Western Sahara and the UN – 22 years later

By Anna Theofilopoulou, March 31, 2013

Western Sahara demonstration

Western Sahara demonstration

The UN is persevering, but time is running out. The real cause for concern should be the growing number of young and disaffected people in the region.


In April of this year, the UN Security Council will engage in the annual ritual of the mandate renewal for the UN Mission for the referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). This will involve discussing the report of the Secretary-General covering developments in the conflict during the past year, and being briefed orally by a representative of the Secretary-General on developments on the ground in Western Sahara. In addition, the Council will hear about the work of the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Christopher Ross, and his efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.

The Security Council will discuss the draft resolution that will have been prepared by the Group of Friends of Western Sahara (France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US) extending MINURSO’s mandate for yet another year.  More than likely, in addition to requesting that the two parties involved in the dispute, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, cooperate fully with MINURSO, (about which both have at times demonstrated clear ambivalence), the resolution will also call upon them to continue to demonstrate the political will to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations.

As has been the case since April 2007, the resolution will further call upon the parties to continue negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.  The fact that in 4 formal and 9 informal rounds of talks to resolve the conflict, no real negotiations have taken place, nor good faith or political will has been shown by the parties, will be ignored by the Council as before.

Events of the last year

Shortly after the adoption of resolution 2044 in April 2012, Morocco astonished the international community by withdrawing its confidence from the Personal Envoy.  The Minister of Foreign Affairs, member of the new Islamist Moroccan Government, followed by other Moroccan officials, accused Christopher Ross of bias against Morocco and of straying from his mandate.  He held Ross responsible for the sections critical of Morocco in the 2012 report of the Secretary-General.

Anybody familiar with the preparation of the report, and the Moroccan officials are certainly familiar with the process followed by the UN Secretariat for years, would have known that the Moroccan accusations were baseless.  The Personal Envoy is responsible only for the sections of the report covering his own activities.  He also contributes to the observations and recommendations on issues concerning the talks and the search for a political solution to the conflict.

And there was certainly nothing controversial about Morocco written by Ross in the report. Ross stated a desire/intention to convene a gathering of a cross-section of the people of Western Sahara to generate ideas to present to the negotiators to help them and possibly assembling a group of “wise men” from the Maghreb for the same purpose.  He also expressed a desire to expand MINURSO’s reporting in both Western Sahara and the refugee camps and for more frequent visits by diplomats, journalists, legislators and others in order to allow the international community a better understanding of the views of those affected by the conflict. The report mentioned that both parties had expressed reservations about these ideas.

 The sections mentioning the human rights situation in the territory, especially following the events in the Gdeim Izik camps in October/November 2010 and the lack of cooperation by Morocco with MINURSO’s military and security operations during the reporting period, would have been prepared by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations as they covered issues falling under that department’s responsibilities.  And UN bureaucrats guard very jealously their prerogatives in preparing the reports of the Secretary-General to the Security Council allowing at best for consultations and inputs by other departments, but always keeping the prerogative of having the last word in what stays in each report.  And last but not least, the office of the Secretary-General has the final say on each report and decides what stays in or gets deleted after checking with those responsible for each section.

So what did really happen? What was behind the attacks against Ross by the Moroccan Foreign Minister that started snowballing, pursued by the Moroccan Government and dutifully by the Moroccan press, which took by surprise not only the Secretary-General but also close Moroccan allies such as the US, France and Spain.  The Secretary-General and the US were firm in their support of Ross and confidence that he had been carrying out his duties in an impartial manner.  Not so France which was rather equivocal in its statement; as for Spain, the Foreign Minister expressed tacit support for Morocco’s position during a visit to Rabat in June 2012.

 Those knowledgeable about Moroccan politics started speculating that the whole thing was related to internal politics, disagreements and antagonism between the new government and the palace.  It was said that the statement by the Foreign Minister was due to his lack of experience in international affairs and even that he might have been “set-up” by other former foreign ministry officials who might have wanted to teach him a lesson. How much of this is correct? It is hard to say a year later. The key fact was that once Morocco had officially withdrawn its confidence from the Personal Envoy it would have been next to impossible for him to continue in his capacity.

Meeting with stern resistance by the US and a firm position by the Secretary-General who called and spoke with the King of Morocco, Morocco eventually backed-off. The Secretary-General called the King on the occasion of Eid-El-Fitr, the end of Ramadan and assured him that the UN had no intention of modifying the terms of mediation. He also reaffirmed that both his Personal Envoy and his recently appointed new Special Representative would concentrate on their respective mandates in promoting the negotiating process, encouraging further improvement of Moroccan-Algerian relations and in supervising peacekeeping activities within the framework of Security Council resolutions and his own instructions.

Ross then visited Rabat and Western Sahara as well as the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algiers and Nouakchott, in October/November 2012. In Rabat, he was received with great political fanfare, given a formal royal reception and meeting with what Morocco considers its key institution on the Western Sahara issue, the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS).  He also held a marathon 6-hour meeting with Morocco’s political parties, an event that all personal envoys have had to endure at one time or another.  Nothing new or particularly helpful is ever mentioned in such a meeting other than that all political parties declare their firm belief that Western Sahara is part of Morocco and that Morocco makes a major concession by offering autonomy to the Territory.

