New York - In the nine years since he assumed his mission as Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon and his Personal Envoy have both failed to reanimate the stalled political process and put an end to the Western Sahara issue.
New York – In the nine years since he assumed his mission as Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon and his Personal Envoy have both failed to reanimate the stalled political process and put an end to the Western Sahara issue.
When the UN chief came to office, the circumstances looked more promising than they had for his predecessors. After more than 15 years of strenuous efforts to convince the parties involved to abide by the 1991 Settlement Plan, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had come to the conclusion that it was time for the parties to work out a face-saving political solution that would preserve their interests, a far cry from a winner takeall approach.
Security Council’s Calls for a political solution since 2007
In April 2007, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1754, which called on the parties to develop innovative ideas in order to reach a long-lasting and mutually acceptable political solution. This resolution should have been the building block on which Ban Ki-moon based his strategy in order to put an end to this conflict.
When the Security Council adopted Resolution 1754, the concept of a resolution through a referendum leading to the independence of Western Sahara was no longer an option. In fact, the Security Council had come to this conclusion as early as 2004 after James Baker’s two failed attempts to convince Morocco and the Polisario to resolve the conflict by means of a referendum.
The statement made by former UN envoy, Peter Van Walsum in April 2008 that the establishment of an independent state in the Western Sahara “was unrealistic” came to echo the calls made by the Security Council to the parties to work out a mutually acceptable political solution.
This statement reflected the conclusion that the former Dutch diplomat had reached after leading four rounds of direct talks between Morocco and the Polisario: that the best way forward for the UN was to press for a middle ground solution, and move away from the UN’s insistence on “self-determination” necessarily resulting in the establishment of an independent state. In other words, a political solution is a solution that is reached by mutual consent of the parties involved in any given conflict and necessarily precludes any resolution where one of the parties loses.
In April of the same year, Morocco presented its autonomy proposal as a basis to reach the political solution called for in Security Council Resolution 1754 and all subsequent resolutions. The plan, which was a more elaborate version of the autonomy plan proposed by former UN envoy to the Western Sahara, James Baker, in his two failed proposals in 2001 and 2003, was hailed by the Security Council as “serious, credible, realistic” and viewed as offering the basis for reaching a mutually acceptable political solution.
Security Council welcomes Morocco’ “serious, credible” efforts, takes note of Polisario’s proposal
In all the resolutions adopted since 2007, the Security Council took note of the Moroccan autonomy proposal while “welcoming serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution.” At the same time, the Council has only “taken note” of the counter-proposal presented by the Polisario. Not one of the resolutions adopted since 2007, namely Resolutions 1754 (2007), 1783 (2007), 1813 (2008), 1871 (2009), 1920 (2010), 1979 (2011), 2044 (2012), 2099 (2013), 2152 (2014), and 2218 (2015), has welcomed Polisario’s proposal as “serious and credible” or likely to help the process move forward towards a political solution.
The language used by the Security Council in its resolutions manifests implicit support for the Moroccan proposal and believes that it could provide a practical basis for a political solution. Each word used in a UN resolution has precise and significant political implications. Delegations of member states may spend hours or even days debating one word or one phrase in a draft resolution. That the Security Council uses different language with regard to the proposal presented by Morocco and the one presented by the Polisario in the same paragraph is very telling in this regard.
When the Security Council changed the framework of negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario, it did so because it reached the sobering conclusion that a solution by means of a referendum as sought by Algeria and the Polisario was impossible.
Nevertheless, instead of following the mandate given to him by the Security Council and helping the parties bridge the gap towards reaching a political settlement, Ban Ki-moon chose a different path and decided to appoint a Personal Envoy with an antiquated vision of the world who still clings to the same definition of “self-determination” that was prevalent in the 1960’s.
The statements made by Ban Ki-moon in Algeria on March 5-7 when he referred to Morocco’s sovereignty over the Sahara as “occupation” flagrantly contradict the language that has been used in the United Nations since 1980. For the past 36 years, none of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations has referred to Morocco as a country occupying the territory. UN resolutions refer to Morocco as one of the main parties of the territorial dispute.
Instead of admitting his failure, as he approaches the time he will be passing the torch to his successor, Ban Ki-moon has apparently decided to go against the tide of history. What is troubling is not that he and his personal envoy have failed in playing their role, but that the bias they have shown towards the Polisario runs the risk of setting the dispute back a decade, deepening Morocco’s distrust of the United Nations and dooming the conflict to an irreconcilable deadlock.
This slip of the tongue was accompanied by the statement Ban Ki-moon made when he said that the UN mission in the territory, known as MINURSO, was ready to conduct a referendum of self-determination. That the UN chief would make such a statement while he is in Tindouf clearly means that he espouses the positions of the Polisario and Algeria and that he cannot conceive of a resolution that is not reached through a referendum.
Ban Ki-moon’s statements are a violation of his mandate
Not only are the statements made by Ban Ki-moon worrying, but they are also a violation of the mandate given to him by the Security Council. In the UN structure, the role of the Secretary General is not political, but administrative. He is not the one who sets the policies and priorities of the organization. His role is limited to playing a role of mediator in the different conflicts on the agenda of the UN and presenting periodic reports within the limits of the mandate given to him by the different UN entities, chief of which is the Security Council.
According to the provisions of the UN Charter, the UNSG is “chief administrative officer” of the Organization, who shall act in that capacity and perform such other functions as are entrusted to him or her by the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and other United Nations organs.”
Additionally, one of the most prominent roles entrusted to him is the use of his “good offices,” steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.
