Ban Ki-moon's isolation at the UN over Western Sahara

Ban Ki-moon's isolation at the UN over Western Sahara
Comment: Morocco's good relations with the UN Security Council have helped it maintain the status quo in the Western Sahara, leaving Ban Ki-moon out on a limb, says Samir Bennis.
7 min read
06 Apr, 2016
UN chief described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as “occupation” [Getty]

New York saw intense negotiations last month following unprecedented tension between Morocco and the UN Secretariat, as a result of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's recent controversial statements concerning Rabat.

While on a trip to the Tindouf camps in March, the UN chief described Morocco's presence in Western Sahara as an "occupation" in a startling departure from the customary UN language and relevant UN resolutions concerning the issue.

This statement, coupled with Ban Ki-moon's sudden and seemingly inexplicable stance against Morocco, resulted in Rabat's decision to expel the civilian component of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Ban Ki-moon's statements are unprecedented, as this is the first time a sitting Secretary-General has described Morocco as an "occupier" in the territory. In addition, the remarks constitute a violation of his mandate - as not one UN resolution describes Morocco's presence in the Sahara as "occupation".

Amid the tension, the UN chief will submit his annual report to the Security Council entitled The Situation Concerning Western Sahara on April 8. Observers are wondering to what extent his upcoming report will reflect his new-found support for the separatist agenda.

Ban Ki-moon's statements are unprecedented as this is the first time a sitting UNSG has described Morocco as an 'occupier' in the territory

Will he attempt to paint a negative picture of Morocco? Will he succeed in convincing the Council of the need to reconsider the political process it initiated in 2007, and push for a referendum on full independence of the territory? How likely is it that his personal view of the conflict will influence the agenda, and how much room for manoeuvre does Morocco have to abort his attempts?

In order to have a clear understanding of what is at stake, we should be mindful of the meetings that the Security Council held last month on the issue.

In the deliberations that have been held so far, Ban Ki-moon has failed to win the Security Council's backing, and it is significant that the chief now lacks the political support he was hoping for.

Ban Ki-moon relies on Angola

After the Security Council failed at its March 17 meeting to reach a consensus on expressing support for the Secretary-General, Angola proposed a draft presidential statement. The wording of the draft was hostile to Morocco in that it called on the Council to provide full support for the Secretary-General, his personal envoy and the head of MINURSO.

However, Angola's attempts did not win over all the members of the Council. The draft statement was rejected by France, Egypt, Senegal and Spain. In particular, the delegations from Egypt and France played a major role in aborting the project. The Egyptian delegation called for the removal of the paragraph that expressed the Council's support for Ban Ki-moon.

This position was also supported by Senegal, which proposed to add a sentence in which the Council would also express support for Morocco.

One of the major factors playing in Morocco's favour has been France's opposition to any action or statement that would suggest that the Council supports the Secretary-General in his stance against Morocco

On March 23, Angola presented a second version of its draft. While it did take into account some of the amendments proposed by Egypt, it retained a language similar to the first. The second draft again failed to receive the backing of the Council. France, Egypt, Senegal and Spain stressed that the adoption of such a statement might escalate tensions between Morocco and the UN Secretariat.

After Angola's failed attempts, New Zealand proposed a more neutral draft statement. The new text contained no expression of support for Ban Ki-moon, while retaining some of the revised paragraphs of Angola's draft statement.

The pivotal role played by France

While nearly two-thirds of the Council's members did not oppose New Zealand's draft, the issue of timing was raised by France, Egypt, and Senegal, who asked to wait until after Morocco's foreign minister had held a consultative meeting with political parties.

Following the meeting, Morocco's Minister of Foreign Affairs Salaheddine Mezouar said that his country's decision regarding MINURSO was "sovereign and irreversible". The statement did nothing to change the position of members of the Council. Faced with the impossibility of adopting a draft statement, the Council decided to settle for presenting "elements to the press" on the ongoing crisis.

There has been an ongoing sense of disapproval among a number of influential member states at the way Ban Ki-moon has handled this friction with Morocco

One of the major factors playing in Morocco's favour has been France's opposition to any action or statement that would suggest that the Council supports the Secretary-General in his stance against Morocco or that it might put pressure on Rabat. In fact, one of the conclusions that can be drawn from March's meetings is the central role that France played in preventing the Security Council from expressing support for Ban Ki-moon, reaffirming Paris' continued support for Morocco regarding the Western Sahara.

Ban Ki-moon isolated

The deliberations held in March saw Morocco successful in their attempts to isolate Ban Ki-moon. By aborting all attempts to push the Council's members to adopt a presidential or even a press statement, Morocco has inflicted a diplomatic defeat on the Secretary-General. Unlike presidential and press statements which carry political weight as they remain on UN records, "press elements" do not stay on UN any official records.

This difference illustrates the major setback Ban Ki-moon has suffered in his diplomatic career, and led to him to express his disappointment with the Security Council.

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Even more interestingly, there has been an ongoing sense of disapproval among a number of influential member states at the way he has handled this friction with Morocco. This might explain why Ban Ki-moon will not succeed in convincing the Security Council to conduct a comprehensive review of the political process set out in Resolution 1754.

Many in the United Nations believe that Ban Ki-moon's statements against Rabat have distracted the Council from more pressing issues that threaten international peace and security, including the Syrian civil war and its ensuing refugee crisis, the ongoing crises in Yemen and Libya, the fight against terrorism and so on.

Maintaining the current political framework

It appears that the dynamics of the negotiations at the Council are in Morocco's favour. It is unlikely that Ban Ki-moon will impose his personal views concerning the conflict or prompt a change in the current political process. The Security Council will probably renew MINURSO's mandate for an additional period without changing the current parameters of negotiations.

What remains unclear, however, is whether the Council will renew MINURSO's mandate for a year, or less. It might consider a period of six months and then call on the parties to enter into direct talks. Following this it would assess the progress achieved and decide on the approach for bridging the gap between them. The Council calling on Morocco to allow the return of MINURSO's civilian component is another possible scenario.

The statement made last Friday by the Chinese ambassador, whose country has assumed the chairmanship of the Security Council this month, sent a tacit message to the parties that the Council's members have no willingness to escalate tensions between Morocco and the United Nations, but seek to renew MINURSO's mandate "without complications".

There is no doubt that the situation might have snowballed, had Morocco not been on good terms with the most influential members of the Security Council, and had its standing at the global and regional levels been weaker than it is today.

Morocco maintains balanced relations with the five veto-wielding countries, and plays a major role in global issues such as the international fight against terrorism, illegal immigration, organized crime, climate change. In light of this, it appears unlikely that the Security Council would be tempted to stray from the current political process or impose a new approach that could jeopardise Morocco's de facto sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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