April 2021 Monthly Forecast


Western Sahara

Expected Council Action

In April, Security Council members expect to receive a briefing in consultations on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), likely from Collin Stewart, the Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO.  

The MINURSO mandate expires on 31 October.

Key Recent Developments

Council members convened virtually on Western Sahara on 21 December 2020, when Germany called for a Council meeting following several months of increased tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the entity representing the nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region known as Sahrawis. The frictions culminated in Polisario protesters blocking traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat. The protest caused Morocco to deploy armed forces into the buffer zone. The Polisario Front subsequently announced it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement, signed by both parties in 1991.

The conflict has since persisted at a low-intensity level, and MINURSO continues to monitor the situation. In a press statement dated 2 March, the Polisario Front reacted to remarks by the spokesperson of the Secretary-General, who had said that MINURSO continued to monitor the situation throughout the territory and within Guerguerat. Criticising the mission, the Polisario Front suggested that the spokesperson’s account reflected an attempt by MINURSO to give a false impression of “overall calm”.

Since Western Sahara received its independence from Spain in 1975, Morocco and the Polisario Front have contested the area, which borders Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. A referendum that was supposed to be held with the support of MINURSO and was intended to determine the region’s status never materialised. Morocco maintains that Western Sahara should be incorporated within its territory as an autonomous region, but the Polisario Front insists that the referendum should be held, with independence as a legitimate option.

On 10 December 2020, former US President Donald Trump announced that the US recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, securing in return Morocco’s normalisation of relations with Israel. In 2019 and 2020, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, the Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the United Arab Emirates established diplomatic presences in areas under Moroccan control. According to the latest report of the Secretary-General, the Polisario Front criticised those actions as violations of international law and a breach of the international legal status of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory.

The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) announced its intention to increase diplomatic efforts to “bring about a just and durable solution to the crisis”. In a communiqué adopted on 9 March, it expressed concern over the resumption of military confrontation. It mandated the AU Troika—consisting of the current, incoming and outgoing AU Chairpersons—to revitalise its engagement with both parties to the conflict and requested the AU Commission to take necessary steps to reopen the AU Office in the Moroccan administered city of Laayoune to reactivate AU support for a political solution.

Key Issues and Options

A key issue for the Council is how to reinvigorate the political process, as the most recent round of talks between the parties was in March 2019.  In this regard, and n light of ongoing tensions, the question of finding a successor for the former Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General has become more pressing. The post has been vacant since former German President Horst Köhler left the office for health reasons in 2019. Köhler had initiated a series of round-table discussions, bringing together Morocco, the Polisario Front, and neighbouring countries Algeria and Mauritania. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front appear to have placed conditions on the profile of a possible successor, which likely challenges the search for a suitable candidate.

Council members may call on the Secretary-General to expedite the search for and appointment of a new envoy and inquire about options to reinstate the political dialogue. They are also likely to call on both sides to return to respecting the ceasefire agreement and to take measures for immediate de-escalation.

Also an important issue, which is described in the Secretary-General’s 23 September 2020 MINURSO report, is MINURSO’s difficulty in accessing the Polisario-controlled area to the east of the berm that separates areas under Moroccan and Polisario control. Council members may inquire about the mission’s progress in reinstating cooperation to access sites located in that area, as well as the extent to which the mission is engaging parties to de-escalate the current tensions.

The ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 are another key issue. Council members may want to hear about the impact of COVID-19 on the population, how the virus is affecting MINURSO’s activities, and how the mission is responding to this challenge.

Council and Wider Dynamics

The upcoming meeting on Western Sahara will be the first on this issue since the new US administration has taken officePresident Biden’s inauguration was followed by much speculation about whether the new administration would backtrack on the decision to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. In April 2018, the US, as the penholder, opted to reduce the mandate cycle from 12 to six months. This decision was reversed with a return to a 12-month mandate in October 2019. MINURSO mandate adoptions have not been unanimous since 2017. Russia and former Council member South Africa both abstained during the vote on MINURSO’s current mandateRussia cited concerns over lack of reference to the right to self-determination in recent mandates, while South Africa expressed a preference for six-month mandate and the need for MINURSO to have a human rights component.

Security Council Resolutions
30 October 2020S/RES/2548 The Security Council renewed the mandate of MINURSO for 12 months until 31 October 2021.
30 October 2019S/RES/2494 The Security Council renewed the mandate of MINURSO for 12 months until 31 October 2020.
Security Council Letter
30 October 2020S/2020/1075 This contained the explanations of vote on resolution 2548.
Secretary-General’s Reports
23 September 2020S/2020/938 This was the latest Secretary-General’s report concerning the situation in Western Sahara.