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Western Sahara Consultations and Update on Return of Civilian Staff to the Mission

Tomorrow (26 July), the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), Kim Bolduc, will brief Security Council members in consultations, as requested by resolution 2285 of 29 April. The resolution renewed MINURSO’s mandate and emphasised the urgent need for the mission to return to full functionality following Morocco’s expulsion of civilian staff members in March due to a dispute with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, following Ban’s use of the term “occupation” to describe Morocco’s relationship to Western Sahara.

The Council was last updated on the situation concerning MINURSO on 15 July at a briefing held under ‘any other business’ (AOB) at the request of Uruguay and Venezuela. Venezuela had requested that the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) Hervé Ladsous and the head of the Department of Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman would brief members; however only Ladsous did so. He told Council members that a gradual return of MINURSO civilian staff had begun, and so far, 12 staff members had returned, as part of an initial group of 25 set to return. According to the UN spokesperson’s office, the return of these 25 staff members has been completed. In a previous briefing under AOB on 16 June, Ladsous had said that there had been positive momentum in talks with Morocco, and that it had been agreed in principle that the mission would gradually resume full functionality.

There has been little information sharing with the Council by the Secretariat on talks with Morocco since the adoption of resolution 2285. Some Council members described the AOB meetings in June and July as being brief and conveying little information. On 22 June, DPKO circulated a confidential note to the Council informing it that the gradual return of staff would commence with the return of an initial group of 25 critical staff “in the immediate future” and that it anticipated that additional staff would return subsequently. The note added that the mission, along with DPKO and the Department of Field Support, would continue to monitor the return to full functionality and any ongoing impact of the crisis on MINURSO’s operations, and that the UN would provide the 90-day briefing as expected. Minutes after the note was circulated, it was recalled by the Secretariat.

Council members will be interested in new developments since the 15 July briefing. It appears unlikely that Bolduc will report a return to full functionality at this juncture and, if that is the case, it will be incumbent upon Council members to decide what, if any, action ought to be taken to ensure this is accomplished expeditiously. However, within the Council deep divisions remain on how to approach the issue and Council members have been unable to agree to any strong Council pronouncement since the onset of the crisis in March. This was reflected during the negotiations on resolution 2285, when several countries, including Angola, New Zealand, Uruguay and Venezuela, said that the resolution should have demanded the immediate return of the expelled staff. Council members who are sympathetic to the Moroccan position, such as Egypt, France, Senegal and Spain, have resisted the Council’s putting pressure on Morocco to reverse its decision and have advocated minimal Council involvement on the issue. Resolution 2285 was adopted on 29 April with ten votes in favour, two against (Uruguay and Venezuela), and three abstentions (Angola, New Zealand and Russia). For background on this resolution, see our story from 29 April.

In related developments, Morocco officially requested to rejoin the AU during the organisation’s 17-19 July Summit in Kigali. Morocco left the precursor to the AU, the Organization for African Unity, in 1984 after it accepted the Polisario-declared Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as a member state. In an address given at the Summit, Moroccan King Mohammed urged the AU to reconsider its stance on the SADR, arguing that it is neither a UN member state, nor a member of the Arab league, and highlighting that some 34 African countries do not recognise it. At a 23 July press conference in Algiers, Sahrawi Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Salem Ould Salek said the move stemmed from Morocco’s failures at the international level, particularly having to accept the return of MINURSO’s civilian staff, whose expulsion Morocco had initially described as a “sovereign and irreversible decision.”

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