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Does Ban Ki-moon’s Report Herald a Shift in UN’s Approach on Western Sahara

Ban Ki-moon

New York – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has submitted the advanced copy of his annual report on the “Situation Concerning the Western Sahara” to the Security Council.

The 25-page report, which is expected to be officially released later this week, has been eagerly anticipated as it comes against the backdrop of an unprecedented friction between the UN chief and Morocco following the former’s controversial statement in which he described the latter’s presence in the Western Sahara as “occupation.”

Prior to the release of the report, observers feared that the report’s unusual delay augured a new episode of tension between Rabat and the UN chief. In fact, in light of the Secretary-General’s arms-wrestling with Morocco following his remarks, it was expected that the report would be critical of, or even biased against, Morocco. Apparently, the backlash caused by his stance against Morocco turned out to be more than what the UN chief had expected. So was Morocco’s firm position and the support it received from the Security Council, which apparently prompted Ban Ki-moon’s half-apology to Morocco last month and later resulted in his moderate report.

With the exception of the many paragraphs where he talks about the situation of human rights in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps where Ban Ki-moon shows his bias in favor of the Polisario, in the section reserved to “observations and recommendations” the UN chief has chosen his words carefully to give the impression that he does not side any party in the conflict. Overall, the report follows the same methods of previous reports. After describing the recent developments on the ground and the activities of MINURSO, the report contains a section in which the Secretary General expresses his observations and recommendations to the Security Council ahead of the adoption of the new resolution to renew MINURSO’s mandate for one year until April 30, 2017.

One of the most striking elements of the report is Ban Ki-moon’s emphasis that his statement was not meant to be hostile to Morocco or to side with the Polisario. That the UN chief takes the unusual measure of starting his report by referring to his statements and attempting to clarify his position indicates that he has been under heavy pressure from influential members of the Security Council to put an end to his friction with Morocco.

Morocco succeeds to put pressure on the other side

The second interesting point of the report is Ban Ki-moon’s call on the Security Council to ensure the return of MINURSO’s civilian component, which Morocco had asked to leave last month following Ban’s statements, and the necessity of enabling it to fully discharge its duties in line with its mandate established by the relevant resolutions adopted since its establishment in 1991.

Because of the new dynamic in the conflict caused by Ban Ki-moon’s uncalculated statement in March, the UN is no longer seeking to add any prerogatives to MINURSO, such as the monitoring of human rights in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps– something that Ban Ki-moon’s personal envoy, Christopher Ross, has striven to do in recent years. In this regard, one can safely say that Morocco has made a diplomatic stride by putting pressure on the other side.

In recent years, Morocco insisted that MINURSO’s mandate is limited to “monitoring the ceasefire and military matters, as well as demining and for UNHCR’s confidence-building measures.” For Morocco, since the prospects for holding a referendum on self-determination have proved elusive, MINURSO can no longer be entrusted with this mission. Morocco’s decision to expel the UN mission’s civilian component stems from this position.

Following this decision, Morocco has obliged the United Nations to open a debate on the attributions of its mission in the Western Sahara. If in the next two weeks Morocco succeeds in not allowing the return of MINURSO’s civilian component, this will indicate that the UN is gearing towards abandoning its long-standing fixation on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to the independence of Western Sahara.

Ban Ki-moon’s calls for an agreement on the nature and form of self-determination

This leads to another striking point in Ban Ki-moon’s report. As in his previous report, he expressed his concern that the political process initiated by virtue of Resolution 1754 of 2007 did not pave the way towards reaching the called-for mutually acceptable political solution.

In this regard, he repeated the same language he used in his previous report regarding the need for the parties to engage in serious negotiations without pre-conditions and in good faith in order to reach “a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” However, unlike his previous reports, Ban makes it clear for the first time that a solution on the final status of the territory should be sought through “an agreement on the nature and form of the exercise of self-determination.”

This language is very different from the recommendation that Ban  made in his 2014 report when he called for conducting a comprehensive review of the political process initiated in 2007. Not only did the UN chief not repeat the same recommendation, which seemed to motivate his controversial statement in March, but he also included a new element that has hitherto never been part of the negotiations.

That Ban Ki-moon calls on the Security Council to push the involved parties to agree on the nature and form of self-determination is a tacit indication that he might be initiating a new shift in the UN’s approach on the conflict. Since the adoption of the Settlement Plan in 1991, the UN focused on achieving a solution by a means of a referendum with the option of independence of the Sahara among the envisaged outcomes.

Despite Morocco’s repeated calls on the UN to show more realism and abide by the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1754, which calls for finding a mutually acceptable political solution, the UN has shown no sign of changing its failed approach. However, with the recent friction between Morocco and the UN Secretariat, it appears that Ban Ki-moon has been under pressure to initiate a shift in the UN policy on the issue. It is still early, however, to know whether or not  this is a new maneuver from Ban Ki-moon to call on the Security Council to consider an approach that is different from the autonomy plan proposed by Morocco.

Calling for an agreement on the nature and form of self-determination is tantamount to acknowledging that a referendum with the option of independence is no longer viewed as a possible outcome for the conflict. That being said, one should note that by departing from the classical interpretations of self-determination that prevailed in the 1960’s, the UN is not failing to comply with international law. According to UN General Assembly resolution 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970, self-determination can be achieved through “the establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people.”

Need to abort discussions on federal system

Yet, discussions behind closed doors have revealed the prospect that the United Nations might gear towards proposing a different form of solution, i.e. a federation between Morocco and its southern territory. However, Moroccan authorities should strive to prevent the United Nations from going down this road. If the federal system can work in different contexts, especially in Europe, it is not a panacea that can be applied worldwide, more so in the Arab world. In the Moroccan case, accepting the federal system would be tantamount to relinquishing the territory in few decades.

The autonomy plan proposed by Morocco in April 2007 offers one of the conditions for self-determination, which is autonomy. Whether the UN will adopt the Moroccan proposal as a possible solution remains unclear and will depend on how Morocco plays its hand in the near future. However, it appears that the UN is moving towards adopting a new approach in dealing with the Western Sahara conflict.

Following the latest row between Morocco and the UN chief, things will not be the same. If Ban Ki-moon’s statements were intended to impose a new approach on Morocco, they ended up helping cement Morocco’s position and redefine the parameters of the political process in the years ahead.

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 @SamirBennis

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