For the first time since he assumed his duties, Ross visited the territory of Western Sahara and met with Saharan human rights activists, including Animatou Haidar, but also with pro-Morocco Saharans and tribal sheikhs.  As the Moroccan government had done before for all visiting representatives of the international community, such as a mission by the UN Security Council in 1995, the local Moroccan authorities made sure that Ross became aware that many local Saharans view Western Sahara as part of Morocco.  Morocco has done a good job co-opting several Saharans by placing them in positions of authority and having them speak on behalf of Saharans in the Territory.

Following his visit to the region, Ross made the expected statement that the conflict had gone on for too long. He then added that it would be “a serious miscalculation to believe that the status quo can last, since it is now threatened by the rise of extremist, terrorist and criminal elements in the Sahel region”.  A statement along the same lines was repeated during his second trip to the region, in March/April 2013, in advance of the discussion of the conflict by the Security Council. Again he asserted that “the situation in the Sahel region and its vicinity makes a solution more urgent than ever”.

One could argue here that rather than the instability in Sahel, a more imminent danger linked with the Western Sahara impasse, could come from some young disaffected Saharans either in Western Sahara or in the refugee camps.  The unrest in Gdeim Izik was due to unemployment and lack of opportunities for the Saharans in the Territory and it is no secret that a similar situation prevails in the camps.  This would be no different from what we have seen in other North African and Middle Eastern countries where the young have decided to take matters into their own hands out of frustration with their authorities dragging their feet in addressing their concerns.

When asked after his first trip whether he had noticed any human rights violations during this visit to Western Sahara Ross responded that although he had received reports of such violations, he personally had not witnessed anything of the kind.  When further requested whether human rights monitoring should be included in MINURSO’s mandate, he was careful to point out that human rights were not included in his mandate, adding that both sides are accused of such violations. It would be up to the Security Council and the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights to deal with this issue.

On October 23, 2011, three humanitarian workers working in the refugee camps in Tindouf, were abducted.  It was the first such incident since MINURSO’s creation and there was a lot of speculation about the culprits, ranging from criminal elements or jihadists organizations operating freely in the Sahel region, to “unemployed” mercenaries following the fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.  Morocco and some of its Western Allies tried to link the abductions to Polisario, without providing any rational explanation how such an incident would benefit Polisario which is dependent on humanitarian aid and workers to support the refugees in the camps.  Polisario vehemently denied this and some elements of Polisario went as far as suggesting that Morocco had in fact organized the kidnappings in order to blame Polisario! Once the 3 were released a year later, the abductions were claimed by a terrorist off shoot of Al-Queda in the Maghreb (AQIM).

What to expect from the Security Councilto life imprisonment.

However, ever since the Security Council started discussing the human rights situation in Western Sahara, at the request of some members aware of the dismal job Morocco has done in managing the Territory, it has accepted the argument that it cannot do anything about this.  Morocco and even the UN Secretariat claim that since the issue was not included in the UN Settlement Plan which set out MINURSO’s mandate, it could not be added later.

However, there has already been a precedent in modifying MINURSO’s mandate, although it was never acknowledged as such in the Council.  In accepting and applauding the expanded role for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to set and carry out with MINURSO the confidence building measures, the Council has a model that it can follow.  The Settlement Plan does not foresee any role for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) until after the start of the transitional period leading to the referendum. Since this has been placed on hold indefinitely, and in order to assist the parties overcome their distrust of each other, the Security Council asked for confidence building measures in one of its resolutions in 1999 and repeated the request in its subsequent resolutions until UNHCR, in cooperation with MINURSO, started implementing them in 2000. This is a slight modification to MINURSO’s mandate that Morocco resisted initially but eventually agreed to.


Clearly discussion about human rights monitoring is no substitute for concerted Security Council pressure for a serious effort to resolve the conflict.  Statements such as the one issued by the Group of Friends of Western Sahara on the occasion of Ross’s second visit to the region, expressing support for his mediation efforts and encouraging the parties to show flexibility in their engagement with the personal envoy and each other will not be enough to change the dynamics of the situation.  If the Group of Friends and the Council wish to be taken seriously and see a resolution to the current impasse, they need to present both sides with specific demands or tell them that they are on their own, if they continue with their current inflexibility.

The issue is urgent because the impasse has gone on for far too long and further delay will only add to the difficulty if not impossibility of resolving it in a sustainable manner.

While nobody would argue with the Personal Envoy that the conflict has gone for far too long, (36 years since Morocco moved into Western Sahara and 22 years since the UN undertook to resolve the conflict) one would be hard pressed to say that the main reason for needing to resolve it soon would be the situation in the Sahel.

Linking the spread of terrorists and extremists in the Sahel and even the Maghreb is a favorite ploy by Morocco to convince the international community that only its presence in Western Sahara can avert such a danger. And Morocco’s supporters are already using the remarks by Ross to strengthen Morocco’s arguments. However experts on the situation in the Sahel, especially after the collapse of Mali, the return of the Tuareg mercenaries and the interactions between Islamist terrorist groups in Algeria, know how far-fetched it would be to link the two situations and say so.

Certainly, nobody would want further instability in an already not very stable region. But for this to be avoided, the main protagonists, Morocco, Polisario and Algeria must be persuaded that time is no longer on their side, if ever it was. Morocco and Algeria, who seem to compete in issuing statements blaming each other for the lack of progress need to be made to understand that even leaving the Sahel aside, they are still playing with fire having hundreds of thousands of unemployed, idle and frustrated young people among their citizens and residents.


Anna Theofilopoulou political analyst and writer, covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations from 1994-2006. She worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III and was a member of his negotiating team throughout his appointment as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara from March 1997 until his resignation in June 2004.

Comments are closed.