For Morocco, Ross’ tenure as UN Personal Envoy for Western Sahara was marked by a lack of neutrality and a clear alignment with the Algerian agenda.
Rabat – Four years after his resignation as the UN personal envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross will accompany a group of students to the Tindouf camps in Algeria, to meet with the leadership of the Polisario Front later this week.
The former US ambassador to Algeria, joining students from the University of Princeton in New Jersey will meet with the Polisario Front leader Ibrahim Ghali on October 31.
The students’ visit, beginning on October 30, coincides with the UN Security Council’s vote on whether, and for how long, to extend the mission of the UN peacekeeping operation in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO.
Pro-Polisario news outlet Futuro Sahara has shared a printed agenda of the visit, released by Polisario “officials.” While half of the students are visiting Algeria, the other half of the student group is visiting Rabat and Laayoune.
Ross held the post of the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy from 2009 to 2015. His tenure was marked by a lack of progress, despite holding several informal meetings between officials from Morocco and representatives of the Polisario Front.
Unlike Horst Kohler, who recently resigned as UN envoy after spearheading what has unanimously been lauded as “a new momentum” in the UN-led process in Western Sahara, Ross’s perceived failure to remain impartial led to a standstill in negotiations.
Was Ross pro-Polisario?
While the role of UN envoy calls for neutrality and tact, from the beginning of Ross’s appointment in 2009, Morocco saw the new envoy as having a bias towards the Algerian agenda, and, therefore, that of the Polisario Front.
Ross, who served as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988-1991, lacked the “objectivity” and “neutrality” needed in observations and recommendations to the UN, in the view of the Moroccan government.
Based on its perception of Ross’s pro-Polisario inclination, Morocco suspected the American diplomat was using his position as UN envoy to effectively lobby against Morocco’s territorial integrity.
Suspicions of bias gained further momentum in 2013 in Rabat after Washington’s proposal to extend the mission of the UN peacekeeping operation, known as MINURSO, included a clause on human rights monitoring in Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps.
The implicit suggestion that Morocco caused alleged human rights abuses, drew an immediate response from Rabat. Morocco responded to the lack of neutrality by calling on the Security Council to maintain an impartial position on the conflict. Rabat urged the Security Council to seriously consider monitoring that could stagnate the UN-led political process.
Another impediment to progress was that Ross repeatedly insisted on meeting Moroccan officials in the province of Laayoune in Western Sahara during his tenure, a move that Morocco categorically rejected.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Salah Eddine Mezouar responded by saying that although Morocco respects the UN envoy, the government would not hold its tongue if Ross were to act beyond his mission.
“We explained to him and he understands,” Mezouar said at the time.
A deliberate gap in the agenda
Ross’s upcoming three-day visit to Tindouf will not include any meetings with Sahrawis living in the camps, according to the self-proclaimed SADR’s agenda.
Ross, along with the students, will meet with several “officials” from the camps. The students are set to hear from the Polisario “minister of defense” as well as NGOs in the camps. According to the agenda, the students will also meet with MINURSO members. Ross’s presence in the students’ meeting with Ghali will take place on the second day of his visit.
However, the published agenda makes no mention of talks with the Sahrawi populations, widely reported to be living in inhumane conditions in the camps.
A recent report from the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, shone a light on the living conditions within the camps. The UN official drew particular attention to the prevalence of malnutrition and disease among the population.
The lack of interaction between the students and the Sahrawi population could be a deliberate gap in the SADR agenda.
The Polisario leadership’s hiding of the living conditions in the camps from the students plays into their carefully crafted image as “protectors” of the Sahrawis, rather than those responsible for the alleged abuses and inhumane conditions prevalent within the camps.
Manipulating the narrative
Earlier this month, a former founding member of Polisario, Mustafa Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud, spoke out about the Polisario Front’s violations during the guerilla war in Western Sahara in the 1970s.
He narrated his experiences of the Polisario’s forced kidnappings of Sahrawis from their homes in Western Sahara to the Tindouf camps.
It was not only inhabitants of the territory who fell victim to the Polisario’s forced relocations. The separatist front also kidnapped hundreds of Moroccan officials and military officers, describing them as “prisoners of war” or POWs.
Thousands of testimonies highlighted the struggle of the Moroccans kidnapped by the Polisario during the guerilla war.
In his 2009 book “Allah’s Garden,” former Peace Corps member Thomas Hollowell, through first-hand testimonies, depicted gruesome scenes from the conflict and the struggle of Moroccan prisoners.
Hollowell narrated the story of Azeddine Benmansour, a young, recently-graduated medical doctor who was held for more than 20 years as a POW in a camp run by the Polisario Front.
Benmansour witnessed the killing of wounded Moroccan soldiers and narrated the pain and everyday challenges of the Moroccan survivors at the mercy of the Polisario.
Benmansour also spoke to Hollowell about the Polisario Front’s tactics when trying to hide the human rights violations from international NGOs visiting the POW camp.
The doctor said that the Polisario forced prisoners to shower and gave them clean clothes to appear in good shape in front of the cameras. They would also allow them, for the sake of the cameras, to play football as propaganda for the Polisario.
However, the POW prisoner emphasized, behind the separatist front’s sympathy-grabbing narratives, there lurks a gulf of oppression, distress, and silencing.