New York – The United Nations has witnessed intense consultations in recent weeks following the unprecedented tension between Morocco and the UN Secretariat as a result of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s recent controversial statements against Morocco.
While on a trip to the Tindouf camps last March, the UN chief described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as “occupation” in a complete departure from the customary UN language and relevant UN resolutions concerning the issue. This statement, coupled with Ban Ki-moon’s sudden and inexplicable bias against Morocco regarding the question of the Sahara, resulted in Rabat’s decision to expel the civilian component of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) from the Western Sahara.
Ban Ki-moon’s statements are unprecedented in that this is the first time a sitting UNSG has described Morocco as an occupier in the territory. In addition, the remarks constitute a violation of his mandate since not a single UN resolution describes Morocco’s presence in the Sahara as “occupation.”
Amid this tension, the UN Secretary General is scheduled to submit his annual report to the Security Council on “the situation concerning Western Sahara” on Friday April 8. Moroccan and foreign observers alike are wondering to what extent Ban Ki-moon will try to reflect his new-found support for the separatist agenda—conducting a referendum in Western Sahara without a mutually acceptable agreement and parameters—in his upcoming report.
Will he attempt to paint negative picture of Morocco? Will he succeed in convincing the Security Council of the needto reconsider the political process it initiated in 2007? Will he openly push for a referendum on full independence of the territory not with standing the views of one of the principal parties to the dispute, i.e. Morocco? What are the chances that Ban Ki-moon will impose his personal view on the conflict and what is Morocco’s room for maneuver to halthis attempts?
In order to have a clear understanding of the deliberations that are awaiting Morocco in the weeks ahead, one should be mindful of the meetings that the Security Council held last month on the recent developments in the personal dispute between the UN chief and Rabat.
Perhaps the conclusion that can be drawn from this first round of arms-wresting is Ban Ki-moon’s failure to get the backing of the Security Council. A careful analysis of the deliberations that have been held so far shows how he failed to obtain the political support he was hoping for.
Ban Ki-moon Relies on Angola to Garner Support for Him
After the first exceptional meeting of the Security Council on March 17, during which the 15-member body failed to reach a consensus on expressing support for the Secretary General, Angola, one of the few countries that recognize the self-proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proposed a draft presidential statement. The wording of the draft text was hostile to Morocco in that it called on the Council to provide full support for the Secretary-General, his personal Envoy and the head of MINURSO.
However, Angola’s attempts did not receive the consensus of all Council members. The draft statement was rejected by France, Egypt, Senegal and Spain. In particular, the delegations of Egypt and France played a major role in aborting this project. The Egyptian delegation called for the removal of the paragraph that expresses the Council’s support for Secretary-General. This position was also supported by Senegal, which called for further action on the draft statement and proposed to add a sentence in which the Security Council would express support for Morocco as well.
On March 23, Angola returned with a second version of its draft. While it took into account some of the amendments proposed by Egypt, it retained language similar to the first version. However, the second draft again did not receive the backing of all members of the Council. France, Egypt, Senegal and Spain stressed that the adoption of such a statement might escalate tensions between Morocco and the UN Secretariat.
After Angola’s failed attempts, New Zealand proposed a more neutral draft statement. The new text contained no expression of support for Ban Ki-moon, while it retained some of the revised paragraphs of the Angola’s earlier draft resolution, including the expression of concern at the departure of the civilian component of MINURSO.
The Pivotal Role Played by France
While nearly two-thirds of the members of the Council did not oppose the draft resolution submitted by New Zealand, the issue of timing was raised by France, Egypt, and Senegal, who asked to wait until after Morocco’s Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar held a consultative meeting with political parties.
Following the meeting, the Moroccan chief diplomat said that Morocco’s decision regarding MINURSO was “sovereign and irreversible.” The statement did nothing to change the positions of the members of the Council, making it even harder for its members to agree on a consensual draft statement.
Faced with the impossibility of adopting a draft statement, the Council decided to settle for presenting “elements to the press” on the ongoing crisis.
One of the major factors that has played in Morocco’s favor is France’s opposition to any action or statement that would suggest that the Security Council supports the Secretary-General against Morocco or might put pressure on Rabat or jeopardize its interests. In fact, one of the conclusions that can be drawn from March’s meetings is the central role that Paris has played in preventing the Security Council from expressing support for Ban Ki-moon, reaffirmingFrance’s continuedsupport of Morocco regarding the question of Western Sahara.
Ban Ki-moon Isolated
During the deliberations that were held last March, Morocco succeeded in isolating Ban Ki-moon. By aborting all attempts to push the members of the Council to adopt a presidential or even a press statement, Morocco has inflicted a diplomatic defeat on Ban Ki-moon. While presidential and press statements have a political dimension in that they remainon the UN record, “press elements” do not stay in official UN records. This difference shows that Ban Ki-moon has suffered one of the largestsetbacks of his diplomatic career and explains why he expressed disappointment with the Security Council’s position.
What is even more interesting is that there has been an ongoing disappointment among a number of influential member states at the way in which he had handled his tension with Morocco. This might indicate why Ban Ki-moon won’t succeed in convincing the Security Council to conduct a comprehensive overview of the political process set out in Resolution 1754.
Many in the United Nations believe that Ban Ki-moon’s statements against Rabat have distracted the Security Council from more pressing issues that threaten international peace and security, including the Syrian civil war and its subsequent refugee crisis, the ongoing crises in Yemen and Libya, the fight against terrorism and other sensitive issues.
The Security Council to Maintain the Current Political Framework
In light of the foregoing, it appears that the dynamics of deliberations of the Council are in favor of Morocco.It is unlikely that Ban Ki-moon will impose his personal views on the conflict nor prompt a change in the political process inaugurated in April 2007. In all likelihood, the Security Council will renew MINURSO’s mandate for an additional period without changing the current parameters of negotiations.
What remain unclear, however, is whether the Council will renew it for one year or less. The Council might consider renewing MINURSO’s mandate for six months and call on the parties to enter in direct talks, following which it will assess the progress achieved and decide on the approach that should be followed to bridge the gap between them. The Security Council calling on Morocco to allow the return of MINURSO’s civilian component is another possible scenario.
The statement made last Friday by the Chinese Ambassador, whose country has assumed the chairmanship of the Security Council this month, sent a tacit message to the parties that the members of the Council have no willingness to escalate tension between Morocco and the United Nations but seek to renew MINURSO’s mandate “without complications.”
There is no doubt that the situation could have gotten out of hand if Morocco did not have good relations with the most influential members of the Security Council, and if its standing at the global and regional levels were weaker than it is today.
In light of the balanced relations Morocco maintains with the five veto-wielding countries, along with the major role it plays in global issues such as the global fight against terrorism, illegal immigration, organized crime, climate change, it appears unlikely that the Security Council would be tempted to deviate from the current political process or impose a new approach that could jeopardize Morocco’s de facto sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
A shorter version of this article was published on the New Arab
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @Samir Bennis