If this move goes undeterred, Polisario might feel emboldened and decide that the time is ripe for it to transfer its administrative facilities to the buffer zone.
Washington DC – In a move that clearly violates the spirit and principles of the UN-led political process, the ceasefire agreement, the Military Agreement 1, and UN Security Council resolutions, the Polisario Front held its 15th congress in Tifariti, in the buffer zone in Western Sahara, on December 20-23.
The boldness of Polisario’s move, its disregard for the UN political process, and the silence of the United Nations cast uncertainty about the future of the political process and raise serious questions about the impartiality of UN personnel involved in the day-to-day management of the territorial dispute.
Morocco should ask the UN for clarifications
Morocco needs to move quickly and ask the United Nations for clarifications regarding the UN’s failure to fulfill its obligations in Western Sahara under the 1991 ceasefire agreement and the provisions of the Security Council resolutions, especially resolutions 2414 and 2440, 2468 and 2494.
In Resolution 2414, the Security Council expressed concern about the presence of Polisario in the buffer zone of Guerguerat and called for Polisario’s withdrawal from the region. The Security Council also called for Polisario to refrain from transferring any administrative facilities to Bir Lahlou.
Additionally, Resolution 2440 called on the parties to refrain from any actions that could undermine the political process and specifically called on Polisario to “adhere fully to its commitments to the Personal Envoy in respect of Bir Lahlou, Tifariti and the buffer strip at Guerguerat.”
Morocco should also urge the UN to clarify the circumstances of MINURSO mission representatives attending a congress held by the Polisario Front in the buffer zone.
The UN’s silence and its non-condemnation of Polisario’s provocative move of holding its congress in the buffer zone—especially the presence of MINURSO representatives at the event—cast suspicions about the impartiality of the UN in the stalled political process.
By failing to put pressure on Polisario and to demand that they abide by Security Council resolutions, the UN would be aiding and abetting Polisario, enabling it to persist in its false claims that the area east of Morocco’s sand wall—the berm running from north to south in Western Sahara—falls within the “liberated areas” under the alleged control of Polisario.
If this move goes undeterred, Polisario would feel emboldened and might decide that the time is ripe for it to transfer its administrative facilities to the buffer zone.
Morocco should use Polisario’s move in the kingdom’s favor and demand the UN Secretariat and the Security Council intervene firmly to enforce the recent Security Council resolutions, especially resolutions 2414 and 2440.
Morocco should also urge Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to issue a statement condemning Polisario for its congress in the buffer zone. Secondly, Guterres should apologize to Morocco for the attendance of MINURSO representatives at the congress, condemn the reckless move, and emphasize the UN’s neutrality and its concern not to sympathize with or favor any party in the conflict.
In this regard, Morocco should make it clear that the statement issued by Stephane Dujarric, the personal spokesman of the United Nations Secretary-General, on Monday, December 23, in which he said that the attendance of representatives of the MINURSO mission at the congress does not reflect their position nor that of MINURSO, does not dispel suspicion about UN partiality, nor does it put any pressure on Polisario.
For the UN spokesman to admit that Polisario held its congress in the buffer zone without expressing the Secretary-General’s concern about the step and its negative impact on the political process, is itself problematic and reflects the UN’s inability or unwillingness to enforce full respect for Security Council resolutions on all parties.
By the same token, Morocco should demand that the Secretary-General state unequivocally that Polisario does not have any sovereignty over the buffer zone east of the Moroccan defense wall in Western Sahara and list the violations in his annual report to the Security Council in October 2020.
Additionally, Morocco should send letters to the permanent members of the Security Council to inform them both about the violations of MINURSO’s personnel of UN neutrality and the danger the congress poses to the region’s stability.
Morocco should make clear that it will spare no efforts to protect its rights and interests and prevent any party from changing the status quo of the region through a fait accompli.
On the other hand, Morocco should make its approval of the future personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara contingent on the UN’s commitment to formally declare that Polisario’s recent provocative steps are blatant violations of the Security Council resolutions.