A close analysis of the status of the UNSG within the organization and the statements Ban Ki-moon made last weekend in Algiers and the Tindouf camps demonstrates that he has in fact violated the provisions of the UN Charter he is supposed to uphold, as well as the provisions of all Security Council resolutions on Western Sahara adopted since April 2007. What Ban Ki-moon seems to have forgotten is that his role is limited to use his “good offices” and strive to convince the parties to reach a middle ground solution, in line with the provisions of those resolutions, not to chart the way forward. The framework of negotiations is set out by the Security Council whose role is the preservation of international peace and security.
Yet the framework for negotiations is the one that was set out in Resolution 1754, which called for a mutually acceptable political solution and ruled out the option of the referendum called for by the Polisario and Algeria. When Ban Ki-moon brought up the option of a referendum and stressed that MINURSO was ready to conduct it, he showed, at worst, a flagrant political agenda outside the framework of the Security Council and General Assembly, and, at best, naïvete and disregard for the complexity of the issue he was talking about and violation of his mandate.
If Ban Ki-moon and his team had done their homework properly, they would have realized that the prospects for holding a referendum have been impossible since day one. The reason for that is the failure of the Security Council to take the reservation of Morocco and the Polisario with regards to the 1991 Settlements Plan into account. Hearing Ban Ki-moon talking about referendum the way he did last week, one would think the issue preventing it is merely technical.
But as Anna Theofilopoulou, who assisted James Baker in his role as UN personal envoy between 1997-2004 said in an analysis published in 2006, the main reason behind the UN’s failure in solving the conflict is looking at the issue from a technical perspective without taking into account the political aspect of it, which is the determination of both Morocco and the Polisario to win a referendum if it were held.
“Throughout the process, the UN tried to break the impasses created by the parties through technical solutions that addressed the problem at hand without addressing the underlying political problem, which was the determination by both sides to win the referendum,” she said.
When Ban Ki-moon brought up the issue of referendum he was expressing the same wishful thinking that was expressed by the Security Council when it chose to adopt the Settlement Plan in 1991 and ignore the reservations of the parties in the hope that they would reach a compromise while the main and deciding issue was voter identification, an issue where compromise proved impossible.
In addition, as a mediator, Ban Ki-moon should remain impartial, use diplomatic language and refrain from using any language or taking actions or positions outside the established practice. When he used the term “occupation,” he departed from his impartiality and neutrality and used the language of one of the parties. Not a single UN document issued since 1980 refers to Morocco as the country that is “occupying” the Sahara.
What is more striking about the UN chief’s statement is that he never used the term occupation when referring to the Israeli-Palestinians even when countless UN documents refer to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories (occupied during the Six-Day war of June 1967), and describe Israel as the “occupying power.” The same applies to the case of Syria. While the position of the UN on Syria is known and is in favor of the departure of President Bachar Assad, Ban Ki-moon has decided to remain politically neutral and has never referred to Syria as the “Syrian regime” or “Assad regime.”
What is even worse is when Ban Ki-moon used the victory sign with his fingers while he was in the Tindouf camps. This move clearly shows what party he and his envoy stand for and why he retained Christopher Ross even after Morocco expressed its lack of confidence in him in 2012.
While making such statements in favor of the Polisario, the UN chief chose deliberately to ignore the situation of human rights in the Tindouf camps. On the eve of his trip to the camps, Human Rights Watch called on him to intervene to free Maloma Morales de Matos, Darya Embarek Selma and Nadjiba Mohamed, three Saharawi women holding Spanish citizenship, who have been held in the camps against their will since they traveled there to visit their families.
Nothing was said either about the case of Mustapha Salma Ouled Sidi Mouloud, the former head of the Polisario police, who was imprisoned then expelled from the Timdouf camps after he said in August 2010 that the Moroccan autonomy plan could be the basis for a political solution. For the past 5 years, Mustapha Salma has been living in Mauritania and deprived of the right to be considered a refugee or to visit his family.
Additionally, while UN Security Council Resolution 2218 adopted in April 2015 calls for the conduct of a census of the population in the Tindouf camps, the UN Chief has refrained from bringing up this issue in his discussions with Polisario and Algerian leaders. Worse still, Ban Ki-moon expressed his determination to call for a donor conference to provide financial assistance to the Polisario, and literally chose to ignore the report published by several UN and European entities, which implicated the Polisario and Algeria in the crime of embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined for the Tindouf population over the past four decades.
Ban Ki-moon’s statements do not manifest “courage.” Rather, they show that he has not taken his job seriously to help the parties to reach a political solution. If he had had enough courage, foresight and leadership, he could have attempted to bridge the gap between the parties and work within the scope of his mandate to help them reach the called for political solution. Since it is his last year in office, Ban Ki-moon may be tempted to think that he is free to express his opinions without due regard to the diplomatic practice and the scope of his mandate. However, the Korean diplomat should be reminded that as long as he wears the hat of the UN chief, he has the obligation to act within his diplomatic mandate, to use the language of diplomacy, and to refrain from siding with any one party in any of the conflicts in which the UN is involved.
Based on the statements made by Ban Ki-moon during his trip to the region, it is apparent that his main goal was political rather than aimed at putting an end to the conflict. No wonder no progress has been made during his two terms as UN chief. A resolution to the conflict can only be achieved when the UN is headed by someone who has deep knowledge of the geopolitical complexities and intricacies of the Maghreb and has enough courage and leadership to press ahead for a political solution that safeguards stability and equilibrium of the region.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @Samir Bennis
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