Expected Council Action
In April, Council members expect to hold consultations on Western Sahara and to renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) before it expires on 30 April. The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, is expected to brief on his latest activities and Colin Stewart, the Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO, is expected to brief on the Secretary-General’s MINURSO report, due in early April.
Key Recent Developments
Western Sahara has been the subject of territorial disputes since Spain withdrew in 1976. Initially both Morocco and Mauritania presented claims, but Mauritania renounced theirs in 1979. The independence movement is led by the Polisario Front. The UN has been actively involved in seeking a solution to this conflict since 1985. The Council established MINURSO in 1991, through resolution 690 (1991). Since then, there has been little progress and the referendum referred to in the mission’s name has not taken place.
On 5 and 6 December 2018, Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania attended a roundtable meeting in Geneva. This was the first roundtable with the stakeholders since the last informal talks in 2012. The last formal round of negotiations was in March 2008. The attendees adopted a communiqué that noted, “Delegations took stock of recent developments, addressed regional issues, and discussed the next steps in the political process on Western Sahara”. The year ended with a sense of momentum for the first time in several years.
On 29 January, members of the Council met in consultations to hear an update from Köhler on the Geneva meeting and his subsequent efforts. On 31 January, Council members issued a press statement, its first on Western Sahara since 4 February 2008. The statement expressed unified Council support for Köhler’s efforts and welcomed the December roundtable and the participation of Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania. It also noted that a second roundtable was foreseen for the first quarter of 2019.
Throughout March, Köhler continued to work on the next stage of discussions. He held bilateral talks with stakeholders in Berlin and Paris in early March. After these discussions, a second roundtable was held on 21 and 22 March near Geneva. News reports ahead of the meeting said the aim of this stage was simply to deepen the exchange of ideas, and officials cautioned against expecting breakthroughs. In his statements after the roundtable, Köhler “encouraged delegations to explore good faith gestures and concrete actions that go beyond the roundtable.” He said that the roundtable showed that all stakeholders want to create a better situation for their constituencies. The participants issued a communiqué in which they agreed to continue discussions to find a mutually acceptable political solution but presented no concrete actions.
MINURSO’s mandate was last renewed on 31 October 2018 through the adoption of resolution 2440.
Key Issues and Options
Members want to see real progress on this nearly 30-year-old file. One area of concern is how to agree on confidence-building measures, which would be a logical next step in discussions. The parties’ positions on a political solution remain mutually exclusive. The Polisario’s position has been that the final status of Western Sahara can only be decided in a referendum that includes independence as an option, while Morocco has proposed that Western Sahara be an autonomous region within Morocco. Members will want to see the impact of the second roundtable, understanding that the situation remains difficult with these very different positions.
Concerning the mandate, it should be noted that the political process and the peacekeeping mission are two separate parts of the Western Sahara issue. The personal envoy—the post has existed since 1997—is appointed directly by the Secretary-General, and is not part of MINURSO; successive resolutions renewing MINURSO’s mandate usually simply welcome and encourage the Special Envoys’ efforts. The US has been arguing for tying the two mechanisms together for the purposes of determining whether MINURSO is fulfilling its mandate on the ground.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Against a backdrop of cautious optimism, the Council will have to decide how the recent rounds of discussion between the stakeholders affects MINURSO’s mandate. The US has argued that without the political process, there should be no MINURSO, and was successful in 2018 in having two shortened six-month renewals of the mandate. The aim was to put greater pressure on the parties to restart the political process. However, this idea was controversial, and when it came to adoption Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Russia abstained (during the vote on the mandate renewal in April 2018 China, Ethiopia, and Russia abstained). These members did not feel that the resolution adequately reflected their positions. Russia also said that the negotiating process of the draft was not positive. The US can be expected to pursue its 2018 approach, and may cite the increased dialogue as proof that this method of pressure is working to restart progress toward a reliable political process. However, given the ostensible positive momentum, France may want to return to one-year renewals of MINURSO. That was the practice since 2008, and France was the leading proponent for a 12-month extension during the last mandate renewal. This also reflects its staunch support for Morocco, which has not been keen to have the more frequent reporting and Security Council meetings on Western Sahara that result from the shorter mandate extensions. Event though France voted in favour of the last mandate renewal, it included in its statement after the vote that it would have preferred a year-long renewal.
South Africa, who joined the Council in January, has maintained its strong support for the Polisario Front position. The African Council members do not have a shared position on Western Sahara, with only South Africa having recognised an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, as proclaimed by Polisario in 1976.
Overall, Council members have been supportive of the efforts of the personal envoy, and any division over the mandate could be detrimental. His mandate rests on being able to establish trust amongst the parties, and having Council support is critical to his legitimacy in suggesting paths forward. Köhler has also been active in keeping the wider Group of Friends–countries with a particular interest in the issue–informed, which has not always been past practice.
The US is the penholder on Western Sahara. Resolutions are initially discussed among the Group of Friends, comprising France, Russia, the UK, and the US, joined by Spain, the former colonial power and a country that provides much logistical support to the Sahrawi in Tindouf. Spain also provides significant humanitarian support and remains worried about any reduction in financial aid by donors.
UN Documents on Western Sahara
|Security Council Resolutions
|31 October 2018S/RES/2440
|The Security Council extended the mandate of MINURSO for a further six months.
|3 October 2018S/2018/889
|This was the Secretary-General’s report on MINURSO.
|Security Council Meeting Records
|31 October 2018S/PV.8387
|This was the meeting record for the adoption and explanation of votes on MINURSO in which Bolivia, Ethiopia and Russia abstained.
|Security Council Press Statements
|31 January 2019SC/13686
|This two-paragraph statement expressed Council support for the Personal Envoy and his efforts.