Latest UN Report on the Sahara Reflects Significant Changes over the Past Year in Morocco, Region
New York April 24, 2012
Morocco World News
Earlier this month, the United Nations released its report on the Sahara, on which today the Security Council will vote to extend the mandate of the peacekeeping operation in the territory, known as MINURSO. The 25-page report was noteworthy for reflecting many of the past year’s developments in Morocco as well as the region.
For example, the UN report cited Morocco’s constitutional reforms that were adopted in a July public referendum and occurred against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In describing the new constitution, the United Nations highlighted the ‘regionalization’ provisions for greater local governance in the country, which the report connected with Morocco’s 2007 autonomy plan for the Sahara. In addition, the UN noted Morocco’s November legislative elections that resulted in the new government headed by Prime Minister Abdelilhah Benkirane.
These changes cited in the report should bode well for Morocco’s position towards the Sahara. Regional and local governance has been promoted by Morocco’s king as a way to enhance democracy and representative government in the country, which Mohammed VI has sought to do in response to the country’s pro-democracy protests that broke out last year. In the context of the Sahara dispute, decentralization should make more attractive to both the international community and Saharans the autonomy plan of Morocco. This is because expansion of local rule throughout the country would indicate sincerity on Morocco’s part to uphold any autonomy arrangement that it might reach with Saharawis.
Also of interest, is that the report noted protests against the leadership of the Polisario Front by youth groups during Polisario’s 13th General Peoples’ Congress in December and again in March. The report described these protests as calls “for party reforms” and “for the adoption of further reforms, including new approaches to change the status quo.”
These references, thus, are part of the growing chorus of voices that have increasingly criticized Polisario rule. In fact, before the Polisario Front’s 13th Congress last year, Saharawi youth associations sent letters to the UN Secretary-General that denounced the group’s leadership. Similar forms of criticism were also on full display this past October when petitioners, both individuals and from NGOs, testified before the UN Special Committee of Decolonization on the repressive conditions found in the Tindouf camps. This mounting criticism against the Polisario contrasts with the praise that European Union countries and the United States have directed towards Morocco over the past year for its democratic reforms.
Meanwhile, the Secretary-General’s annual report addressed the impact on the Sahara conflict due to the deteriorating security situation in the Maghreb and the Sahel, which coincides with a growing weariness by the UN Security Council towards the region. Since the start of 2012, the Security Council, the UN body charged with maintaining international peace and security, has held an unprecedented three briefings and debates on the Sahel. These meetings have considered fallout from the Libyan conflict but have also reflected the world powers’ growing concerns over the structural threats posed by poverty and the lack of state authority in the region that facilitates smuggling, arms and drug trafficking, providing safe havens for terrorist groups, in particular that of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. With the secession of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels in just the last month, the Security Council’s attention towards the Sahel has reached an all-time high.
The UN report cites the kidnapping of three Spanish and Italian aid workers last October who were working in the Tindouf refugee camps. According to the report, a splinter group from Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the incident. “The abduction incident was the first of its kind since the Mission was established [in 1991],” stated the report. In addition, the report noted that the security situation in the region is “a growing concern affecting operational activities” of MINURSO east of the Berm.
This regional instability may lend greater impetus for the Security Council to break through the impasse in the Sahara, since the power vacuum that the unresolved conflict creates can make both the refugee population and the territory vulnerable to exploitation by the region’s growing criminal or terrorist organizations.
News Coverage of the UN Report
Wire reports that came out last week by Reuters and Agence France Presse, after Security Council private discussions on the Sahara, depicted the UN report as highly condemning of Morocco. Both Reuters and AFP ran stories with the respective headline: “S. Africa Outraged By Changes to UN Western Sahara Report” and “UN Says Western Sahara Mission Being ‘Undermined’”.
In particular, the two stories highlighted the controversy of the three versions of the Secretary-General’s Sahara Report, reporting that the multiple drafts were the result of pressure from France and Morocco on the UN to take out criticism directed at Morocco. Reuters described South Africa’s ambassador as “voicing outrage on Tuesday at the watering-down” of the UN report, and also quoted a diplomat as saying that the report “came out in a different version, after lobbying by several member states.” Neither story referred to the political contexts that were reported by the UN, and neither article picked-up on the concern that growing regional insecurity may have on the Security Council’s consideration of the issue.
Interestingly, a Reuters’ story yesterday seemed to try to make amends for its previous reporting that Morocco and France had pressured the UN. The new Reuters piece noted that it compared the first draft of the UN report with the final version, and found “that much of the language most critical of Morocco was added”. “That suggests allegations that the U.N. somehow tried to whitewash Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s report on Western Sahara to the Security Council are unjustified,” stated the article, a stark contrast from its earlier analysis.
Undoubtedly some criticism of Morocco found in the UN report and covered by the press has been warranted, including the Secretariat’s insinuation of spying by Morocco when it mentioned that its communications between Mission and New York headquarters have, “at least on occasion, been compromised.” But these references made up only a small portion of the report.
When the Security Council votes to adopt the new MINURSO resolution later today, the changing political and security dynamics in Morocco and the region as reflected by the UN Secretary-General in his latest report, are factors that are reshaping the approaches towards resolving the longstanding dispute.