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Posted Tue 12 Oct 2021

Western Sahara: Closed Consultations

Tomorrow morning (13 October), Security Council members will convene for closed consultations to discuss the situation in Western Sahara. Special Representative and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) Alexander Ivanko and Assistant Secretary-General for Africa in the Departments of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and Peace Operations (DPPA-DPO) Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee are expected to brief. This will be the first time they have briefed Council members on Western Sahara since assuming their new roles. Pobee took over from Bintou Keita in May and Ivanko from Colin Stewart in August.

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 this mandate’s renewal and again prior to its expiration”, in accordance with resolution 2548 of 30 October 2020. The report of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara was circulated to Council members on 1 October. It is issued once a year, usually close to the mission’s mandate renewal date. MINURSO’s mandate expires on 31 October and a vote on a draft resolution renewing the mission’s mandate is scheduled for 29 October.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to welcome the appointment of Staffan de Mistura as the new Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, following a search of almost two and a half years. The previous Personal Envoy, former German President Horst Köhler, resigned from the post in May 2019. De Mistura, who previously served as the UN Special Envoy to Syria (2014 -2018), will assume his new functions in November. Secretary-General António Guterres transmitted a letter to the Council on 1 October stating his intention to appoint de Mistura. In the letter, he said that de Mistura would work with “the parties and the neighbouring States, on the basis of Security Council resolution 2548 (2020) and earlier resolutions and taking into account the progress made to date, in order to achieve a just, durable and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.

Many observers deemed Köhler’s round-table format talks promising, but this initiative has been dormant since he left his post. In addition to Morocco and the Polisario Front (the entity representing the inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, known as Sahrawis), Algeria and Mauritania participated in these talks. Resolution 2548 called upon these parties “to cooperate more fully with each other”; however, Algeria—which is supportive of the Polisario Front—has recently severed diplomatic ties with Morocco.

Council members are likely to express concern over the resumption of hostilities between the parties and call for renewed respect for the ceasefire agreement. The Secretary-General’s report noted that the “situation in Western Sahara has significantly deteriorated” since his last report on this issue in October 2020. It attests to a persistent risk of escalation and notes daily incursions into the demilitarised buffer zone by Morocco and the Polisario Front.

The situation in Western Sahara has been especially precarious since November 2020, when Polisario protesters blocked traffic between the Moroccan-controlled side of Western Sahara and Mauritania at the border town of Guerguerat, following which Morocco deployed armed forces into the buffer zone. The Polisario Front subsequently announced that it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement reached in 1991.

Several Council members—especially the MINURSO troop and military observer contributing states (China, France, India, Mexico and Russia)—remain concerned about the tenuous security environment on both sides of the berm that separates areas under Moroccan and Polisario control. The Secretary-General’s report noted various restrictions of movement on each side of the berm, an issue likely to be raised at the meeting. As a result of these restrictions, MINURSO appears unable to directly observe the exchange of fire across the berm or to verify specific details of individual incidents.

Some Council members will probably raise the human rights situation in Western Sahara. They may reference conditions in Sahrawi refugee camps, including difficulties in meeting the basic needs of the inhabitants, and the rates of COVID-19 in the camps. Concerns about the persecution of human rights defenders might be discussed as well. In a 1 July Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) statement, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawler, stated that “not only do human rights defenders working on issues related to human rights in Morocco and Western Sahara continue to be wrongfully criminalised for their legitimate activities, they receive disproportionately long prison sentences and whilst imprisoned, they are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and torture”. The OHCHR statement urged Morocco to cease targeting human rights defenders and journalists and to create an environment in which they can work without fear of retaliation.

In recent days, Special Representative Ivanko appears to have been able to re-establish contact with Morocco and the Polisario Front. This development is likely to be welcomed by Council members, as the Secretary-General’s recent report had noted limited engagement of both parties with the leadership of MINURSO. In this regard, members may be interested in learning more from the briefers about the cooperation of Morocco and the Polisario Front with UN entities on the ground.

Council members differ in their approach to the situation in Western Sahara. The decision of former US President Donald Trump to formally recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara on 10 December 2020 prompted several Council members to publicly state their positions. For example, on 12 December 2020, Russia stated that the Trump administration’s decision would “undermine the generally recognised international legal framework of the Settlement Plan for the Western Sahara, which provides for determining the final status of this territory by way of a referendum”, emphasising that “a lasting and just solution is possible based only on UN Security Council resolutions within the framework of the procedures consistent with the principles and purposes of the UN Charter”. Several other members also underscored the importance of adhering to Security Council resolutions to achieve a political solution to the situation in Western Sahara, following the Trump administration’s announcement.  The current US administration has yet to make a clear pronouncement on the Trump administration’s decision; in a 7 October press briefing, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed the strong support of the US for de Mistura’s “leadership in resuming the UN-led political process to advance a durable and dignified solution to the conflict in Western Sahara”, adding that  “[w]e are consulting with the parties about how best to achieve that lasting settlement”.

Kenya, Mexico and Viet Nam maintain diplomatic ties with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). India has withdrawn, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has frozen their SADR recognitions.

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 externally by Morocco.