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On April 4, the Polisario Front’s senior leader Ahmed Boukhair passed away after a long illness. The news of Boukhair’s death came a few days after Morocco announced it was considering “all options” to address an alleged Polisario violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement. The announcement was submitted by Omar Hilale, Morocco’s UN Ambassador, who claimed the separatist group had encroached upon the UN-monitored buffer zone. The Polisario have denied Morocco’s latest allegations, with UN peacekeeping forces also confirming there had been no violations.

Founded in 1973, the Polisario Front is a political-military organization aimed at ending Moroccan control of Western Sahara. Under the terms of the 1991 agreement between the Polisaro and Morocco, the two groups agreed to end the armed conflict over the region, allow for a referendum on independence, and permit a UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), to monitor the Western Sahara and manage its political future.

This week, the UN is scheduled to release a report on its decision to extend the twenty-seven-year peacekeeping mission in the region. Despite the UN’s failure to broker a peace deal, MINURSO’s presence has generally served as a bulwark against major clashes between the parties. As tensions begin to rise again, the UN must continue its peace mission, in order to mitigate the possibility of conflict between the parties, and also increase diplomatic pressure on Morocco to allow the Sahrawis to hold a referendum on Western Saharan independence.

The Sahrawis are indigenous to the Western Sahara. Many became refugees after Morocco’s land grab, and currently live in camps along the Moroccan border in Algeria, which supports the Polisario movement. In 1976, the Polisario declared its own state, known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), on part of the Western Sahara. SADR has been recognized by some countries and multilateral bodies,  but is considered illegitimate by Morocco, which claims the Western Sahara is legally and historically a part of its territory.

In line with this position, Morocco has fiercely opposed UN efforts to support the Sahrawi right to self-determination. Developed in the early 2000s by the former UN Secretary General (UNSG) Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy James Baker, the Baker Plan reaffirmed the need for a referendum in Western Sahara. The plan was accepted by the Polisario but rejected by Morocco the next year, with the special envoy resigning in protest.

After former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described Morocco as the occupier in the region, the Moroccan government expelled UN staff working for MINURSO from Western Sahara in 2016. In 2017, current UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his Special Envoy to Western Sahara, Horst Koehler, tried to restart the Western Sahara peace process and provide a self-determination plan for the Sahrawis. A date has yet to be announced for the resumption of bilateral talks, though diplomats hope to reopen negotiations later this year.

In its latest report on Western Sahara, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over Morocco’s use of excessive force and other efforts to repress the pro-Sahrawi movement. With the peace process in limbo and the threat of violence looming, it is urgent the UN pressure Morocco into complying with international human rights law in the Western Sahara, and defend the Sahrawi right to self-determination.

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