The UN Security Council has renewed the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which is responsible for peacekeeping in Western Sahara, but – in a surprise move – only for six months. The decision is an attempt to break the twenty-seven-year impasse around the disputed territory. On Friday, April 27, the Council called for direct talks, without preconditions, between Morocco and the Polisario Front concerning the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.
The direct talks, which will be facilitated by UN Special Envoy and former German president Horst Köhler, would be the first in 10 years. With Köhler’s appointment last fall, the negotiation process was relaunched with a “new dynamic and new spirit.” The immediate trigger for the decision to force the parties back to the negotiating table, however, seems to be the U.S. government’s desire to drastically reduce the UN budget for peacekeeping missions – it currently pays almost 30% of the total bill.
“It is time to see progress toward a political solution, and after 27 years, to stop perpetuating the status quo,” Amy Tachco, Political Coordinator of the Permanent Mission of the United States to the UN, told the Security Council. “There can be no more business as usual.” Reducing the usual one-year mandate to six months means that the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy has to report more regularly to the Council and keeps pressure on the parties involved to make progress.
Western Sahara is a non self-governing territory in UN parlance – bordered by Morocco proper to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. After colonial Spain withdrew from the area, an armed struggle ensued between neighboring Morocco and the indigenous Sahrawis, who are led by the Polisario Front. Under the auspices of the UN, an armistice was agreed upon in 1991, which continues to be monitored by MINURSO. Currently, the largest part of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco – which calls the territory its “southern provinces” – and is separated by a 2,700 kilometre-long (1670 miles) trench-cum-wall and minefields from the rest of Western Sahara. The remaining unoccupied part of the territory makes up the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR), a self-declared entity run by the Polisario.
The 1991 ceasefire agreement provided for a transition period to prepare for a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The last direct talks between the parties occurred in 2012. For years, Morocco has pushed for Sahrawi autonomy to operate under Moroccan sovereignty. For its part, the Polisario Front will only agree to a referendum on independence, not autonomy.
Last week’s Security Council vote to extend MINURSO’s mandate was postponed several days because Russia and Ethiopia had proposed amendments to the text after complaining it lacked balance and was favorable to Morocco’s position. Both countries, as well as China, eventually abstained from voting because the adopted resolution was in their view not sufficiently balanced and neutral.
After its passage, both Morocco and the Polisario immediately claimed the resolution was favorable to them. “This is a turning point,” said Polisario Front spokesman Mhamed Khadad, according to Middle East Online, “We are ready to engage.” Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said in a statement, according to the AFP, that the resolution “identifies with the political solution advocated by Morocco.” Regardless of which interpretation is correct, the status quo favors Morocco and this resolution represents an attempt to change that.