Expected Council Action
In April, the Council expects to receive a briefing on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) as mandated in resolution 2494. Colin Stewart, the Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO, is likely to brief. Western Sahara briefings have usually been held in consultations.
MINURSO’s mandate expires on 31 October.
Key Recent Developments
The political situation regarding Western Sahara remains relatively unchanged. The Secretary-General has yet to appoint a new Personal Envoy since the previous envoy, former President of Germany Horst Köhler, resigned his post on 22 May 2019 because of health concerns. The personal envoy is mandated to move the political process forward, towards settlement of the Western Sahara dispute, and in the year before resigning, Köhler had successfully led several roundtable discussions. The personal envoy’s mandate rests on being able to establish trust amongst the discussants, namely 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.) In the ten months since Köhler’s departure, no initiatives towards reaching a political agreement have been evident.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground remains tense. Special Representative Stewart last briefed Council members in closed consultations on 16 October 2019, highlighting his concerns about the humanitarian situation as well as an ongoing funding gap. Stewart described rising frustration among Sahrawi youth because of the lack of opportunities and of any final settlement of the issue. Civil society actors continue to criticise violence by Moroccan police against activists in Western Sahara. According to the World Food Programme’s 2019 nutrition survey, there was a deterioration in women and children’s nutritional status, with anaemia in refugee camps prevalent among 50.1 percent of children aged 6-59 months and 52.2 percent among women of reproductive age. As of 1 March, there were no reports of COVID-19 in the Tindouf refugee camps.
Relations have remained tense between Morocco and the Polisario Front, moreover. In July 2019, 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. With the support of the Moroccan government, Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, and São Tomé and Príncipe have all recently opened consulates in Moroccan-controlled Laayoune and Dakhla in the disputed territory.
On 30 October 2019, the Council adopted resolution 2494 renewing the mandate of MINURSO for one year. The US, as penholder, opted not to make significant changes to the text at that time, aside from a return to the 12-month mandate cycle, for which France and others had been advocating. A 12-month mandate was the norm until 2018, when the US pushed for a six-month mandate to increase pressure on the parties to work towards a peaceful solution. The return to the yearlong mandate seemed to signal the US belief that the continued absence of a personal envoy had substantially reduced the possibility of any positive political progress.
Thirteen Council members voted in favour of resolution 2494, with Russia and South Africa abstaining (as they did during the previous vote, in April 2019). In their statements, Russia and South Africa stressed their support for MINURSO’s work. Russia indicated their belief, however, that others were trying to use the renewal to “predetermine the direction of the negotiation process being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations or to change established approaches affirmed in previously adopted resolutions”. South Africa did not believe the text was balanced between the parties and worried about attempts to subvert principles of self-determination.
From 19 to 24 December 2019, the Polisario Front held its 15th Congress in Tifariti. About 2,000 attended, including Sahrawi delegates, Polisario Front administration officials, and several foreign delegations, including representatives from the newly elected government in Algeria. In a January letter to the Security Council, the Polisario Front denounced the fact that the motorsport “Africa Eco Race” crossed through its region, and also protested that the Secretary-General was not criticising Moroccan actions sharply enough. The Polisario Front also continues to advocate for the immediate appointment of a new personal envoy.
Key Issues and Options
MINURSO is one of the longest-running UN peacekeeping missions, having been established in 1991 with the key objective of facilitating a referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. With no referendum held, its duties today mainly consist of monitoring the ceasefire across the Berm, a 1,700-mile-long earthen wall that divides the Moroccan-administered portion of Western Sahara from that held by the Polisario Front. Members will want to hear of any challenges on the ground to MINURSO or difficulties in implementing its mandate.
Given the continued absence of the Secretary-General’s personal envoy, Council members could consider issuing a press statement urging the Secretary-General to appoint a successor to Köhler as soon as possible. In the past, there have been unsuccessful attempts at conveying this message to the Secretary-General, including during the mandate renewal negotiations in October 2019: some members wanted a stronger call for this, while others felt that a resolution was not the right place. The fact that the post has been vacant for nearly a year may have increased the Council’s sense of pressure.
Council and Wider Dynamics
The Council has been quiet on the Western Sahara issue since the adoption of resolution 2494. With many member states frustrated by the absence of a personal envoy and the concomitant lack of political progress, they may voice these concerns.
In January 2017, Morocco rejoined the AU after a 33-year absence. Morocco left when the AU’s predecessor body admitted Western Sahara as a member in 1984. Since rejoining the organisation, Morocco has been stepping up its efforts to maintain its de facto governance over part of the Western Sahara territory and attempt to bring some AU members around to its way of thinking. This is reflected in the opening of the nine consulates, something that was unforeseeable before.
South Africa remains the Polisario’s most steadfast ally on the Council. It will likely continue to push for more negotiations to determine the status of Western Sahara as soon as possible, and for retaining a focus on human rights. The opening of consulates by nine African countries in Laayoune, in the disputed territory, may signal a changing dynamic among African states which had previously been consistent in their positions on MINURSO and in their support for Polisario. Tunisia, as a new Council member and part of the region, may have a useful point of view to share, though it will do so delicately given its critical relationships with all stakeholders. Tunisia’s neighbour Algeria has also renewed its involvement on Western Sahara after recently pulling back while it formed a government. Algeria is one of the countries that has spoken out against the recent consulate openings.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|30 October 2019S/RES/2494||The Security Council renewed the mandate of MINURSO for twelve months until 31 October 2020.|
|2 October 2019S/2019/787||The report provided information ahead of the mandate expiry. It covered developments since 1 April 2019 and described the situation on the ground, the status and progress of the political negotiations on Western Sahara, and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.|
|Security Council Letters|
|16 January 2020S/2020/45||This letter included a complaint from the Polisario Front about what they see as Moroccan violations of Military Agreement No. 1 as well as some dissatisfaction with statements made by the Spokesman for the Secretary-General during his daily press briefing on 13 January 2020.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|30 October 2019S/PV.8651||At this meeting Council members adopted resolution 2494 renewing MINURSO’s mandate until 31 October 2020.|