Western Sahara Consultations
This afternoon (9 September), Council members will meet in consultations at the request of the Secretariat to discuss the situation in Western Sahara amidst rising tensions with regard to ceasefire violations. Special Representative and Head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) Kim Bolduc will brief the Council via video-teleconference, and Special Envoy Christopher Ross will brief in person. The meeting will be the second since allegations emerged that Moroccan forces have traversed the berm, which separates the Moroccan-controlled territory from that held by the Polisario, in violation of the 1991 ceasefire that it signed with the Polisario. At press time, no Council member had proposed an outcome; however, some members may be keen to call for a Council product on the situation.
The Council last met on Western Sahara on 26 August at the request of Venezuela, which sought information concerning reports that beginning on 11 August Morocco had repeatedly crossed the berm into the Polisario-held part of Western Sahara in the Al Guergerat zone near the Mauritanian border, in contravention of the ceasefire agreement. Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations El-Ghassim Wane briefed the Council, reporting that MINURSO had observed the presence of armed gendarmerie in the area, in breach of Military Agreement No. 1 of the ceasefire. It seems that Wane reported that the UN was initially told by the Royal Moroccan Army that they were clearing the area of drug trafficking and smuggling; however, MINURSO later observed the building of a road in the area. Wane confirmed that Morocco had not given the UN prior notice of its activities.
At that meeting, most Council members apparently expressed concern over the ceasefire violations, warned of the risk of escalation and urged the parties to refrain from any further violations. France, Senegal and Spain, however, cautioned against over-reaction. Several Council members registered their displeasure with the Secretariat for not having kept them abreast of these developments, which they learned of through the media or other sources, and requested that the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) provide timely updates on the situation.
Since then, the Secretariat has sent confidential notes to the Council on 28 August and 2 and 6 September, depicting a situation of increasing tensions and risk of confrontation. It seems that that on 28 August the Polisario informed MINURSO that it was establishing a checkpoint intended to stop Moroccan construction work. In response, MINURSO informed the Polisario that such action would constitute a violation of Military Agreement No. 1.
In an effort to deescalate the situation, Bolduc has reportedly presented the parties with several proposals, including a freeze of engineering work and complete withdrawal of all armed elements, or a continuation of the construction work by a third party or by MINURSO. Morocco has reaffirmed its intention to proceed with the construction of the road, which would link the Moroccan-held territory to the Mauritanian border, while Polisario officials continue to object to the work. Bolduc further proposed the withdrawal of respective security elements by 300 metres, as the positions of the parties are currently 120 metres apart.
On 3 September, Bolduc met with the Moroccan Minister Delegate of Foreign Affairs, who reiterated that Morocco is determined to complete construction of the road, but indicated willingness to consider a proposal for each party to withdraw by 300 metres, followed by a full removal of all security elements by both parties, leaving MINURSO as the only presence in the buffer strip and expecting MINURSO to complete the construction of the road.
Two days later, Bolduc met in Rabouni, Algeria, with the Polisario “Minister of Defense”, who rejected the proposal and stated that only a full withdrawal of Moroccan elements from the buffer strip and the restoration of the status quo would lead to the withdrawal of Polisario security elements. Bolduc raised the presence of Polisario elements in other locations in the buffer zone, namely Mijek and Bir Lou. The Polisario contended that the situation in Al Guergerat could not be considered in isolation and that it was being forced to move toward “full readiness” in case of aggression by Morocco.
That same day Morocco communicated to MINURSO that unless the Polisario ceases its build-up in the buffer strip, the Moroccan army would have no alternative but to start building up its presence as well.
Earlier today, the Polisario sent a letter to the President of the Council highlighting that the construction of a road in the buffer zone had been previously attempted by Morocco in 2001 and 2002, as reflected in the reports of the Secretary-General (S/2001/398, S/2001/613 and S/2002/41), but that such work had been suspended “at the request of MINURSO” on the basis that such activities could constitute a breach of the ceasefire. The Polisario maintains that the Council, based on the precedents contained in the above-mentioned reports of the Secretary-General, “must assume its responsibility so that the normal situation prior to 11 August is restored”.
Despite receiving information on recent developments from the Secretariat, the Council has yet to react. Bolduc and Ross may impress upon the Council that the resumption of hostilities remains a real possibility and that the Council should not depend on the quiet diplomacy advocated by some of its members. Given the recurrence of crises concerning Western Sahara in recent months, the briefers are likely to stress that the current tensions are not the result of operational issues, but rather the lack of a way forward on the political process. As a result, they may highlight the pressing need for a resumption of negotiations.