Is the UN shifting its approach on Western Sahara?

Is the UN shifting its approach on Western Sahara?
7 min read
20 Apr, 2016
Comment: Ban Ki-moon appears to be calling for a renegotiation over what Sahrawi 'self-determination' might look like, writes Samir Bennis.
Ban appears to have acknowledged that a referendum on independence from Morocco is unlikely [AFP]

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has submitted the advanced copy of his annual report on the Situation Concerning the Western Sahara to the Security Council.

The 25-page report, which is expected to be officially released later this week, has been eagerly anticipated as it comes against the backdrop of an unprecedented friction between the UN chief and Morocco following Ban's controversial statement - describing Morocco's presence in the Western Sahara as "occupation".

Observers had feared that the report's unusual delay augured a new episode of tension between Rabat and the UN leader. In fact, in light of the secretary-general's arm-wrestling with Morocco following his remarks, it was expected that the report would be critical of, or even biased against, Morocco.

However, the report seems to be in line with previous SG reports without discernible bias. Apparently, the backlash caused by his stance against Morocco turned out to be of greater magnitude than the UN chief had expected. As was Morocco's firm position, and the support it received from the Security Council, which apparently prompted Ban's half-apology to Morocco last month.

A close reading of the report shows Ban has chosen his words carefully and ensured not to take the side of any party in the conflict.

The report follows the same methods of previous reports. After describing recent developments on the ground and the activities of MINURSO, the report contains a section in which the secretary-general expresses his observations and recommendations to the Security Council ahead of the adoption of the new resolution to renew MINURSO's mandate, for one year, until April 30, 2017.

One of the most striking elements of the report is Ban's emphasis that his statement was not meant to be hostile to Morocco or to side with the Polisario Front. That the UN chief takes the unusual measure of starting his report by referring to his public statements and attempting to clarify his position indicates that he has been under heavy pressure from influential members of the Security Council to put an end to the tension with Morocco.

Because of the new dynamic in the conflict caused by Ban's uncalculated statement, the UN is no longer seeking... the monitoring of human rights in the Western Sahara

The second interesting point to note is Ban's call on the Security Council to ensure the restoration of MINURSO's civilian component, which Morocco asked to leave last month following his statements. The secretary-general maintained it must be empowered to fully discharge its duties in line with its mandate.

Because of the new dynamic in the conflict caused by Ban's uncalculated statement in March, the UN is no longer seeking to add any prerogatives to MINURSO, such as the monitoring of human rights in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf camps - something that Ban's personal envoy, Christopher Ross, has striven to do in recent years.

In this regard, one can safely say that Morocco has made a diplomatic stride.

In recent years, Morocco insisted that MINURSO's mandate was limited to "monitoring the ceasefire and military matters, as well as demining and for UNHCR's confidence-building measures". For Morocco, since the prospects for holding a referendum on self-determination have proved elusive, MINURSO can no longer be entrusted with such a mission.

Morocco's decision to expel the UN mission's civilian component stems from this position.

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Following the move, Rabat has obliged the United Nations to open a debate on the attributions of its mission in the Western Sahara.

If in the next two weeks, Morocco succeeds in preventing the return of MINURSO's civilian component, this will indicate that the UN is gearing towards abandoning its long-standing fixation on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to the independence of Western Sahara.

This leads to another striking point in Ban's report. As in his previous report, he expressed concern that the political process initiated by virtue of Resolution 1754 of 2007 did not pave the way towards reaching the called-for mutually acceptable political solution.

He even repeated the same language regarding the need for the parties to engage in serious negotiations without pre-conditions and in good faith, in order to reach "a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara".

However, unlike his previous reports, Ban makes it clear for the first time that a solution on the final status of the territory should be sought through "an agreement on the nature and form of the exercise of self-determination".

This language is very different from the recommendation that he made in his 2014 report, when he called for conducting a comprehensive review of the political process initiated in 2007. Not only did the UN chief not repeat the same recommendation, which seemed to motivate his controversial statement in March, but he also included a new element that has hitherto never been part of the negotiations.

That Ban calls on the Security Council to push the involved parties to agree on the nature and form of self-determination is a tacit indication that he might be initiating a new shift in the UN's approach on the conflict.

[Since] 1991, the UN focused on achieving a solution by a means of a referendum

Since the adoption of the Settlement Plan in 1991, the UN focused on achieving a solution by a means of a referendum with the option of independence of the Sahara among the envisaged outcomes.

Despite Morocco's repeated calls for the UN to show more realism and abide by the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1754, which calls for finding a mutually acceptable political solution, the UN has shown no sign of changing its failed approach.

However, with the recent friction between Morocco and the UN Secretariat, it appears that Ban has been under pressure to initiate a shift in UN policy

Calls for an agreement on the nature and form of self-determination is tantamount to acknowledging that a referendum with the option of independence is no longer viewed as a possible outcome for the conflict.

That said, one should note that by departing from the classical interpretations of self-determination that prevailed in the 1960s, the UN is not failing to comply with international law.

According to UN General Assembly resolution 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970, self-determination can be achieved through "the establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people".

Yet, discussions behind closed doors have revealed the prospect that the United Nations might gear towards proposing a different form of solution, i.e. a federation between Morocco and its southern territory. However, Moroccan authorities should strive to prevent the United Nations from going down this road. If the federal system can work in different contexts, especially in Europe, it is not a panacea that can be applied worldwide, more so in the Arab world. In the Moroccan case, accepting the federal system would be tantamount to relinquishing the territory in few decades.

The autonomy plan proposed by Morocco in April 2007 offers one of the conditions for self-determination, which is autonomy. Whether the UN will adopt the Moroccan proposal as a possible solution remains unclear and will depend on how Morocco plays its hand in the near future.

However, it appears that the UN is moving towards adopting a new approach in dealing with the Western Sahara conflict.

Things will not be the same again, after the latest row between Morocco and the UN chief. If Ban's statements were intended to impose a new approach on Morocco, they ended up helping cement Morocco's position and redefine the parameters of the political process in the years ahead.

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.

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.

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