Without Reform, UN’s Western Sahara Mission Risks Failure

The sparsely populated Western Sahara region is the subject of a decades-long territorial dispute. Dakhla, Western Sahara. (Jbdodane/Flikr)

In its April vote to extend the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until April 2016, the United Nations Security Council called for an “intensive and substantive” phase of negotiations over the territory. These would seek to finally end the 40-year dispute between Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Polisario). Before that can happen, however, a number of potential stumbling blocks for both parties must be removed.

Among the obstacles are the lack of progress towards a referendum on the region’s status, and the lack of a human rights monitoring component within MINURSO. If these persist, there is little hope of fulfilling UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s request for all stakeholders to “seriously engage” with UN envoy Christopher Ross. While some observers have been concerned about the potential of MINURSO’s failure for years, recent events suggest that the mission is more at risk than ever.

The conflict itself stems from 1975, when the International Court of Justice rejected Morocco and Mauritania’s claims to the former Spanish territory and supported self-determination of the nomadic Sahrawi people indigenous to the region, who now constitute the Polisario. Morocco’s rulers contested this ruling and obstructed other negotiating processes, leading to a guerrilla war that lasted until 1988, with a ceasefire approved by the Security Council in 1990.

The UN subsequently established MINURSO in 1991 to monitor the ceasefire and implement a referendum on independence. The vote has never taken place due to a number of ongoing differences, including questions over who would be eligible to vote.

According to the Secretary General’s report from June of 1990, which codified the terms of the 1988 ceasefire, all Western Saharans registered in the 1974 Spanish census who were 18 years or older would be eligible, regardless of whether they currently lived in the territory. However, these terms greatly disadvantage Morocco, which sent 350,000 settlers into the territory in 1975 under the so-called “Green March.”

Given that the UN has responsibility for the conduct of the referendum, neither Morocco nor the Polisario can be held completely responsible for the impasse. Nevertheless, the UN’s reluctance to follow through on the referendum plans—largely due to a lack of will of member states—led the Polisario to threaten to withdraw its cooperation with the mission in late April.

The current territorial dispute is best understood as a stalemate. Moroccan King Mohammed VI is unlikely to give up his claims because Western Sahara is rich in phosphate deposits and possibly offshore oil. The conflict has also allowed for deployment of the Moroccan armed services, responsible for multiple coup attempts in the early 1970s, to the southern territory far from the seat of the monarchy. Today, the situation redirects public attention from more pressing domestic problems, such as youth unemployment and debates over the country’s penal code.

UN envoy Ross, meanwhile, has not been permitted to visit Western Sahara for nearly a year, though he was recently invited to return to the territory following a phone call between Mohammed VI and Ban.

Whether or not MINURSO will monitor human rights has been a divisive issue. The Polisario has accused the Secretary General of backing down on a previous commitment to introduce it following a conversation he had with Mohammed VI, who had threatened to expel the mission if it were adopted. This followed similar fallout from a 2013 United States suggestion of human rights monitoring in Western Sahara, which was also quickly rebuffed by Morocco and led to the cancellation of a longstanding joint-military exercise between the two countries.

As it stands, MINURSO is the only peacekeeping mission in the world without a human rights component, despite support for inclusion also coming from the likes of Algeria, Denmark, and the African Union (AU) in light of perceived violations in the territory and the possibility of war between the two parties. The AU called for human rights monitoring in Western Sahara as recently as March 2015.

Allegations against Morocco include that it does not allow freedom of speech in or about the territory and that, despite reforms, it still tries Sahrawi activists in military tribunals, or holds them indefinitely, rather than try them in civilian courts. Those it does not arrest reportedly suffer “harassment and relentless surveillance.”

For its part, Morocco claims there is no reason for a human rights monitoring mission, even as it accuses the Sahrawi themselves of compromising human rights in the territory. On the issue of the referendum, Morocco favors autonomy, not independence, for Western Sahara.

The situation is further complicated by the fact Morocco remains the only African country not to be a member of the AU. It left its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, after that organization recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the exiled government of Western Sahara, in 1984.

The AU continues to support the Polisario and MINURSO. It sees Morocco’s presence in the territory as the last remaining colonial occupation on the African continent. The AU has consistently called for the full decolonization of Africa. Some argue that the Moroccans should not be allowed to rejoin the organization until the Western Sahara issue is resolved.

In the meantime, Morocco is attempting to gain an upper hand in the dispute by strengthening its relationship with some of its West African neighbors, particularly on religious matters. As I previously argued in the Global Observatory, Morocco punishes African leaders that side with the Polisario, such as Nigeria’s outgoing leader Goodluck Jonathan.

Religious cooperation between Morocco and West African countries tends to preempt cooperation on security and economic matters. In the most recent example from March this year, Senegal requested Morocco train its Imams and shifted its position on Western Sahara the following month.

Given Morocco’s increasing outreach to West African countries on religious, economic, and security matters, it seems likely that the Western Sahara dispute will become increasingly entrenched, even as this encourages conflict among AU members.

Some see negotiation over Morocco’s entrance into the AU as the best opportunity for a positive outcome. It is clear that Morocco desires to take a stronger leadership role on the continent. The AU has the opportunity to continue its principled stand against colonialism by refusing Morocco entrance until it finds a solution to the current crisis, however unlikely that might be.

The best outcome might be for a reformed MINURSO process—including more decisive steps towards a referendum, and the introduction of human rights monitoring—to work in tandem with an enhanced AU role in resolving the dispute. This could follow increasing linkages between the AU and UN bodies elsewhere on the continent.

The UN’s calls for increasing dialogue between Morocco and the Polisario is appropriate, but is unlikely to be achieved in present circumstances. Until the playing field is changed, this stalemate could continue to represent a failure of international diplomacy.

Ann Marie Wainscott is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at St. Louis University.