Guterres' UN: A window for change in Western Sahara?

Guterres' UN: A window for change in Western Sahara?
Comment: Samir Bennis asks what the language of the UN's recent report on the Western Sahara might indicate about finding a solution to the ongoing conflict.
7 min read
19 Apr, 2017
A UN peace mission base in the disputed territory of Western Sahara [AFP]

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, released the UN's annual report on the situation in the Western Sahara on Monday. Like every year, Moroccans had anxiously awaited the report, eager to see if it would contain recommendations in line with Morocco's interests.

This sense of anxious expectation prompted many Moroccans, both specialists and casual observers, to make hasty conclusions that for the most part were based neither on a careful reading of the report nor a comparison with previous reports. 

As a result, inaccuracies blurred public discussions, and made the task of understanding, analysing, and drawing conclusions from the report all the more difficult.

In reports issued by the Secretary-General, what matters most is the section devoted to recommendations. The Security Council takes these into consideration when drafting the resolution submitted to the vote of its 15 members. 

Three significant points

It could be argued that to some extent, the report came out in favor of Morocco's national interest, as it contained three significant points in the recommendations section that detract from the aspirations of the Polisario Front.

Firstly, the Secretary-General did not expand the prerogatives of the MINURSO to include human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps.

In addition, while last year's report submitted by Ban Ki-moon alluded to the alleged exploitation of human resources and reiterated his call on all relevant actors to "recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount," this year's report does not include such mention in its recommendations.

This could be considered a setback for the Polisario and its backer Algeria, especially given the separatist front's latest actions in Guerguerat, and its refusal to withdraw from the region were intended to persuade the Secretary-General to mention the question of natural resources and human rights in his report.

The UN chief called on the Security Council to press the Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat

In addition, the UN chief called on the Security Council to press the Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat. "Recognising that the current situation risks a breakdown of the ceasefire regime," Guterres wrote in his report, "I ask the Security Council to urge Frente Polisario also to withdraw from the Buffer Strip in Guerguerat fully and unconditionally."

In the likely case that the Security Council includes a paragraph calling on the Polisario to withdraw its forces from Guerguerat in its upcoming resolution on the conflict, the separatist front will find itself in direct confrontation with and in defiance of the Security Council.

Conversely, the report praised Morocco's decision to withdraw from Guerguerat last February, immediately after the Secretary-General called for such a withdrawal.

Third, and most importantly, the recommendation calling on the parties to work out a mutually acceptable political solution did not include the phrase "which provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara", unlike the previous report.

Rather, the report directed the parties to engage in serious negotiations "with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable political solution that includes resolution of the dispute over the ultimate status of Western Sahara, including through agreement on the nature and form of exercise of self-determination."

The definition of the term 'self-determination' and the outcome of the political process has been a bone of contention between Morocco and the Polisario

The definition of the term "self-determination" and the outcome of the political process has been a bone of contention between Morocco and the Polisario.

While Morocco argues that it can offer at most an increased autonomy within its sovereignty, the Polisario insists that negotiations on a mutually acceptable solution must keep the option of independence on the table. 

It is still too early to conclude whether this report's more-nuanced language signals a departure on the part of the UN from the idea that self-determination must necessarily lead to independence. But the fact that the new UN chief has chosen to use this language in his first annual report is very significant.

The narrative of events in Guerguerat

In the first part of the report (paragraphs 2 to 21), the Secretary-General gives an account of the events that unfolded in the region since last April, including the tension in Guerguerat. 

The narrative of events does not conclude that Morocco sent members of its armed forces to Guerguerat when it decided last August 14 to begin paving the road linking the southern provinces of the Kingdom and Mauritania. 

  Read more: Can Guterres succeed where Ban Ki-moon didn't?

As the report noted that this operation was carried out without the participation of the Royal Armed Forces, this could be considered a tacit conclusion by the Secretary-General that Morocco had not violated the cease-fire agreement.

Conversely, the Secretary-General wrote that the Polisario responded to Morocco's move in the region by sending armed elements to prevent the paving of the road. He added that the Polisario claimed that the armed elements it had set up close to the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie belonged to the "National Gendarmerie".

The Secretary-General's use of quotation marks when mentioning the Polisario's "National Gendarmerie" implies that he believes it was Polisario who breached the cease-fire agreement, sparking the tension in the region since last August.

Inaccurate reports

Contrary to claims circulating on some news websites and on social media, the report did not mention links between the Polisario and the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Instead, it merely pointed out that a cell affiliated with IS threatened to attack Morocco and MINURSO forces. In addition, the report did not single out the Polisario, or state - as many have claimed - that it breached the cease-fire. The word cease-fire was mentioned 19 times in the report, but nowhere did it state that Morocco or the Polisario had violated it.

Rather, it said that the tensions in Guerguerat were threatening the cease-fire agreement. From there, the report called on the Security Council to force Polisario to withdraw its forces from Guerguerat.

The word cease-fire was mentioned 19 times in the report, but nowhere did it state that Morocco or the Polisario had violated it

Unlike in previous years, the issue of the census of the population in the Tindouf camps was not however raised in the recommendations, but was mentioned incidentally in another section of the report.

It is important to note that the reference to Algeria in the recommendations section is not new, and was also brought up in last year's report. Guterres' report did not emphasise, however, that Algeria is a direct party to the conflict, nor did it recommend the country's full participation in a political solution. Instead, it simply noted that Algeria and Mauritania should contribute to the political process.

Morocco has long called on the UN to consider Algeria a fully-fledged party in the political process, but its calls have fallen on deaf ears. Although the report mentions Algeria for the second year, and urges it to contribute to finding a solution, it fell short of designating it as full participant in the conflict.

Regardless of how positive the language of the report might seem for Morocco, what will matter eventually is the language of the Security Council resolution to be adopted at the end of April. 

It is now up to Moroccan diplomats to ensure that the resolution includes provisions echoing Guterres' call for the Polisario to unconditionally withdraw from Guerguerat.

Moreover, they must stress that the most realistic path to an end to the conflict is through a mutually acceptable solution. The ball is now in Morocco's court.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD 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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

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.