In the same vein, Morocco should require the UN to threaten sanctions if Polisario persists in violating Security Council resolutions and threatening the viability of the political process.
Moroccan diplomats should remind the international community that Morocco did not vacate the buffer zone in 1991 to allow the Polisario to assert its sovereignty over it, but rather as a sign of good faith and of its intention to pave the way for the UN to kick start its political process to help the parties reach a final solution to the dispute.
Morocco should also signal its willingness to enter the buffer zone and extend its control over it if the Security Council and the UN Secretariat fail to discharge their responsibility to maintain peace and security in the region, as well as the viability of the political process.
UN silence raises doubt of its impartiality
The credibility of the UN Secretariat and the Security Council and their ability to play a mediating role in conflict resolution and in maintaining international peace and security are at stake.
Any UN failure to remind Polisario of the rules and principles of the political process and the provisions of the Security Council resolutions would undermine the confidence of member states in the UN’s ability to fully and successfully mediate in the conflicts on its agenda, including Western Sahara.
It is not the first time that Polisario has violated the requirements of resolutions 2414 and 2440 and the spirit of the UN-sponsored political process. In early January of this year, the Polisario militia carried out what it called military exercises in the Mhiriz region, in the buffer zone. The action was provocative behavior that could lead to unprecedented tension in the region and threaten its stability and security.
This is also not the first time that UN personnel have been implicated in dubious actions that raise doubts about its credibility, the integrity of its personnel, and their eligibility to mediate the conflict.
In 2013, a video surfaced showing a former MINURSO employee, from Egypt, inciting Polisario against Morocco, calling Morocco an “invader” and urging Polisario supporters to rise up against Morocco.
The video caused an unprecedented uproar, eliciting the ire of the Moroccan government and the Moroccan people. The UN eventually opened an investigation and terminated the MINURSO member’s contract.
Furthermore, in March 2016, then Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon visited the Tindouf camps and described Morocco as an “occupier” of Western Sahara. Morocco was swift in denouncing Ban Ki-Moon’s statement and questioning his credibility and eligibility to play a mediating role in the conflict.
The statements resulted in unprecedented tension between Morocco and the UN Secretariat and widened the gap of distrust between the two parties. Nevertheless, the election of Antonio Guterres as Secretary-General of the UN helped restore and rekindle a certain degree of trust between the two parties.
However, the UN Secretariat’s continued silence about the violations of Polisario and the presence of MINURSO representatives at the congress in the buffer zone may again raise doubts about the integrity of those in charge of the file at the UN.
The UN must step in to deter Polisario and save the political process
In light of the Secretary-General’s continued silence about the repeated provocations of the Polisario in the buffer zone, in addition to his refusal to mention, even briefly, the involvement of the Polisario and Algerian leadership in embezzling humanitarian aid directed to the Tindouf camps for more than four decades, how can Morocco trust the integrity of the UN team that drafts the annual report on the conflict?
How can Morocco continue to deal with the various parties involved in the conflict in good faith as long as the UN does not deter Polisario and does not ensure that it fully respects the provisions of Security Council resolutions?
Unless the UN remedies the situation and affirms its neutrality and its keenness to deal firmly with any violation of Security Council resolutions, it will be impossible for the parties to achieve any progress in the political process in the foreseeable future.
The UN’s unfathomable silence about the repeated provocations of Polisario could hammer the final nail in the coffin of the UN-led political process, causing Morocco to lose confidence in the UN’s neutrality in the process.
If the UN wishes to maintain some hope that the political process will result in any tangible progress in the future and to maintain the momentum generated by the two round tables held in December 2018 and March 2019 in Geneva, it must act quickly and condemn the provocative and reckless move of Polisario.
The UN should also send a clear and strong message to Polisario that, after repeatedly violating Security Council resolutions, it no longer has a margin of maneuver, and that any provocative step may expose it to sanctions.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.