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Appointment of New Head of MINURSO Raises Concerns about UN Approach in Western Sahara

Appointment of New Head of MINURSO Raises Concerns about UN Approach in Western Sahara

Rabat – The appointment of Canadian Colin Stewart as head of the MINURSO is putting Morocco on its guards.

Stewart’s former position as the UN’s Acting Chief of Staff and Chief of Political Affairs in Timor-Leste is raising concerns about a similar approach to that of his predecessors on the Western Sahara issue.

“I wonder what criteria the United Nations Secretary General has used in appointing his new head of MINURSO,” a UN staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Morocco World News.

Stewart’s profile is an interesting one. While the diplomat has extensively worked with the UN, it is his 10 years’ mission in Timor-Leste that is raising many questions on the Moroccan side.

“Knowing the experience of Stewart, it makes one wonder whether the appointment of someone who has experience in Timor-Leste is the appropriate person to lead MINURSO at this juncture, knowing the differences that existed between Timor-Leste and the Western Sahara,” adds MWN’s source.

The history of East Timor and how it came to independence is a “life-altering” one, as Stewart described it in an interview with The Globe and Mail back in 2002, but it is a very different one from that of the Sahara.

As Moroccan political analyst, Samir Bennis, put in one of his articles about the topic, “while Timor-Leste was under Portuguese sovereignty from the 16th century until 1975 when it was invaded and taken over by Indonesia, Western Sahara was under Moroccan sovereignty until the end of the 19th century.”

“Morocco’s claim to sovereignty is supported by historical (colonial) records and a number of international agreements, such as the accord signed between Morocco and the United Kingdom in March 1895, in which the British government acknowledges that the Sahara belonged to Morocco.”

According Bennis, another factor demonstrating the absence of similarities between the two cases is linguistic, religious, and ethnic unity among the regions. There is a linguistic, religious, and ethnic unity between the rest of Morocco’s territory and the Sahara: Saharawis are a mixture of Arabs and Amazigh, are Muslims and speak Arabic and Berber in addition to the Hassani language. Such similarities did not exist between Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

While Indonesia is a Muslim country, the population of Timor-Leste is predominantly catholic, making the country after its independence the second largest Roman Catholic country in Asia after the Philippines. Likewise, as to the language, while Indonesia’s language is Indonesian, the two main languages used in Timor-Leste are Portuguese and Tetum.

“What raises more questions about the pertinence of this choice is that the appointment of a new head of MINURSO who served in Timor-Leste comes amid reports that the UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara [Christopher Kohler] is allegedly leaning towards proposing some sort of commonwealth or federation under which the Western Sahara would have its own constitution.” reveals our source.

“While the latest Security Council resolution adopted last April seemed to give preeminence to the Moroccan autonomy plan, it remains to be seen what orientation the UN Secretary General [Antonio Guterres] will give to his mediation efforts now that the MINURSO will be headed by personality who served in UN mission that led to a different outcome from the one called for Morocco,” explains the UN member.

“The upcoming UNSG report scheduled to be released in April 2018 will be critical in shedding a cleared light on the new orientation that the Guterres will give to the conflict,” concludes our source.

Legitimate concerns?

Morocco has often questioned the criteria governing the choice of certain UN officials to take control of the UN mission in the Sahara. Seeing the past of Stewart and his pressed actors, Canadian Kim Bolduc and German Weisbrod-Weber, all whom served in the organization of referendums of independence in East Timor (August 30, 1999) or in South Sudan (January 2011), Morocco’s concerns might be in the right place after all.

Weisbrod-Weber had overseen the popular consultation in the former province of Indonesia as Chief of Staff at the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste. Stewart also worked for the United Nations in the Political Affairs Division from 1999 to 2009 as an analyst specializing in Timor-Leste and Indonesia. This experience has paved the way for him to be appointed, from January 2011 to March 2016, Deputy Head of the United Nations Office at the African Union.

Knowing that Weisbrod-Weber has never set foot in Rabat during his position as head of MINURSO during his tenure, and Bolduc barely visited the capital once, while both had made numerous visits to the Tindouf camps, will Stewart take the same route?

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