Expected Council Action
In October, the Council is expected to renew the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) which expires on 31 October. Prior to that, it expects to receive a briefing on 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.
Key Recent Developments
The political situation regarding Western Sahara remains 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 towards settlement of the Western Sahara dispute, and in the year before resigning, Köhler had successfully led several roundtable discussions with 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, known as the Polisario Front, represents the nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region known as the Sahrawis.)
Little is publicly known about the ongoing process to name a new personal envoy, although it seems that some candidates have been approached. Council members last met to discuss the situation in Western Sahara in a closed videoconference on 9 April, and Special Representative Stewart briefed.
On 22 July, the office of Secretary-General António Guterres submitted a report marking the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism to the General Assembly, for consideration during its 75th session. The report noted the Security Council’s adoption of resolution 2494, the last MINURSO renewal, on 30 October 2019 as well as the desire to have the parties continue dialogue despite Köhler’s resignation. The report also said that the Secretary-General continues to use good offices to promote progress on the situation in Western Sahara.
The COVID-19 situation in the area is difficult to assess because of the disputed nature of the territory. The World Health Organization’s online database does not include any numbers from Western Sahara and instead lists Morocco and Algeria. On 22 April, humanitarian agencies submitted a comprehensive report on the needs for COVID-19 prevention and response for refugees from Western Sahara in Tindouf, Algeria. Tindouf Camp is the largest Sahrawi refugee camp and is located in the desert just inside Algeria’s border. Its population numbers around 150,000, though there is no exact count, and has been home to Sahrawi refugees since 1975. In Tindouf, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the lead humanitarian agency, supported by the World Food Programme and UNICEF. MINURSO is the lead actor responsible for security. UNHCR and the Sahrawi leadership launched a COVID-19 working group that has established a process to refer potential suspected cases to Tindouf Hospital. UNHCR is also coordinating the response to the refugees’ needs as outlined in the report
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. Thirteen Council members voted in favour, with Russia and South Africa abstaining (as they did during the previous vote, in April 2019). In their statements, the two countries stressed their support for MINURSO’s work. Russia indicated its 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”. Explaining its vote, South Africa listed several aspects of the text it was not fully satisfied with, including its preference for a six-month mandate renewal that would have led to more frequent discussion of Western Sahara by the Council and its belief that MINURSO should have a formal human rights mandate to conduct “the monitoring of possible human rights violations on all sides”.
Human Rights-Related Developments
Addressing the Human Rights Council at the opening of its 45th session, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that her office continued its remote monitoring of the situation in Western Sahara. She said that the last technical missions took place five years ago and that such missions were “vital to identify critical human rights issues on all sides and contribute to preventing the escalation of grievances”.
Key Issues and Options
Council members may focus on the continued lack of a personal envoy and, in turn, the lack of any political progress on one of the Council’s longest-running issues. MINURSO was established in 1991 with the key objective of facilitating a referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Today its duties mainly consist of monitoring the ceasefire across the Berm, a 1,700-mile-long 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. There has been no progress towards holding a referendum: Council members may reflect on this, as 2020 marks 44 years since conflict began over competing claims to the territory.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Many member states are frustrated by the absence of a personal envoy and the concomitant lack of political progress. They may voice these concerns. While many do not want to be accused of stepping on the Secretary-General’s prerogative of appointing his own personal envoys, Council members are nevertheless concerned that nothing has happened for over a year.
Since rejoining the AU in 2017, after a 33-year voluntary absence because the AU’s predecessor body admitted Western Sahara as a member under the name “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic”, Morocco has been stepping up its efforts to maintain its de facto governance over part of Western Sahara and attempt to bring some AU members around to its way of thinking. Algeria has also renewed its involvement on Western Sahara after recently pulling back while it formed a government.
South Africa remains the Polisario’s most steadfast ally on the Council. It is likely to continue to push for more negotiations to determine the status of Western Sahara, and for a focus on human rights in any mandate renewal.
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 and humanitarian support to the Sahrawi in Tindouf. Controversially for some, there is no representation from the African continent among the Group of Friends.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolution|
|30 October 2019S/RES/2494||The Security Council renewed the mandate of MINURSO for 12 months until 31 October 2020.|
|Security Council Meeting Record|
|30 October 2019S/PV.8651||At this meeting Council members adopted resolution 2494 renewing MINURSO’s mandate until 31 October 2020.|
|General Assembly Document|
|22 July 2020A/75/220||This provides an overview of the major activities undertaken by stakeholders during the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.|