UN Report: Will Guterres Adopt a New Approach on Western Sahara

UN Report: Will Guterres Adopt a New Approach on Western Sahara

Samir Bennis
High Commissioner António Guterres meets Saharawi women on his way to a UNHCR-funded project in Tindouf.

Rabat – The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, released the UN’s annual report on the situation in the Western Sahara on Monday. Like every year, Moroccans had anxiously awaited the report, eager to see if it would contain recommendations in line with Morocco’s interests.

This sense of anxious expectation prompted many Moroccans, both specialists and casual observers, to make hasty conclusions that for the most part were based neither on a careful reading of the report nor a comparison with previous reports. This hastiness led to inaccuracies that cast a sort of blurriness on public discussions and made the task of understanding, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from the report all the more difficult.

In every report by the Secretary-General, what matters most is the section devoted to recommendations. This is what the Security Council takes into consideration when drafting the resolution submitted to the vote of its 15 members.

Three significant points

It can be argued that the report came to some extent in favor of Morocco, as it contained three significant points in the recommendations section that go against the aspirations of the Polisario.

The first is that the Secretary-General did not recommend expanding the prerogatives of the MINURSO to include human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps. In addition, while last year’s report submitted by Ban Ki-moon alluded to the alleged exploitation of human resources and reiterated his call on all relevant actors to “recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount,” this year’s report does not include such mention in its recommendations.

This can be considered a setback for the Polisario and its backer Algeria, especially since the separatist front’s latest gesticulations in Guerguerat and its refusal to withdraw from the region were intended to pressure the Secretary-General into mentioning the question of natural resources and human rights in his report.

What’s more, the UN chief called on the Security Council to press the Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat. “Recognizing that the current situation risks a breakdown of the ceasefire regime,” Guterres wrote in his report, “I ask the Security Council to urge Frente Polisario also to withdraw from the Buffer Strip in Guerguerat fully and unconditionally.”

In the likely case that the Security Council includes a paragraph calling on the Polisario to withdraw its forces from Guerguerat in its upcoming resolution on the conflict, the separatist front will find itself in direct confrontation with and in defiance of the Security Council.

Conversely, the report praised Morocco’s decision to withdraw from Guerguerat last February immediately after the Secretary-General called for such a withdrawal.

Third, and most importantly, the recommendation calling on the parties to work out a mutually acceptable political solution did not include the phrase “which provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”, unlike the previous report Rather, the report directed the parties to engage in serious negotiations “with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable political solution that includes resolution of the dispute over the ultimate status of Western Sahara, including through agreement on the nature and form of exercise of self-determination.”

The definition of the term “self-determination” and the outcome of the political process has been a bone of contention between Morocco and the Polisario. While Morocco argues that it can offer at most an increased autonomy within its sovereignty, the Polisario insists that negotiations on a mutually acceptable solution must keep the option of independence on the table.

It is still early to conclude whether this report’s more-nuanced language signals a departure by the UN from its fixation on the idea that self-determination must necessarily lead to independence. But the fact that the new UN chief has chosen to use this language in his first annual report is very significant.

Assigning Blame in Guerguerat

In the first part of the report (paragraphs 2 to 21), the Secretary-General gave an account of the events that unfolded in the region since last April, including the tension in Guerguerat. The positive detail in his narrative of events is that he did not conclude, in the second paragraph of the report, that Morocco sent members of its armed forces to Guerguerat when it decided last August 14 to begin paving the road linking the southern provinces of the Kingdom and Mauritania.

As the report noted that this operation was carried out without the participation of the Royal Armed Forces, this could be considered a tacit conclusion by the Secretary-General that Morocco had not violated the cease-fire agreement.

Conversely, the Secretary-General wrote that the Polisario responded to Morocco’s move in the region by sending armed elements to prevent the paving of the road. He added that the Polisario claimed that the armed elements it had set up close to the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie belonged to the “National Gendarmerie”. The Secretary-General’s use of quotation marks when mentioning the Polisario’s “National Gendarmerie” implies that he is convinced that it is Polisario that breached the cease-fire agreement, and that it is the one responsible for the tension in the region since last August.

Inaccurate Reports

However, contrary to what has been circulating in some news websites and on social media, the report did not mention links between the Polisario and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Instead, it merely pointed out that a cell affiliated with ISIS threatened to attack Morocco and MINURSO forces. Nor did the report single out the Polisario and state clearly that it breached the cease-fire eight times, as many have claimed. The word cease-fire was mentioned 19 times in the report, but nowhere did it state that Morocco or the Polisario violated the ceasefire. Rather, it gave an account of the events of the past months and said that the tensions in Guerguerat were threatening the ceasefire agreement. From there, the report called on the Security Council to force Polisario to withdraw its forces from Guerguerat.

On the other hand, what might appear surprising is that, unlike in previous years, the issue of the census of the population in the Tindouf camps was not raised in the recommendations, but was rather mentioned incidentally in another section of the report.

It is important to note that the reference to Algeria in the recommendations section is not new and was also brought up in last year’s report. Guterres’ report did not emphasize, however, that Algeria is a direct party to the conflict, no did it recommend the country’s full participation in a political solution. Instead, it merely noted that Algeria and Mauritania should contribute to the political process.

Morocco has long called on the UN to consider Algeria a fully-fledged party in the political process, but its calls have fallen on deaf ears. Although the report mentions Algeria for the second year and urged it to contribute to finding a solution, it fell short of designating it as full participant in the conflict.

Regardless of how positive the language of the report might seem for Morocco, what will matter eventually is the language of the Security Council resolution to be adopted at the end of April. It is now up to Moroccan diplomats to make sure that the the resolution includes provisions echoing Guterres’ call for the Polisario to unconditionally withdraw from Guerguerat. Moreover, they must stress that the most realistic path to an end of the conflict is through a mutually acceptable solution. The ball is in Morocco’s court.

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