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). The Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO Alexander Ivanko, and the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Staffan de Mistura, are the anticipated briefers
The MINURSO mandate expires on 31 October.
Key Recent Developments
The upcoming Council meeting will be the first time de Mistura addresses the Council since his appointment as Personal Envoy in November 2021. The post had been vacant for two and a half years following the resignation of Horst Köhler, the former German President, in May 2019. Upon assuming office, de Mistura undertook diplomatic engagements with several stakeholders in the conflict, including Morocco, neighbouring countries and the Polisario Front—the entity representing the inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, known as Sahrawis. De Mistura visited the region on a trip that began on 12 January. He first met in Rabat with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and Ambassador Omar Hilale, the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN. During the meeting, Morocco reportedly reiterated its position regarding its autonomy plan. (The plan, which Morocco submitted to the UN in 2007, calls for integrating the territory into Morocco, with the Sahrawi people managing their internal affairs while being represented externally by Morocco.)
On 15 January, de Mistura met with Polisario Front President Brahim Ghali and visited the Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria. A UNHCR report published in February states that these camps host some 90,000 Sahrawi refugees, although UNHCR also notes that the actual number is estimated to be much higher. The Polisario Front reportedly reiterated its “attachment to the organisation of a referendum of self-determination of the Saharawi people”.
On 17 January, de Mistura met with Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott. He returned to Algeria for a meeting with Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra and Amar Belani, Algeria’s Special Envoy on the question of Western Sahara and Maghreb Countries. In a press release following de Mistura’s visit, Algeria expressed support for direct negotiations without preconditions between Morocco and the Polisario Front and for the revitalisation of the joint settlement plan of 1991, which includes holding a referendum.
Secretary-General António Guterres commented on de Mistura’s efforts during a 21 January press conference, expressing hope that the visit and de Mistura’s good offices would give new impetus to the political process.
However, de Mistura has faced complex regional dynamics as he has embarked on his new role. In August 2021, Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco after a period of increasingly strained relations. The rupture was triggered by a dispute between the countries regarding the Kabyle people, an ethnic minority group in Algeria striving for independence. In a 19 July letter to the Council, Algeria expressed discontent over a document distributed by Morocco to all member states of the Non-Aligned Movement. Algeria stated that Morocco outlined in this document “its support for what it claims is the right to self-determination of the Kabyle people, who, according to the document, have been subjected to the longest foreign occupation”. Algeria further stated that it perceived the contents of Morocco’s document as an admission that it has provided support to the Kabyle, which Algiers believes is a terrorist group that has caused wildfires in Algeria. In a 22 July 2021 letter to the Council reacting to a statement by Lamamra at a 13 July Ministerial Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in which he compared the situation in Western Sahara to a military conflict, Morocco asserted that “the situation in the Moroccan Sahara is calm and serene”. On 24 August 2021, as a result of this dispute, Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco.
Recent diplomatic developments may have added complexity to the regional dynamic. On 19 March, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Spain because of the latter’s shift in position to support the Moroccan autonomy plan for Western Sahara, which Spain governed until 1975. The move improved Spain’s relations with Morocco. Rabat, which recalled its ambassador to Spain in May 2021 because of Spain’s admission of Ghali to the country to undergo COVID-19 treatment, welcomed the shift in position and returned its ambassador to Spain.
Key Issues and Options
The key issue for Council members to consider is how to bring all parties to the negotiating table. Resolution 2602 of 29 October 2021 called on all parties to resume negotiations with a view to “achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”. The appointment of de Mistura gave new momentum to the peace process and revived the prospects for resuming negotiations.
Nonetheless, significant obstacles remain to making meaningful progress in the peace process. The Polisario Front announced in November 2020 that it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement that it signed with Morocco in 1991. The announcement followed Morocco’s deployment of armed forces into a buffer zone after Polisario protesters blocked traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat. This situation is now further compounded by the complex regional dynamics, which could overshadow prospects for a reinvigorated peace process.
A possible option for Council members would be to issue a press statement expressing their support for de Mistura’s efforts and urging all parties to resume negotiations.
Council members continue to be divided on the issue of Western Sahara. The US, the penholder on Western Sahara, recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the region in December 2020, under the Trump administration. The Biden administration has not changed this position. On 3 February, de Mistura met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and discussed diplomatic engagement with international partners to reinforce a credible political process that will lead to an enduring and dignified resolution of the conflict. France has traditionally supported the Moroccan autonomy plan for the region, and Gabon and the UAE are also supportive of Morocco. Council members Ghana, Kenya and Mexico maintain diplomatic relations with the political representation of the Sahrawi people, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolutions|
|29 October 2021S/RES/2602||This resolution renewed the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year, until 31 October 2022. The resolution received 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (Russia and Tunisia).|
|30 October 2020S/RES/2548||This resolution renewed MINURSO until 31 October 2021.|
|1 October 2021S/2021/843||This was the annual Secretary-General’s report on the situation concerning Western Sahara, covering developments from 31 August 2020 and 1 October 2021.|
|Security Council Letters|
|1 November 2021S/2021/903||This letter transmitted a communiqué that was adopted by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union at its 984th meeting (9 March 2021), covering the situation in Western Sahara.|