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 receive the report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Western Sahara and will be briefed on the situation ahead of MINURSO’s renewal.
Key Recent Developments
There were some significant developments concerning the situation in Al-Guergarat, in the southern part of Western Sahara within the buffer strip, where Morocco had since August 2016 been attempting to build a road connecting its position at the berm with the Mauritanian border. In reaction to Morocco’s presence in the strip, Polisario Front forces also entered, rendering both parties in violation of the September 1991 ceasefire agreement.
On 25 February, Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement expressing deep concern about the increased tensions in the vicinity of Al-Guergarat, where armed elements of both Morocco and the Polisario Front remained in close proximity to each other. Guterres called on both parties to take all necessary steps to avoid escalation and stressed that no action should be taken that might constitute a change in the status quo of the buffer strip. In addition, he called on the parties to adhere to their obligations under the 1991 ceasefire agreement and to respect both the letter and the spirit of the agreement. This statement followed a phone conversation between Guterres and Moroccan King Mohammed VI and a reported meeting between Guterres and the Polisario’s UN representative, both on 24 February.
On 26 February, Morocco announced that it would unilaterally withdraw its forces from Al-Guergarat. The UN welcomed the pull-out of Moroccan security forces and called on the Polisario to also withdraw its fighters.
On 7 March, it was announced that the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, had offered his resignation after serving in the position for eight years. Mohamed Khaddad, the Polisario’s coordinator with MINURSO, claimed that Ross’s resignation was the result of “Morocco’s obstruction of the negotiations in 2012” and that the UN is also responsible for the resignation as it did not react “to Morocco’s dismissal of the UN Mission for Western Sahara”. In 2012, Morocco had declared Ross persona non grata following accusations he made concerning abuses by Morocco in Western Sahara. Guterres is expected to appoint a new personal envoy in April.
On 31 January, Morocco became the 55th member state to join the African Union (AU). Thirty-nine countries reportedly supported Morocco’s bid for admission, while nine voted against it. Morocco left the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984 after the organisation admitted the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
On 20 March, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) held a meeting on Western Sahara. In response to an invitation to attend, Morocco sent a letter saying that the question of Western Sahara is in the hands of the UN Security Council instead and that “The organs of the African Union are invited to support this process in line with the United Nations’ mandate.” The day after the PSC meeting, Western Sahara Foreign Minister Mohamed Salem Ouldsalek called on the AU to sanction Morocco. On 23 March, the PSC issued a communiqué on the meeting that regretted Morocco’s absence and called on Morocco to extend the necessary cooperation in conformity with the provisions of the AU Constitutive Act and the PSC Protocol. It also regretted the resignation of Ross and noted with deep concern that four decades after the onset of the conflict, all efforts aimed at finding a solution have so far failed. The PSC expressed the urgency of renewed efforts to achieve a resolution to the conflict and took several steps, including deciding to strengthen the mandate of former president Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, as AU High Representative for Western Sahara, to facilitate direct talks between the two member states, reactivating the Ad Hoc Committee of Heads of State and Government on the conflict, and requesting the AU Commission immediately to take steps for the re-opening of the AU Office in Laayoune.
Concerning the upcoming MINURSO mandate renewal, the PSC urged the UN Security Council to take the necessary steps to restore the full functionality of MINURSO and to provide the mission with a human rights mandate.
On 24 March, Morocco demanded the exclusion of the SADR from a meeting between the AU and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) on the grounds that the SADR is not a member of the ECA. As a result, the ministerial meeting had to be postponed.
The last resolution on MINURSO, resolution 2285, adopted on 29 April 2016, renewed MINURSO’s mandate for one year. The resolution garnered only ten votes in favour, with two against (Uruguay and Venezuela) and three abstentions (Angola, New Zealand and Russia). The lack of consensus reflected deep divisions over the process leading up to the adoption, and regarding how the Council ought to address the dispute between Morocco and then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Morocco’s expulsion of most of MINURSO’s civilian staff. The resolution requested the Secretary-General to brief the Council within 90 days on whether MINURSO had returned to full functionality and expressed the Council’s intention, if it had not done so, “to consider how best to facilitate achievement of this.” Shortly before the 90-day briefing, Morocco agreed to allow 25 staff members to return, and although full functionality was not resumed, the Council took no action. Currently, a year after the expulsion of the staff, only those 25 staff members have been reinstated.
Resolution 2285 also emphasised the importance of the parties’ commitment to continue the process of preparing for a new round of negotiations, and called upon the parties to continue to show political will in order to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations. The Council affirmed its full support for the commitment of the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy towards a solution and called for renewed meetings and strengthening of contacts. It also called upon the parties to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith with a view to achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. However, Ross had since been unable to facilitate the fifth round of negotiations.
The underlying issue is that the parties to the conflict remain deadlocked and the political process has stalled because the parties’ proposals for the basis of a political solution as outlined in 2007 are mutually exclusive. Ascertaining what the Council is willing to do to break the deadlock between the parties is therefore a key issue.
Another issue is MINURSO’s staffing. The 2016 report of the Secretary-General said that the expulsion of most of MINURSO’s international civilian component in March of that year had resulted in the “de facto alteration of the mandate of MINURSO” and that the issue of immediate concern then was to ensure that MINURSO resumed full functionality, as was later requested by the Council in resolution 2285. A year later, MINURSO has still not resumed full functionality.
Another key issue is that the resumption of armed conflict cannot be ruled out, and the Council may need to focus on how best to mitigate that threat.
On the mandate renewal, one option is for the Council to renew the mandate of MINURSO for a period of 12 months, as has been common practice. The Council could use the opportunity to convey political messages to the parties, perhaps on the situation in Al-Guergarat and on the importance of resuming direct negotiations in good faith, and to reiterate the request for MINURSO to resume full functionality.
Another option would be to heed the recommendation of the AU and add a human rights monitoring mechanism to the mandate of MINURSO—an option that has in the past been attempted, but never gained the support of all Council members.
Given the failure to bring the parties to negotiations, a further option would be for the Council—as recommended by the Secretary-General in his 2014 report—to engage in a comprehensive review of the framework that it provided for the negotiating process in 2007, with a renewed sense of urgency to resolve the political stalemate.
Deep divisions have rendered the Council largely impotent on Western Sahara through successive recent crises. Following Morocco’s expulsion of MINURSO’s civilian component in March and the crisis in Al-Guergarat in August 2016, the Council remained mostly silent due to the insistence of some members, notably permanent member France, which staunchly supports the Moroccan position concerning Western Sahara.
The African members of the Council do not have a common position. Egypt and Senegal have in the past year worked to protect Morocco’s interests in the Council. The new A3 member, Ethiopia, recognises an independent Western Sahara and is expected to advocate the positions of the AU.
Among other members, Uruguay has attempted to enhance the Council’s role and oversight of the situation by requesting ad hoc briefings. New member Bolivia also recognises an independent SADR and this is likely to be reflected in their contributions in the Council. While the parliament of another new member, Sweden, voted to recognise Western Sahara in 2012, this has not been implemented by the Swedish government.
The US is the penholder on Western Sahara, and the resolution will initially be discussed among the Group of Friends (France, the UK, the US, Russia and Spain).
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 April 2016 S/RES/2285||This resolution renewed the MINURSO mandate.|
|19 April 2016 S/2016/355||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.|