Military violations and a decline in cooperation have shown that MINURSO’s mandate in Western Sahara is more important than ever, according to the UN secretary-general.
Rabat – Despite the political deadlock that has loomed over Western Sahara since the departure of Special Envoy Horst Kohler in May 2019, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remains “convinced” that a solution to the territorial dispute is possible.
In his latest report on the situation in Western Sahara, the UN chief details the void Kohler’s absence has created but conveys hope that the envoy’s progress will not be lost.
During Kohler’s tenure as Guterres’ personal envoy in Western Sahara, the process to resolve the long-running conflict between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front saw its greatest momentum.
Kohler, however, resigned from the position in May 2019 due to health concerns. His seat has remained vacant ever since.
Although Kohler was not the sole actor keeping the political process in Western Sahara alive, he did play an important role in facilitating dialogue between the parties to the conflict. He notably convened Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania for roundtable discussions.
In his absence, progress towards a solution in the region has slowed to a near-halt. The UN secretary-general has insisted, for over a year, that he will find a suitable replacement to fill Kohler’s shoes. Guterres has maintained that appointing a new personal envoy to build on the progress of Kohler is a priority.
Kohler “was able to reinstate a much-needed dynamic and momentum in the political process,” he continued. “It is essential that continuity in this political process not be lost.”
As Guterres carries on his search for a new personal envoy, he called on Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario to “engage in good faith and without preconditions in the political process.”
“Finding a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution” in Western Sahara “continues to require strong political will from the parties, and from the international community,” he stressed in his latest report.
Worrying ‘lack of trust’
Despite his confidence that a solution in Western Sahara is possible, Guterres expressed concern that the parties to the conflict have “moved further apart” since his 2019 evaluation.
“The continued lack of trust between them has been exacerbated by assertive acts and symbolic gestures in the territory that could potentially undermine the ceasefire and serve as a source of increased tensions,” he said. “This could be detrimental to the achievement of a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution through negotiation.”
Diplomatic as always, Guterres maintained that Morocco and the Polisario Front have “interests in common that should encourage them to work together.”
Amid Polisario’s recent provocations in the buffer zone between Morocco and Mauritania, the secretary-general urged “the parties to make active gestures of good faith that demonstrate their willingness to make progress towards a political solution to the conflict.”
He also advised the parties to the conflict to “refrain from rhetoric and actions” that harm the prospects for a resolution. Recently, Polisario organized an “anti-occupation” demonstration in Laayoune, prompting an investigation from Morocco. Polisario elements also disrupted civilian and commercial traffic in Guerguerat, a town in the buffer zone that serves as a gateway from North to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Concerning military violations
The UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, has faced numerous challenges this year: the COVID-19 pandemic, insufficient funding for humanitarian operations, impediments to observations of Polisario militant activity, and violations in the buffer zone.
Guterres particularly laid out his concerns with the recent decline in compliance with military agreement No. 1.
Military agreement No. 1 divides Western Sahara into five areas: A buffer strip, two restricted areas, and two areas of limited restriction. MINURSO established it in 1997 to regulate its monitoring activities of the ceasefire between Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) and the separatist Polisario Front.
Over the past year, MINURSO has reported multiple violations of the military agreement by both Morocco and Polisario, although the latter accounted for the vast majority.
Polisario “regularly denied MINURSO patrols entry into most of their units, as well as to specific areas and sites in the second and fifth military regions,” repeatedly entered the demilitarized buffer zone, and carried out unauthorized military construction projects.
“The status of the buffer strip as a demilitarized zone remains a cornerstone of the ceasefire in Western Sahara and I am concerned about the recent incursions into this zone,” the UN chief said.
Violations of the military agreement undermine “the arrangements that are the basis for the lasting ceasefire,” Guterres stressed. He called on the Polisario Front to resolve their military violations and reminded Morocco to maintain military cooperation with MINURSO. He stressed to both parties that using military forces to combat drug smuggling in the region violates the agreement.
Hopeful for the future
To conclude his assessment of the situation in Western Sahara, Guterres recommended that the UN Security Council extend the mandate of MINURSO for another year, until October 31, 2021.
“The Mission is a vital early warning mechanism,” he underlined. MINURSO “fills an indispensable conflict-prevention role” and testifies to the UN’s commitment “towards achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict in Western Sahara,” he added.
Guterres is content with the UN mission’s “crucial conflict prevention role” that has “refused” instances of tension and resolved “several major and long-standing violations” west of the berm, the barrier between Morocco and Western Sahara.
The UN mission saw this past year “tangible results illustrating the value of preventive diplomacy and open channels of communication,” he said.
Despite setbacks and stalemates, Guterres is confident a UN-driven political solution is on the horizon in Western Sahara. But as the personal envoy seat remains vacant and Polisario continues to express its “discontent” with the mission and back out of its obligations, this hope may not be shared evenly across the board.