Consultations on Western Sahara
This afternoon (17 March), Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman will brief Council members in consultations on Western Sahara. The meeting, requested yesterday by the Secretariat, comes amid a public dispute between Morocco and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which culminated in Morocco’s announcement on Tuesday that it intended to significantly reduce the civilian component of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), and end its voluntary contributions to the mission. Earlier today, Morocco asked the UN to remove 84 international staff members from MINURSO.
The dispute follows a visit by Ban to the region in an effort to reinvigorate the political process. He visited the Smara refugee camp, near Tindouf, Algeria, and a MINURSO team site in Bir Lahlou, in the Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, and discussed the conflict with authorities in neighbouring Algeria and Mauritania. Ban had wished to travel to the Moroccan capital, Rabat, and to Laayoune, the site of MINURSO’s headquarters on the Moroccan-controlled side of the berm, but Morocco did not give agreement for such a visit and Ban intended to make a second trip later in the year to Morocco and the mission’s headquarters.
In comments made during the visit, the Secretary-General referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara, triggering an angry backlash from authorities in Rabat. On 9 March the Moroccan government issued a statement asserting that “the Secretary General has dropped his neutrality and impartiality and has showed a guilty indulgence with a puppet state without attributes, territory, population, nor a recognized flag”, and that the use of the term “occupation” has “no legal nor political basis and it is an insult to the Moroccan government and people”.
Later that day, in a note to correspondents in response to questions on Western Sahara, the UN press office stated that “the status of the Western Sahara territory remains to be decided, as it is a non-self-governing territory” and that “the issue at stake is the final status of the territory”. It stated that the Secretary-General personally witnessed a desperate situation in a Western Sahara refugee camp resulting from decades of life without hope in the harshest conditions, and that his reference to “occupation” related “to the inability of Sahrawi refugees to return home under conditions that include satisfactory governance arrangements under which all Sahrawis can freely express their desires”.
On 13 March, tens of thousands of Moroccans reportedly marched through the streets of Rabat in a rally supported by the government to protest Ban’s statements on Western Sahara. The following day, the Moroccan Foreign Minister met with Ban in New York. A readout from Ban’s office following the meeting, reported that the Secretary-General had “conveyed his astonishment” at Morocco’s 9 March statement and “expressed his deep disappointment and anger” at the demonstration, which he felt targeted him personally. He also requested a clarification regarding the reported presence of several members of the Moroccan government among the demonstrators. Ban reiterated his call for genuine and serious negotiations without preconditions to move the political process along.
In response to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry announcement of its intention to reduce MINURSO staff and to end its voluntary contribution to the mission, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said yesterday that Morocco’s “decision came as a surprise and that the UN will “take measures to ensure that MINURSO can continue to fulfil its mandate”. Morocco has also said that it was deciding whether to pull its troops out of all peace operations. (Morocco has a total of 2,287 troops serving in three missions: the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, the UN Operations in Cote d’Ivoire, and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
Council members will be interested in Feltman’s assessment of the consequences of these developments, as well as the measures that the UN is taking. There may also be questions about what this dispute may mean for the long-stalled political process. In April, the Council will receive the Secretary-General’s report of Western Sahara in preparation for the annual MINURSO mandate renewal, and Council members will likely to be interested on how these developments may impact that renewal.