Ross on his tenure as UN envoy for Western Sahara: “I lobbied for genuine negotiations. Because of the rigidity of both parties, these never occurred.”
Rabat – Christopher Ross, the US diplomat and former UN envoy for Western Sahara, has strongly denied any links with the Polisario Front. In the eight years Ross held the envoy position, he repeatedly stirred controversies in Morocco for appearing to lobby for separatism in Western Sahara.
Instead, the American diplomat says he was a “strictly neutral mediator” who wanted to pave the way for “genuine negotiations,” only failing to do so because neither Morocco nor the separatist front would relent on their legitimacy claims over the disputed territory.
In an emailed statement to Morocco World News following reports that he and a group of students from Princeton University are visiting the Tindouf camps and set to meet with Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, Ross said the reports “misrepresented” the context and purpose of the visit.
‘I am NOT a lobbyist’
Citing pro-Polisario news outlet Futuro Sahara, which reported on the visit as an implicit validation of Polisario claims, MWN’s piece suggested that the news—especially the meeting with the Polisario leader and other senior separatist officials—was proof of Ross’s longtime affinity for Algeria and Polisario.
Ross rejected that reading, however, explaining that his only role during the visit was to use his Algerian connections—being well-connected in Algeria after serving there as US ambassador—to facilitate the research trip of a group of Princeton graduate students studying Western Sahara.
“I am NOT a lobbyist, and I had nothing to do with the organization of the visit. A class of graduate students from Princeton University is studying western Sahara as a case study of a frozen conflict,” he explained.
“Half of the group is visiting Algeria and the Sahrawi refugee camps, and the other half is visiting Rabat and Laayoune. Princeton University asked me to accompany the group going to Algeria to facilitate introductions and ensure their wellbeing. The students managed their own agenda and their own meetings. I was present but was not an active participant.”
While serving as the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara between 2009-2017, Ross found himself at odds with Morocco, which consistently perceived him as a pro-Polisario voice, and therefore unreliable broker for the Western Sahara conflict.
In 2013, the suspicion gained particular traction in Rabat and in Morocco-friendly circles at the UN after a US-drafted MINURSO resolution included a human rights monitoring clause in the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara.
Morocco quickly responded, seeing the move as implicitly legitimating one prevailing separatist claim that the Moroccan regime is the main culprit of human rights violations in the disputed regions. Rabat expressed its concerns with the Security Council, urging the UN body to steer clear of a biased framing in its reports and resolutions on the conflict.
A ‘strictly neutral mediator’
With Ross serving at the time as UN envoy, therefore the international community’s main contact point in Western Sahara, the logical conclusion for Rabat was that the US-drafted document was essentially engineered by Ross. That episode, coupled with the existing perception in Rabat that Ross was more a Polisario sympathizer than a reliable mediator, led Rabat to subsequently declare Ross persona non grata.
In Ross’s telling, however, the Moroccan government was unnecessarily hard on him.
One point stands out in Ross’s rather muscular denial of his alleged association with Polisario in the Western Sahara standstill: He wants his legacy as UN envoy for Western Sahara to be cleared from the “pro-Polisario lobbyist” label.
“Morocco’s problem with me was NOT that I was allegedly pro-Algerian or pro-Polisario, despite what its government claims. It was that I was not pro-Moroccan. And for Moroccans, if you’re not with them, you must be against them. This was simply not true.”
Most importantly still, Ross told MWN that he had nothing remotely to do with the inclusion of the human rights monitoring clause in the MINURSO mandate.
“The initiative to add human rights to the MINURSO mandate in 2013 was introduced by a senior US official and came as a complete surprise to me. I was not consulted or forewarned,” he wrote.
The past months have been marked by a resurgence of hope in the UN-led political process in Western Sahara. In just two years, Horst Kohler, the UN envoy who was appointed after Ross resigned in 2017, is largely believed to have revitalized the UN mediation in Western Sahara.
Kohler resigned in May of this year citing health reasons. Months after his resignation, however, UN diplomats continue to invoke his legacy, which they insist constitutes a “new momentum” after decades of failed attempts to bring all the conflicting parties to the same table
While Kohler’s unprecedented success may implicitly vindicate Rabat’s point that, after all, Ross’s partiality may have prevented him from being as effective as Kohler, the American is adamant that he did deploy his best efforts to bring the parties to a common ground. The only reason he failed to do that, he emphasized, was the conflicting parties’ “rigid” positions on what they believe is the way out of the decades-long stalemate.
“As a mediator, I was strictly neutral. I did not to lobby for autonomy or for a referendum. I lobbied for genuine negotiations. Because of the rigidity of both parties, these never occurred — and have not occurred to this day.”