Expected Council Action
In October, Council members are expected to renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) before its 31 October expiry. Prior to this, they will meet in consultations to discuss the Secretary-General’s report on MINURSO. Colin Stewart, the Special Representative of the Segretary-General for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO, is likely to brief on the Secretary-General’s MINURSO report, due on 1 October.
Key Recent Developments
On 30 April the Council adopted resolution 2468, renewing the mandate of MINURSO for six months. On the occasion of the adoption, members spoke about a real sense of opportunity for progress and voiced unequivocal support to the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler. Since December 2018, Köhler had held two roundtable meetings, attended by Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania. (Western Sahara has been the subject of territorial disputes since Spain withdrew in 1976. Initially, both Morocco and Mauritania presented claims, but Mauritania renounced its claim in 1979. The independence movement is led by the Polisario Front, which represents the nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region known as the Sahrawis.) A third roundtable was expected to follow, but Köhler resigned his post abruptly on 22 May because of health concerns. Since then, a search for a replacement has been underway, with no announcements yet made. The personal envoy’s mandate rests on being able to establish trust amongst the parties, and he or she must also have Council support. The absence of a personal envoy has meant that there have been no additional roundtables and essentially no progress towards reaching a political agreement.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remains tense. On 19 July, there were clashes in Laayoune between Moroccan security forces and Sahrawi protesters after Sahrawis celebrated an Algerian football victory and took that as an opportunity to call for self-determination. The clashes led to the death of one Sahrawi woman and an unverified number injured and arrested. Amnesty International released a statement asking for investigations, and the Polisario Front, through Namibia, sent a letter to the president of the Security Council urging a response.
In July, Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Nasser Bourita reiterated Morocco’s long-held position that Algeria is a party, and not simply an observer, to the Western Sahara situation. This runs contrary to Algeria’s own previous statements. Also in July, King Mohammed VI of Morocco stressed in a speech that Western Sahara is part of Morocco and urged the international community to work on Morocco’s autonomy plan, which was first submitted to the UN in 2007. On 19 September, the Polisario Front sent a letter to the Council president expressing its frustration with the delays in the peace process, highlighting the lack of a new personal envoy as a stalling factor.
Key Issues and Options
The Council held consultations on the issue in January and April; since May, the lack of a personal envoy has stymied progress on the file. In April, one member apparently suggested that in the future, MINURSO could be closed in favour of a special political mission. This, or other ideas to change MINURSO and its mission, could be discussed during negotiations on the mandate renewal. MINURSO is one of the longest-running UN peacekeeping missions, having been established in 1991 with the key objective of a referendum for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara but there has been little change, and no referendum has been held. Today, its duties mainly consist of monitoring the ceasefire across the Berm, a 1700-mile-long earthen wall that divides the Moroccan-administered portion of Western Sahara from that held by the Polisario Front.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights continues to be concerned about restrictions on political space, and the promotion and protection of human rights will remain a prominent issue. Past attempts at adding a human rights component to MINURSO’s mandate were unsuccessful, but may be revived.
The Council will need to renew MINURSO’s mandate before it expires at the end of the month. The Council could negotiate a technical rollover if it believes the process has been stalled and wishes to wait for a new personal envoy before taking a more substantive approach.
Council members would like to see real progress on this nearly 30-year-old file. The current absence of a personal envoy creates additional uncertainty, and Council members may urge the Secretary-General to appoint a replacement as soon as possible so that the momentum achieved by Köhler is not erased.
It was clear from past meetings that some members, the US in particular, are studying the future of MINURSO closely. The US has successfully pushed for shortened six-month renewals of the mandate to put pressure on the parties to restart the political process. After the adoption of resolution 2468 on 30 April, the US representative said, “[T]he Security Council’s objective should be to advance a timely and mutually acceptable political solution”. However, with the process stalled, it is unclear whether the US will now propose a MINURSO drawdown. Additionally, a principal actor engaged in this issue in US President Donald Trump’s administration, National Security Adviser John Bolton, unexpectedly left office on 10 September.
Other Council members advocate the continuation of MINURSO. In the meeting on 30 April, France spoke of “the essential role played by that peacekeeping operation in ensuring respect for the ceasefire and thereby contributing to regional stability”. France is also likely to continue to push for an eventual return to a 12-month mandate, as was the case in 2008-2018.
Some members remain concerned by what they consider arbitrary restrictions on the rights of Sahrawis to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, as well as the use of excessive force by Moroccan security forces to disperse peaceful demonstrations. In a statement after the vote, Ambassador Jerry Matjila (South Africa) voiced his support for a human rights monitoring mandate for MINURSO. South Africa has over the years been a strong Polisario Front supporter.
UN Documents on Western Sahara
|Security Council Resolutions|
|30 April 2019S/RES/2468||By adopting this resolution the Council renewed MINURSO’s mandate for six months. Two Council members abstained.|
|1 April 2019S/2019/282||This was the report on MINURSO covering 3 October 2018 to 1 April 2019.|
|Security Council Letters|
|16 September 2019S/2019/746||A letter from the Secretary-General of the Polisario Front calling for the Council to reinvigorate the stalled political process.|
|22 July 2019S/2019/590||In this letter, transmitted by Namibia, the Polisario Front brought recent protests that resulted in several arrests and one death to the attention of the Security Council.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|30 April 2019S/PV.8518||The Council passed resolution 2468 extending the mandate of MINURSO for six months. There were two abstentions (Russia and South Africa).|