What's In Blue

Posted Sat 19 Dec 2020

Western Sahara Consultations

Security Council members are expected to hold videoconference consultations on Monday (21 December) on Western Sahara. Germany requested the meeting, which is expected to focus on recent developments in the region. Bintou Keita, the Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, and Colin Stewart, the Special Representative and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO), are the anticipated briefers.

The request for the meeting follows several months of increased tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front—the two parties that have contested that status of Western Sahara for several decades. Morocco has proposed that Western Sahara could be an autonomous region within Morocco, while the position of the Polisario Front—which represents the nomadic inhabitants of the Western Sahara region known as the Sahrawis—is that the territory’s final status can only be decided in a referendum that includes independence as a legitimate option.

Keita and Stewart last briefed members on Western Sahara in consultations on 14 October. During the meeting, Stewart reportedly cited an increase in violations by both Morocco and the Polisario Front of Military Agreement No. 1, which regulates ceasefire-monitoring tasks. When the Council adopted resolution 2548 later in the month—and in light of the concerns expressed by the Special Representative about violations by the sides—language was incorporated in the text that “reiterate[d]” the Council’s existing call on all parties to cooperate fully with MINURSO.

The situation deteriorated in November. On 13 November, Moroccan forces entered the buffer zone to expel Polisario protesters blocking the traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat. A statement from Morocco’s foreign ministry asserted that the operation had been conducted “to restore free movement at the El Guergarate crossing”. No casualties were reported. The Polisario Front declared that the Moroccan operation marked an end to the ceasefire with Morocco that has been in place since 1991. In a 13 November statement from his spokesperson, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he and the UN more generally had “been involved in multiple initiatives to avoid an escalation of the situation in the Buffer Strip in the Guerguerat area”. He pledged to do his “utmost to avoid the collapse of the ceasefire” and expressed his determination “to do everything possible to remove all obstacles to the resumption of the political process”.

US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara on 10 December has also generated significant political attention. The Polisario Front has decried the US decision as a “flagrant violation of [the] United Nations Charter [and] its resolutions”. In resolution 690 of 21 April 1991, the Security Council expressed its full support for a referendum to allow the people of Western Sahara to determine their future. On the same day that the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, Morocco agreed to begin normalising relations with Israel, becoming the fourth member state of the League of Arab States to do so in 2020, along with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Ebba Kalondo, the spokesperson for the AU Commission Chairperson, tweeted on 11 December that the AU’s position on Western Sahara “remains unchanged, in conformity with relevant AU and UN resolutions”.(1) Council members may stress that the political process in Western Sahara should be in accordance with Security Council resolutions and international law in Monday’s meeting, whether or not they choose to raise the recent US decision.

They will be interested in receiving an update from the briefers on the current situation on the ground. There have been no reports of significant conflict since the events of mid-November; however, members may want to know if the parties are adhering to the ceasefire, and if not, what evidence exists that it is being violated. They may also want to know what the UN is doing to quell tensions between Morocco and the Polisario Front and how the parties are responding to these efforts. In this regard, members are expected to call on the parties to refrain from provocative actions and to de-escalate the volatile situation; they may highlight the importance of UN mediation and encourage Rabat and the Polisario Front to rekindle constructive dialogue. Members may further ask if there has been any curtailment of MINURSO’s freedom of movement, while expressing support for MINURSO’s efforts to fulfill its mandate.

With regard to UN mediation, several members are expected to reiterate the importance of appointing a Personal Envoy soon, noting that this individual could help to establish an environment for cooperation between the parties at a time of deteriorating relations. The Personal Envoy position has been vacant since former President of Germany, Horst Köhler, resigned his post on 22 May 2019 because of health concerns. In the year before resigning, Köhler had successfully led several roundtable discussions with Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania. In resolution 2548 renewing the MINURSO mandate in October, the Council incorporated new language that “look[ed] forward to the appointment of a new Personal Envoy of the Secretary General for Western Sahara at the earliest opportunity”. In their explanations of vote, there was widespread emphasis among members on the importance of expeditiously appointing a new Personal Envoy.

While it does not appear that there was resistance to convening Monday’s meeting, in the last few years Western Sahara has been a contentious issue. The last unanimous MINURSO mandate renewal was on 28 April 2017. Since then, elected members Bolivia (2017-1018), Ethiopia (2017-2018) and South Africa (2019-2020) and permanent members China and Russia have abstained on one or more MINURSO resolutions. Most recently, Russia and South Africa abstained on resolution 2548. Russia has questioned the impartiality of recent MINURSO resolutions, affirming that resolving the conflict needs to include the self-determination of the West Saharan people in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter. Similarly South Africa has maintained that the MINURSO resolution does not capture current realities in Western Sahara. Among other things, it has argued that a six-month mandate (rather than the current one year mandate) would be preferable to demonstrate that the Council is closely following developments at a time when the political process is at an impasse and that the MINURSO mandate should have a human rights monitoring component. South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor recently said that for the US to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara was “essentially the recognition of an illegality”.

The US serves as the penholder on MINURSO in the Council. The draft text for MINURSO mandate renewals is first discussed among the Group of Friends of Western Sahara, which is comprised of France, Russia, the UK and the US, and Spain, the former colonial power and a country that provides much logistical and humanitarian support to the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf.


(1) Correction: This sentence was altered to clarify the substance of the 11 December tweet of the Spokesperson of the AU Commission Chairperson. 

Sign up for What's In Blue emails