Threat of Conflict Grows as Patience Wears Thin in Western Sahara

UN Envoy Christopher Ross meets with Sahrawi representatives during a previous visit to Western Sahara. Dakla, Western Sahara, March 25, 2015. (EPA/Corbis)

United Nations Envoy Christopher Ross has met with Western Sahara’s Polisario Front this week to try luring it back into negotiations over its decades-long pursuit of the region’s independence from Morocco. The signs are not promising, however, with a spokesperson claiming the group would engage in only a limited capacity and that the international community “must take responsibility” if the conflict were prolonged. This is the latest sign that the Polisario and the Sahrawi people it represents are losing faith in the political process and may return to a military response to the dispute.

Western Sahara has been called “Africa’s last colony” and has experienced a stalled and largely forgotten conflict. The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been in place since 1991. Although the mission was granted “sole and exclusive responsibility” for conducting an election over the future of the region, 24 years have passed and the Sahrawis are still waiting to vote.

The Polisario’s response to this week’s UN visit echoes sentiments from the groups’s Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, Foreign Minister of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, at a side event to the UN General Assembly in September. Salek told reporters the Sahrawis agreed to the UN-led process on the basis that it would lead to a referendum on an independent Western Sahara.

“This was the objective of the plan. Yet, nothing has happened since,” Salek said. Asked what his government would do if no significant progress was made, the minister said the international community left violence as the only option for the Sahrawis.

“The Polisario, as of today, is saying that enough is enough. And the Sahrawis of today are unanimously willing to go back to war,” he said. “The international community must move quickly to prevent the resumption of war.”

The Moroccan government sees the prospect of a legal annexation of Western Sahara as a pillar of its legitimacy and has challenged supporters of the Sahrawi cause. It has, for example, considered a widespread boycott of Swedish companies, and has already blocked the opening of an IKEA warehouse in Morocco due to the country’s pro-independence stance.

While Morocco agrees a referendum should be held on regional autonomy, it rejects putting full sovereignty to the vote and its King Mohammed VI has called MINURSU’s referendum plan “inapplicable.” Human rights experts have, however, applauded the country’s ongoing process of domestic legal reforms which, along with its recent decision to allow certain Saharawi human rights groups to register, may provide a window of opportunity for advancing freedoms and a new momentum for the process.

The alternative of reactivation of the frozen conflict would obviously be devastating for Western Sahara and could also have consequences for stability in the entire region. Even the current stalemate is seen as putting regional stability and security at risk.

During a hearing at the recent General Assembly, several experts testified that the prolonged conflict created fertile ground for organized crime, including drug and human trafficking, and made the area a safe haven for groups such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and extremists operating out of Mali. Even the Polisario has not ruled out that al-Qaeda may have infiltrated the refugee camps in Tindouf, using the sustained frustration among young Sahrawis as an opportunity to recruit.

The confluence of fragile states, porous borders, arms proliferation, frozen conflicts, and ethnic grievances in the Maghreb region create fertile ground for the activities of extremist and criminal groups. In addition, mistrust between Morocco and Algeria, who stand on opposite sides in the conflict, make regional security cooperation difficult.

Despite the threat of renewed violence, the UN has failed to reform MINURSO to pursue an improved outcome. Even after the renewal of its mandate in April this year, it is currently the only UN peacekeeping mission without the capacity to monitor human rights violations. This is despite the African Union, rights groups, and even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s repeated appeals for one. Morocco, meanwhile, argues that journalists and civil society groups are already monitoring the human rights situation, making such mechanism superfluous.

As Salek outlined in September, the Polisario wants the UN to acknowledge that “Morocco is de facto setting preconditions for the talks” on the region’s future, by blocking the referendum on full independence. “They know what will happen if we get to vote,” the minister said, “the Sahrawi people would choose their independence.”

The situation also risks sparking a diplomatic battle between two of Africa’s old colonial powers. The Polisario has claimed that France, using its power as a permanent member of the Security Council, is protecting Morocco by preventing changes in the UN mandate, as well as hindering the realization of the elections.

While France has never actively used its veto in the Security Council regarding Western Sahara, it has a strong voice in the so-called Group of Friends—an informal working group consisting of four of the five permanent Council members, minus China, as well as Spain. This group is known to pre-negotiate all matters pertaining to the conflict before they are brought up in the Council, thus de facto constituting a group of friends of Morocco more than of Western Sahara. Salek has in turn appealed to Spain for support, and called on it to mirror the supposed French and British approach in Africa and “defend and be a friend of its former colony.”

Ban Ki-moon has previously indicated he will not end his term without the issue of Western Sahara being resolved, but time is slipping away and the Secretary-General has yet to make a promised visit to the region. As it stands, the threat of violence and instability is more pronounced than at any other time during his tenure.

Minna Højland is a Program Officer at the Center for Integrated Health, Bolivia, and worked on the Western Sahara dispute at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.