Western Sahara: Mandate Renewal*
This afternoon (27 April), the Council is scheduled to adopt a resolution extending the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for six months, until 31 October.
Prior to the adoption, the Council was briefed on 17 April in consultations on the situation in Western Sahara by the Special Representative and head of MINURSO, Colin Stewart. Stewart highlighted the current situation on the ground, including the Polisario Front’s presence in the buffer strip in Guerguerat and the announcement in late March that the Polisario Front would relocate administrative functions to Bir Lahlou and Tifariti. The Polisario Front has stated it is its legal right to operate in both locations, since they are outside the buffer zone. During the briefing, members also considered the Secretary-General’s latest report on Western Sahara (S/2018/277). Council members seemed to agree on the vital role MINURSO has in monitoring the ceasefire and preventing conflict, and that the primary focus should be the resumption of political negotiations.
The US, the penholder for Western Sahara, first circulated a draft resolution to the Group of Friends of Western Sahara on 17 April, just prior to the consultations. The Group of Friends—consisting of France, Russia, the UK, the US and Spain, as the former colonial power—could not reach consensus on the draft during negotiations on 18 April. The members of the group did not agree on how to address the Polisario Front’s recent actions, and the US opted to circulate the draft to all Council members on 20 April.
After a round of negotiations on Monday (23 April), the US considered members’ input and put a draft resolution in blue yesterday evening (26 April). In a change from prior resolutions on MINURSO, the draft extends the mandate of the mission for six months instead of one year. It appears that this was done to increase pressure on the parties to the conflict to resolve the current tensions and bring them to the table for a fifth round of formal negotiations. In this regard, the draft resolution also requests the Secretary-General to brief the Council “on a regular basis, and at any time he deems appropriate during the mandate period, on the status and progress of these negotiations”. A renewal of MINURSO’s mandate in October will also allow the Council to consider the strategic review of the mission scheduled for mid-2018.
On 4 January, a small group of Polisario Front elements established a “monitoring post” inside the buffer strip, which Morocco declared a violation of Military Agreement No. 1. MINURSO verified on 24 January that the elements were unarmed and therefore not in violation of the agreement. In late March, the Polisario Front announced they would relocate administrative functions to Bir Lahlou and Tifariti, east of the military wall, although as of press time, there has been no evidence that such relocation has begun. In a letter to the Council on 13 April, Morocco stated that the relocation of any Polisario Front’s structure “be it ‘civil, military, administrative’, or of any kind of nature whatsoever… to the East of the security structure in the Moroccan Sahara, constitutes a casus belli”. According to Military Agreement No. 1, signed by both parties in 1997, Bir Lahlou and Tifariti are outside the buffer zone, which prohibits any sort of military activity. While Council members seem to agree that these actions are not a violation of the agreement, most members believe that it is not “in the spirit” of the agreement either and could negatively impact prospects for negotiations.
In the draft resolution, the Council expresses its concern with the presence of the Polisario Front in the buffer strip in Guerguerat and calls for its “immediate withdrawal”, as well as the Polisario Front’s announcement of the planned relocation of administrative functions, calling for the Polisario Front to “refrain from any such destabilizing actions”. During negotiations on the resolution, Council members expressed different views on how to refer to these developments and Russia and Ethiopia expressed concerns about alienating the Polisario Front ahead of possible formal negotiations. Despite these differing views, the language on the Polisario Front remains as it was first presented by the penholder.
In his report, the Secretary-General described limitations imposed by Morocco to the work of the mission preventing the full implementation of the Council’s mandate through, for example, engagement with a broad range of interlocutors for the purposes of political reporting. While he highlighted the importance of exercising the full range of standard peacekeeping functions and called for the support of the Council in this regard, no language along these lines appears in the draft.
Over the past year, tensions have remained high between the parties, as both consistently accuse the other of violations of the ceasefire and Military Agreement No.1. In resolution 2351 of 28 April 2017, which extended the mandate of MINURSO for one year, the Council recognised that fundamental questions related to the ceasefire and related agreements remained and called upon the Secretary-General to “explore ways that such questions can be resolved”. This proved especially contentious, as it was seen by Morocco as rewarding the Polisario Front for its actions in early 2017 when the Polisario Front entered the buffer zone in Guerguerat and only left after pressure from the Council on the day resolution 2351 was adopted. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations then suggested sending a technical mission to the area, which the Polisario Front supported but Morocco did not. In the draft resolution this year, the Council recognised that questions still remain, but called upon the Secretary-General to “interview the parties in an effort to better understand these issues”.
For the first time in a resolution on MINURSO, the Council requested the Secretary-General to “seek to increase the number of women in MINURSO, as well as to ensure the meaningful participation of women in all aspects of operations”.
The resolution further requests the Secretary-General to provide a report on the situation in Western Sahara “well before the end of the mandate period”. Council members will likely expect a briefing and a report after the strategic review on MINURSO is completed later this year.
* Post-script: The MINURSO resolution was adopted by 12 votes in favour and 3 abstentions (China, Ethiopia, and Russia). In their explanations of vote, some members maintained that the penholder was not adequately consultative during the negotiation process.