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. Ahead of the mandate renewal, Council members are also expected to receive a briefing in consultations on the Secretary-General’s annual report on the situation concerning Western Sahara. 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.
Key Recent Developments
De Mistura recently completed his second regional tour since his appointment as the Personal Envoy in November 2021, which followed a nearly two-and-a-half-year vacancy in the UN post. In announcing the tour, the UN said that de Mistura would seek to deepen his consultations with all parties concerned on “the perspectives to constructively advance the political process on Western Sahara”, and that he would “remain guided by the clear precedents set by his predecessors”. The most recent initiative—round-table talks, which De Mistura’s predecessor Horst Köhler launched and which had been deemed promising before his resignation in 2019—involved Morocco; the Polisario Front, the independence movement for Western Sahara; Algeria; and Mauritania.
On 5 July, de Mistura met in Rabat with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. He had planned to visit Laayoune in Western Sahara, which is administered by Morocco, but cancelled this part of his visit without explanation. De Mistura returned to the region in September to engage other stakeholders. On 2 September, he travelled to Tindouf in Algeria, visiting the Tindouf refugee camps and meeting with Polisario Front Secretary-General Brahim Ghali. He next travelled to Algiers on 5 September to meet with the Algerian authorities and then to Nouakchott for meetings with the Mauritanian authorities on 10 September.
De Mistura has faced complex regional dynamics since starting his role. Algeria suspended diplomatic ties with Morocco in August 2021. In March, Spain shifted its long-standing position of “active neutrality” on Western Sahara by saying it supported Morocco’s autonomy plan for the territory, which Spain governed until 1975. (Morocco’s autonomy plan, which it 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.) The policy shift eased tensions between the two countries that had existed since the spring of 2021 when Madrid allowed Ghali to receive medical treatment for COVID-19 in Spain, and Morocco appeared to loosen border controls that led over 10,000 migrants to enter the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta. On 24 June, approximately a month after Spain re-opened its land borders with Morocco, at least 23 migrants were killed attempting to cross from Morocco into the Spanish North African city of Melilla; videos showed Moroccan security forces using excessive force against the migrants. Council members discussed the incident, at Kenya’s request, in closed consultations under “any other business” on 29 June. On 8 June, Algeria announced it was suspending its cooperation treaty with Spain, in force since 2002, because of Spain’s recognition of Morocco’s autonomy plan.
On 21 August, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI called on his country’s partners to “clarify” their position over Western Sahara “in an unequivocal manner”. King Mohammed VI added, “I would like to send a clear message to the world: the Sahara issue is the prism through which Morocco views its international environment.” On 26 August, Morocco recalled its ambassador to Tunisia after the country invited Ghali to the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD-8), held on 27 and 28 August in Tunis. On 27 August, Tunisia recalled its ambassador to Rabat.
In another controversy, new Kenyan president William Ruto announced on Twitter on 12 September that Kenya was rescinding its recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which the Polisario Front proclaimed in 1976, and was winding down SADR’s presence in Kenya. The announcement represented a major policy change by Kenya and occurred the day after Ghali attended Ruto’s inauguration. As widely reported, Ruto wants to subsidise fertilisers for Kenyan farmers and has been discussing a trade deal with Morocco, which is Africa’s leading producer of fertilisers and controls the world’s largest phosphate reserves used to produce fertilisers that have become much more costly since the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The tweet was subsequently deleted, while another tweet, saying that Kenya supported the UN framework as the exclusive mechanism to find a lasting solution to the dispute, remained on Ruto’s account.
On 24 August, the offices of UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme in Algeria warned that Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf were at risk of severe food insecurity and malnutrition after funding gaps had forced the WFP to cut food rations in the Tindouf camps by 75 percent. They attributed the funding shortfall to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise in global food and fuel prices, and the effects of the war in Ukraine.
Key Issues and Options
A 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”. At the time of the last Council meeting, de Mistura was still pondering his mediation approach to Western Sahara.
Significant obstacles remain in the peace process. The Polisario Front announced in November 2020 that it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement 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. Regional dynamics, such as tensions between Algeria and Morocco, further complicate prospects for a reinvigorated peace process.
The current MINURSO mandate noted previous Personal Envoy Köhler’s intent to invite Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania to meet again in the round-table format. For the upcoming mandate renewal, Council members will have the opportunity to map out their expectations for a political process and express support for any strategy or approach that De Mistura is developing. Members could further consider requesting the Secretary-General to issue a report on Western Sahara before the Council convenes on the matter in March. (Currently, the Council meets twice a year on Western Sahara, usually every six months. The Secretary-General traditionally issues one annual report covering Western Sahara in October ahead of the mandate renewal date.)
The human rights situation is another issue of concern. The Secretary-General’s reports on Western Sahara often flag reports received by OHCHR about human rights restrictions and violations in Moroccan-controlled areas of Western Sahara, as well as in the Tindouf camps.
The US, the penholder on Western Sahara, recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the region in December 2020 during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has not changed this position. The US tends to favour a renewal with little substantive change and advocates for a “mutually beneficial solution” to the situation. This approach has the support of most Council members, with strong calls for the holding of a referendum in the minority. France has traditionally supported the Moroccan autonomy plan, and Gabon and the United Arab Emirates are also supportive of Morocco. Council members Ghana, Kenya and Mexico maintain diplomatic relations with SADR.
Adoptions of MINURSO’s mandate renewal have not been unanimous since 2017, with Russia citing the lack of reference to the right to self-determination in recent mandates. Last year, Russia advocated the deletion of the word “realistic”—a term first introduced in MINURSO’s mandate in resolution 2414 of 27 April 2018—in reference to finding a political solution, arguing that the term was not based on international law.
UN DOCUMENTS ON WESTERN SAHARA
|Security Council Resolution|
|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).|
|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 Meeting Record|
|29 October 2021S/PV.8890||This contained the explanation of votes at the adoption of resolution 2602 renewing MINURSO’s mandate.|