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MINURSO: Closed Consultations on Western Sahara

Tomorrow (21 April), Security Council members are expected to hold closed videoconference (VTC) consultations on Western Sahara. Acting Assistant-Secretary-General for Africa Michael Kingsley-Nyinah and Special Representative and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) Colin Stewart will brief. This will likely be Stewart’s last meeting before leaving his post in the summer. The Secretary-General is mandated to brief the Council on Western Sahara “on a regular basis, and at any time he deems appropriate during the mandate period, to include within six months” of the mandate renewal, in accordance with resolution 2548 of 30 October 2020.  The report of the Secretary-General concerning Western Sahara is issued once a year close to MINURSO’s mandate renewal date in October. Council members last convened on Western Sahara in December 2020 at Germany’s request following an escalation of tensions. In November 2020, the Polisario Front had announced that it no longer respects the ceasefire agreement with Morocco in place since 1991.

Council members are likely to utilise the consultations to inquire about the security situation on the ground, the impact of COVID-19, the cooperation of both parties with MINURSO, and progress in finding a new Personal Envoy to lead the political process and replace former German President Horst Köhler. Köhler left the office almost two years ago in May 2019.

Since the rise in tensions in the area around the border town of Guerguerat last year and the Polisario Front’s withdrawal from the ceasefire agreement, the conflict is reported to have continued at a low-intensity level. During the briefing, Council members may want to hear a more detailed account of the situation on the ground and about the potential of further escalation. They are likely to call upon both parties to exercise restraint, and on the Polisario Front to renew its commitment to the ceasefire agreement. They may also want to hear from the briefers how the UN is engaging with both sides to calm tensions and what options the Security Council could pursue.

Council members are likely to inquire about the impact of COVID-19 on the region. In this regard, they may ask for more details about the situation in the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and how the virus has affected MINURSO’s staff and operations. The latest report of the Secretary-General on the situation concerning Western Sahara from September 2020, reported a significant outbreak in the Laayoune area, three officially reported active cases in the refugee camps, and several outbreaks in the town of Tindouf itself, where the UN and humanitarian actors have offices.

Since the report also noted that neither Morocco nor the Polisario Front had engaged with Stewart for over a year at the time of publication, Council members are likely to inquire about any recent efforts to restore working relationships between the Special Representative and the parties. They may further encourage the parties to reengage with MINURSO, since the mission has also reported not being given access to areas relevant to fulfilment of its mandate.

The question of finding a new Personal Envoy to reinvigorate the political process—and possible options to pursue until one is found—will likely be central to the meeting. Council members may inquire about recent efforts by the Secretary-General to find a suitable candidate to promote the political process, and they may discuss options to mediate between both parties until this post is filled. Both parties are reported to have placed conditions on Köhler’s prospective successor, hampering the search for a suitable candidate.

Council members in the past have not had a unified approach to Western Sahara. The last unanimous MINURSO mandate renewal took place in 2017. Russia and South Africa abstained on resolution 2548, the most recent MINURSO resolution. In its explanation of the vote, Russia called resolution 2548 and other recent resolutions on Western Sahara biased, gravitating away from previously agreed parameters to the settlement of the conflict, including the option of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. South Africa also issued an explanation of vote, stating that the Council “must reaffirm its long-standing and unequivocal commitment to the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara in an unqualified manner.”  It further expressed its preference for a formal human rights mandate for MINURSO and for a six-month mandate, rather than a twelve-month extension.

In their statements, African members of the Council may reflect messages from the 9 March AU Peace and Security Council communiqué, in which the AU announced its intention to increase diplomatic efforts to bring about a lasting political solution to the crisis, including through engagement with both parties by the AU Troika—consisting of the current, incoming and outgoing AU chairpersons—and by re-opening the AU Office in the Moroccan–administered city of Laayoune.

France has traditionally supported the Moroccan autonomy plan for the region. The plan was submitted by Morocco to the UN in 2007 and foresees the integration of the territory with Morocco, with the Sahrawi people managing their internal affairs, while being represented by Morocco externally.

The US, the penholder on Western Sahara, had changed the mission’s mandate from twelve to six months in April 2018, a move seen as increasing pressure on both sides through heightened Council attention. This was reversed to the usual twelve-month cycle in October 2019, however.

The US has also repeatedly expressed support for the Moroccan autonomy plan and, in its explanation of vote following the most recent MINURSO mandate renewal, called on both parties to “demonstrate their commitment to a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution based on compromise”. On 10 December, President Trump announced US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalising its relationship with Israel. Since then, much speculation has surrounded the position of the Biden administration on Western Sahara. Tomorrow’s Council meeting may provide a clearer idea of the new administration’s position.

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