In December, then-US President Donald Trump recognized Rabat’s claim to rule Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco normalizing relations with Israel. Washington’s move was widely condemned, since it has supported the UN peace mission for decades, but incoming US President Joe Biden has shown no signs he’s interested in reversing it.
At its semi-annual meeting on Western Sahara earlier this week, the United Nations Security Council effectively established the status quo, leaving no parties satisfied and the Saharawi Polisario Front warning that inaction could lead to an escalation of the war with Morocco.
The Wednesday semi-closed meeting saw the United States, which recognized Morocco’s claim to rule Western Sahara in December, introduce a motion urging all parties to adopt a “constructive” attitude toward the UN peacekeeping mission MINURSO and to “avoid escalation.” The document also urged the timely appointing of a UN special envoy to the non-self-governing territory, according to Agence France-Presse, which viewed the document.
While all members of the Security Council agreed on the need for a new special envoy in order to restart negotiations after a two-year lapse, the US’ proposal was widely opposed. The Russian delegate called on the US to withdraw the document, while India, China, Kenya, Tunisia and Niger rejected it because it “could be misinterpreted and become counterproductive,” according to a diplomat who spoke with AFP. Kenya, in turn, urged that the African Union play a role in mediation.
On Twitter, the Irish delegation voiced unequivocal support for the “right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in line with relevant Security Council resolutions.”
Going into the meeting, the first since hostilities erupted again in November 2020 and since the US’ recognition of Morocco’s claims in December, Saharawi leaders hoped the UN would bring much-needed mediation. With nothing meaningful having changed as a result, Sidi Omar, the UN representative of the Polisario Front liberation movement, warned that leaving the situation alone would make it worse.
“The Security Council has also failed to address the alarmingly deteriorating situation in the occupied Western Sahara where the Moroccan occupying authorities persist in their attempts to forcibly impose a fait accompli in the Territory while intensifying their repressive and retaliatory practices against Sahrawi civilians before the very eyes of MINURSO,” Omar said in a press release.
“The failure of the Security Council to take concrete actions to confront the serious consequences of Morocco’s breach of the 1991 ceasefire and its new aggression on the Sahrawi Liberated Territory as well as its unlawful actions in the occupied Western Sahara not only undermines the prospects of relaunching the peace process but also leaves the door wide open to the escalation of the ongoing war,” Omar said, adding that “In the face of Morocco’s ongoing act of aggression and the inaction of the United Nations, the Sahrawi people are left with no option but to exercise their legitimate right to self-defense and to carry on their liberation struggle to defend their sovereignty and to fulfil their national aspirations for freedom and independence.”
The UN has not had a special envoy to Western Sahara since 2019, when Horst Köhler resigned. As a result, negotiations toward the fulfillment of the 1991 peace agreement, which provided for an independence referendum in Western Sahara, have not proceeded. Several figures have been suggested, most recently former Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whom Polisario rejected earlier this month for being too pro-Moroccan.
However, the occupation protest at the southern Guerguerat border crossing with Mauritania in October and November 2020, the break-up of which Polisario viewed as a breach of the ceasefire, was itself partly aimed at pressuring the UN to appoint a new special envoy and to add a human rights monitoring component to MINURSO – the only UN mission without one. Without such a component, the UN has no mechanism for protecting Saharawi protesters and journalists from the kind of harassment routinely visited upon them by Moroccan police and military units in Western Sahara.
The 1991 ceasefire ended nearly two decades of war in Western Sahara, as Polisario fought first Mauritanian, then Moroccan forces, and declared a Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in the territory of the former Spanish colony of Spanish Sahara. During the course of the war, the Moroccans built a series of sand berms that slowly isolated Polisario in the country’s desertous eastern regions as it flooded the coastal towns with settlers and established extraction operations centered on fishing and phosphates – which have continued unabated since the ceasefire and the establishment of MINURSO.