Rabat – Next month, the UN Security Council (UNSC) will convene to discuss the future of the ongoing and much-feted “new momentum” in Western Sahara.
Despite the sure-to-come proliferation of reports on “new developments” and “last-minute” changes in terms of what that October meeting will essentially tackle, the whole thing is bound to come with an air of deja-vu. Put differently, it is obvious, more or less, what the talking points of the much-awaited October meeting will be.
It will, by any reckoning, be about renewing the mandate of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the disputed region. The only question will be by how much, with the usual disagreement over the one-year and six-month renewal camps.
Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, may also seize the moment to provide more details about a vision he has consistently spoken about in recent months. He may even — and this is surely the most expected development — unveil the name of his next personal envoy.
The recent announcement of the UNSC’s schedule for the month of September reinforced this lingering sense that not much has changed in the past months in the Western Sahara dossier.
In line with the global community’s most salient crises in the current moment, the UNSC’s September schedule will mainly feature “the humanitarian effects of environmental degradation on international peace and security and a high-level summit on post COVID-19 global governance,” the UN body’s president, Abdou Abarry, said at a recent press briefing.
Also on the September agenda are a host of other global peace and security challenges, including the crises in Mali, Yemen, Libya, as well as the rights of children in conflict-torn areas.
Morocco’s diplomatic gains
That the Western Sahara dossier is not mentioned in UN discussions just a month before the body’s annual Western Sahara marathon is not particularly surprising. After all, last year, too, Western Sahara was the elephant in the room of the UNSC’s September meetings and briefings.
So, one may be tempted to ask, why the rush to overinterpret what is discernibly becoming a habit in the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Western Sahara?
There are, as is always the case when it comes to foreign affairs matters, a wide range of answers, and sometimes conflicting answers. But a more plausible answer in this case, however, is that both last year’s and this year’s September schedules came on the heels of important — or at least not-to-neglect — developments.
More specifically, while last year’s schedule came after the unexpected and morale-sapping resignation of Horst Kohler, this year’s comes despite Algeria’s persistent pleas with the UNSC to make Western Sahara an eternal priority.
In recent weeks, Algeria’s President Abdelmajid Tebboune has repeatedly called on the global community to “not forget the occupation in Western Sahara” amid the ordeal of the global health crisis.
Speaking on May 5 about COVID-19 and its implications for world peace and security, the Algerian leader took special care to insert his country’s most critical diplomatic gambit. “I urge the Security Council to meet as soon as possible to adopt a resolution that would solemnly call for an immediate end to hostilities around the world, especially in Libya and the occupied territories of Palestine and Western Sahara,” Tebboune said.
From this perspective, the main suggestion that transpires from the UNSC’s latest schedule — that the situation in Western Sahara is nowhere near the grim scenario of incessant hostilities and systematic exploitation that some have enthusiastically painted over the years — is yet another blow for Algiers in a long and growing series of diplomatic setbacks.
While this year’s September schedule and most other recent developments have usually been couched in diplomatic language and have not exactly been a direct or deliberate nod to Morocco’s position, they beam a clarifying spotlight on why many think the ongoing UN-led political process is increasingly taking a pro-Morocco momentum turn.
A case in point has been the confluence of reports in recent months that, underneath the humdrum diplomatic neutrality they are expected to exude in official statements, most “foreign powers” are more in tune with Morocco’s autonomy proposal.
In a refreshingly frank assessment of the shifting power dynamics in Western Sahara in April of last year, former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was adamant that the Polisario Front’s separatist aspirations have little chance of success.
“The West, Europe and the US, do not want another state geographically separating Morocco and Mauritania,” President Aziz said. “Everything you hear outside of this frame is not correct.”
Following this was the Wall Street Journal’s verdict-like report that “Washington won’t support a plan that leads to a new African nation.” All this, and especially including the language and formulation now used in the latest UN resolutions, reinforces the growing, inescapable impression that Western Sahara’s balance may have well been irremediably swinging in Rabat’s favor.
Wither the new momentum
On a broader scale, however, all these developments and the pro-Polisario camp’s slump in confidence have not really settled the question that has merely been gesticulated at since Horst Kohler’s resignation in May of last year.
Even as the UN Secretary-General insistently promises to uphold Kohler’s legacy and make sure that the “new momentum” he brought to life is kept alive and improved on, the two Geneva meetings and the slight language changes in the latest UN resolutions have been the only real breakthroughs.
Since the Geneva roundtables, especially since Kohler threw in the towel, there has been no palpable progress. Compounding this gathering sense of paralysis and faux momentum is the fact that Kohler’s position is still vacant. And so, as the UN flounders in its search for a viable new envoy for Western Sahara, the question is no longer when, but whether it will eventually succeed in brokering a sustainable settlement.
Throughout January and February of this year, there was a cacophony of reports that UN Secretary-General Guterres would soon announce the identity of his new personal envoy for Western Sahara. Most reports concurred that Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak was the name in consideration.
But Guterres later announced that Lajcak was no longer in contention and that the “search was ongoing” to find a suitable replacement for Kohler. According to reports, the parties to the conflict were divided on the appointment of the Slovak diplomat, further fueling the post-Kohler climate of suspicion and renewed mistrust.
As this apparent sense of paralysis and insurmountable uncertainty is quickly replacing the two-year euphoria of what seemed to be a promising political process under Kohler, COVID-19 may have been instrumental in temporarily taking most observers’ focus away from the UN’s year-long hedging and fumbling on the Western Sahara dossier.
Come October, however, it will become much harder for the UN to sell its “new momentum” narrative in the absence of any real progress on the ground. Any suggestions that there are still no “suitable candidates” on the horizon will comfort critics who have never really bought “new momentum” stories.
Even at the height of Kohler’s largely successful two-year stint as personal envoy, some critics maintained that the much-feted “new momentum” rhetoric was a pipe dream, designed to misleadingly present as manageable and “resolvable” an unbridgeable enmity between two sides with diametrically opposed aspirations.
What has made the challenge of finding a fitting Kohler replacement especially knotty, former special envoy Christopher Ross recently told Morocco World News, is the almost impossible task of reconciling the views and aspirations of two congenitally hostile camps.
“As a mediator, I was strictly neutral. I did not 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,” he said.
Ross, tellingly, is the very envoy whom Kohler replaced in August 2017. In nine years in the post, the American diplomat repeatedly failed to engineer even a semblance of common ground between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. More importantly, not only did he fail to convene the two parties to the same negotiating table, Rabat never trusted Ross, seeing him as biased and unreliable because of his perceived closeness with Algeria and Polisario’s views.
In this regard, Ross’ statement, which he made to defend himself against claims that he had been lobbying for Polisario since leaving his UN envoy post, should advisably be taken with a grain of salt.
However, should next October’s meeting fail to substantially dispel the expanding post-Kohler fog, it will be difficult to quarrel with Ross’ suggestion that Kohler’s success or “new momentum” was an exception to decades of failed diplomacy and that his successors may not be as lucky.
Should October and the following months produce nothing meaningful to resurrect Kohler’s tepid, dying legacy, it will be hard to escape critics’ conclusion that what UN diplomats have lavishly called a “new momentum” is actually the usual but slightly improved scrambling and fumbling, punctuated by each camp’s intermittent celebrations when a UN move seems to go its way.