Washington D.C. – It appears that Morocco’s diplomatic strategy to mobilize support for its position on the Western Sahara is starting to bear fruit. The draft resolution the Security Council is expected to vote upon this Wednesday to renew the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, puts heavy pressure on the Polisario and calls upon it to refrain from taking any actions that might cause instability in the region.
Since the release of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ annual report on the Situation Regarding the Western Sahara on March 29, Rabat stepped up its rhetoric against the Polisario’s illegal actions in the area east of Morocco’s defense wall, including the buffer zone.
Morocco’s diplomatic offensive comes on the heels of repeated attempts by the Polisario to change the status quo of the region by erecting buildings in the region of Tifariti and Bir Lahlou – which it erroneously labels “liberated territory” – in addition to its incursions into the zone of Guerguerate in the buffer zone.
During Morocco’s discussions with members of the Security Council and the United Nations Secretariat earlier this month, Morocco’s message was clear: if the United Nations failed to uphold the terms of the 1991 ceasefire, Morocco would take all necessary steps, including the use of military force, to prevent the Polisario from gaining a foothold in the whole area east of its defense wall.
UN Heeds Morocco’s Message
Based on the language of the draft resolution, the UN appears to be taking Morocco’s calls seriously and striving to avoid an escalation of hostilities in the region. To the Polisario and Algeria’s dismay, the draft resolution not only addresses the Polisario’s incursions into the Guerguerate, but also its attempts to impose a fait accompli “liberation” of the zones of Bir Lahlou andTifariti.
Operative paragraph 2bis of the draft resolution expresses the concern of the Security Council regarding the Polisario’s violations of the ceasefire agreement and calls on the group to withdraw immediately from the Guerguerate. This paragraph echoes one of the paragraphs contained in the UNSG’s annual report on the issue in which the Secretary General called upon the Polisario to withdraw from the area.
In addition, rebuking the Polisario’s misleading statements in the media in recent years with regards to the so-called “liberated territories,” the Security Council expresses in paragraph 2ter its concern about the Polisario’s intention to relocate part of its administrative operations from the Tindouf camps to Bir Lahlou and calls on the separatist movement to “refrain from any such destabilizing actions.”
Call for more Algerian involvement
On the other hand, the draft resolution adds a new paragraph in which it calls on neighboring states (Algeria and Mauritania) to increase their contribution to the UN-led political process.
Operative paragraph 8bis “calls upon the neighboring states to increase their engagement in the negotiating process and to fulfill their special and essential role in supporting the political process.”
While this paragraph echoes the recommendation contained in the UNSG’s report in which he called for an increase role of Algeria in the political process, retaining it in the final version of the resolution would constitute a diplomatic victory for Morocco which has long called on the UN to view Algeria as full-fledged party in the political process.
Morocco has always considered the dispute over the Western Sahara a result of a historic misunderstanding that was created in part following the Sand War of 1963 in which the Moroccan army humiliated its Algerian counterpart. The war, which broke out following Algeria’s refusal to redraw the borders of the two countries after its independence in 1962, left an indelible mark in the memory of the current political elite governing the country.
There is unanimity in Morocco and among scholars around the world that the dispute will not be resolved if Algeria is not involved. In a letter that King Mohammed VI sent to the UNSG earlier this month, he emphasized Algeria’s prominent role in the prolongation of the Western Sahara conflict: “It is Algeria that hosts, arms, backs up, and brings diplomatic support for the Polisario.”
New Push for Morocco’s Efforts Toward Realistic Solution
As if these paragraphs were not enough for the Polisario, additional new language in the draft resolution buttresses Morocco’s position and manifests the dynamics of the discussions within the Security Council. Operative paragraph 1bis of the draft resolution calls on the parties to work towards a “realistic and practicable” resolution that can be implemented on the ground.
The Security Council “emphasizes the need to make progress towards a realistic and practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise and the importance of aligning the strategic focus on MINURSO and orienting resources of the United Nations to this end.”
If this text stands and is approved as is on Wednesday, the Polisario will suffer a blow, signalling a shift in the Security Council’s approach. This would be the first time since Resolution 1754 of 2007 that the Security Council has called upon the parties in such an unequivocal way to work towards reaching a realistic solution to the territorial dispute. And this would be the first time that the adjectives “realistic” and “practicable” have been used in any such resolution.
Ever since Morocco presented its Autonomy Proposal to the Security Council in April 2007, it has repeatedly emphasized that autonomy exercised within Morocco’s sovereignty is the most it can offer to extricate the dispute from the current political impasse. Meanwhile, the Polisario has clung to its position that any solution to the conflict must be achieved through a referendum of self-determination with the option of independence on the table. This option was deemed unrealistic by the former UNSG Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum, who said in an interview to Spanish newspaper El Pais in August 2008 that the establishment of a new state in southern Morocco was unrealistic.
The second striking point in this paragraph is the emphasis on MINURSO’s need to “align its strategic focus and orient its resources to that end.” This language suits Morocco’s interests. For the past 10 years, there has been a heated debate between Morocco and the UN Secretariat on MINURSO’s mandate. This debate reached unprecedented levels when Morocco moved to expel the civilian component of MINURSO in April 2016 following the controversial statement made by former UNSG, Ban Ki-moon, in which he described Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as “occupation.”
Although the UN mission was tasked with overseeing the ceasefire and organizing the referendum within 24 weeks after its establishment in September 1991, after it had failed to do so over a 15-year period, Morocco stressed on numerous occasions that MINURSO’s mandate no longer involves organizing a referendum, but overseeing compliance with the ceasefire agreement. For this reason, Morocco lacked any enthusiasm for allowing MINURSO to restore its civilian component to full functionality. The language of this paragraph appears to validate Morocco’s position that the UN should reconsider MINURSO’s mandate and reorient its resources.
The Trump administration’s announcement in February that it would cut its financial contributions to a number of UN peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and North Africa, including MINURSO, bears out the supposition that the Security Council may be moving toward limiting MINURSO’s mandate to oversee the ceasefire. The Administration plans to cut its contribution to MINURSO by more than half, with a decrease from $18.4 million to $8.4 million. “MINURSO may achieve slight efficiencies in civilian staffing as well as a light reduction in the force,” stated the State Department in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019.
Given the Trump administration’s insistence that the UN improve its effectiveness and conduct an audit of the allocation of its resources, it is very likely that MINURSO’s civilian component, which was the one tasked with organizing the referendum, will be adversely affected by the American budget cut.
Russia might break the consensus
However positive the draft resolution may be, its adoption as is may prove an uphill battle both for Morocco and its allies within the Security Council, chief of which is France. While the United States, the drafter of the resolution, seems to be leaning in favor of Morocco, opposition to language that is favorable to Morocco may come from Russia, as well as from Bolivia.
Russia undermined the consensus of the Security Council in April 2016 when it abstained from voting in favor of renewing the mandate of MINURSO. Additionally, it played a prominent role along with Uruguay and Bolivia last year in blocking the Security Council’s efforts to adopt a strong resolution against the Polisario’s incursions into the Guerguerate. Most of the discussions that prolonged negotiations over last’s year resolution were related to Russia’s concerns that the draft resolution was too favorable to Morocco. This time around, unless the Americans and Russians reach an agreement regarding the language of the resolution, the same scenario as last year may be played out, with the result being a more watered down resolution.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis