistic and credible, according to a 19 March post on Twitter by the US Mission to the UN.
The current situation has created tensions between the Council and the Secretariat, which has requested that Morocco reverse its decision to expel the MINURSO staff and has unsuccessfully sought the Council’s support in echoing this request as well as in expressing support for the Secretary-General.
|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.|
|10 April 2014 S/2014/258||This was a report of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara.|
|Security Council Letters|
|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.|
|General Assembly Documents|
|11 November 1980 A/RES/35/19||This was a resolution that referred to “the continued occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco”.|
|21 November 1979 A/RES/34/37||This resolution referred to “the continued occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco”.|
Note from the Executive Office of the Secretary-General to the Kingdom of Morocco (22 March 2016) that conveyed the Secretariat’s deep concern with respect to Morocco’s decision that is “contrary to the international legal obligations of the Government”.