AFRICA: Western Sahara

Read Time: 6 minutes
Expected Council Action    

In April, Security Council members are expected to receive a briefing in closed consultations on the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The Special Representative for Western Sahara and Head of MINURSO, Alexander Ivanko, and the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Staffan de Mistura, are the anticipated briefers.   

Background and Key Recent Developments 

On 30 October 2023, the Security Council adopted resolution 2703, renewing the mandate of MINURSO for another year until 31 October, with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions (Mozambique and Russia). The resolution introduced new language that welcomed the convening by de Mistura of informal consultations with Morocco, the Polisario Front (the entity representing the inhabitants of the Western Sahara region, known as Sahrawis), Algeria, and Mauritania, as well as with members of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara—France, Russia, Spain, the UK, and the US—from 27 to 31 March 2023 in New York.  

The Secretary-General’s most recent report on MINURSO, dated 3 October 2023, noted that these informal bilateral consultations were aimed at discussing lessons learned in the political process, deepening examination of the positions, and continuing to seek “mutually agreeable formulas” to advance the political process. According to the report, during the informal bilateral consultations, Morocco reiterated its position that its autonomy proposal was the only viable outcome of a political process. (The plan, which Morocco submitted to the UN in 2007, calls for integrating the territory into Morocco, with the Sahrawi people managing their internal affairs while being represented externally by Morocco.) On the other hand, the Polisario Front reaffirmed its position that self-determination remained the only basis of any political process. 

The situation continues to be tense on the ground. According to a 29 October 2023 Reuters article, four explosions struck the city of Smara, which is located in the disputed territory, on the same day, killing one person and injuring three others. The Polisario Front claimed responsibility for this attack. According to another media report, the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army—the armed wing of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR)—attacked the positions of the Moroccan armed forces on 3 March in the Rous Sebti area of Mahbes, located in the UN-monitored buffer zone. On 20 March, a drone strike allegedly carried out by the Moroccan army in Mahbes killed three people associated with the Polisario Front, according to a local media report.  

In a letter dated 19 February, the SADR called the attention of the Council members to the “increasingly dangerous situation in the Occupied Sahrawi Territories”, accusing Moroccan forces of waging a “genocidal war” against Sahrawis. The letter references reports from the region indicating that Moroccan forces were involved in the destruction of, and setting fire to, several rural houses and huts owned by Sahrawis in the city of El Aaiún. The letter further accused Moroccan authorities of “confiscat[ing] vast lands owned by Sahrawis and deliver[ing] them to Moroccan settlers and foreign investors”. South Africa shared this letter as an annex to official UN correspondence since the SADR holds no official status with the UN. 

According to a post on X (formerly Twitter), US Deputy Assistant Secretary for North Africa in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joshua Harris arrived in Algiers on 6 December 2023 to “begin a round of consultations with Algeria and Morocco on advancing regional peace and intensifying the UN political process in Western Sahara”. On 8 December, he met with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf and Secretary General of the Algerian Foreign Ministry Lounès Magramane. On 17-18 December, Harris visited Rabat, where he met with Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and reiterated the US position on Western Sahara, which calls for “a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution for Western Sahara” and supports Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal as “serious, credible, and realistic, and one potential approach” to resolving the issue. In a 29 February press release, US President Joseph Biden announced his decision to nominate Harris as the US Ambassador to Algeria. 

De Mistura has continued his diplomatic efforts in a bid to advance the political process. On 31 January, he visited Pretoria at the invitation of the South African government to meet with senior government officials, including South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, to discuss the issue of Western Sahara. (South Africa supports the right to self-determination for the people of Western Sahara and recognises an independent SADR, as proclaimed by Polisario Front in 1976). South Africa and Morocco have long experienced strained relations over their divergent stances on this issue. In an interview with a Moroccan news agency, Morocco’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Omar Hilale, expressed opposition to de Mistura’s visit to South Africa, adding that “Morocco clearly warned him about the consequences of his trip on the political process”.  

On 11 March, de Mistura met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. According to a Russian foreign ministry press release, the officials discussed, among other things, prospects for a settlement of the Western Sahara issue. In addition, they took note of the stabilising role of MINURSO and exchanged views on the plans for re-launching the political process. During the meeting, Lavrov emphasised the importance of reaching a “fair, long-term and mutually acceptable solution to the Western Sahara issue” in accordance with Council resolutions, the press release said. On the same day, de Mistura also held consultations with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin. 

Key Issues and Options  

A key issue for Council members to consider is how to bring all parties to the negotiating table and reinvigorate the political process. At the same time, managing the competing interests of the relevant stakeholders is also a paramount issue. Resolution 2703 called on all parties to resume negotiations with a view to “achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.   

Significant obstacles remain in the peace process. The Polisario Front announced in November 2020 that it would no longer respect the ceasefire agreement it signed with Morocco in 1991, which has led to a significant rise in hostilities over the last few years. 

An important issue, which is described in the Secretary-General’s 3 October 2023 MINURSO report, is the constraints on MINURSO’s logistical supply and maintenance of team sites east of the berm, which purportedly have serious consequences for the mission’s ability to sustain its field presences in the difficult conditions of the region. (The berm refers to an approximately 1,700-mile-long earthen wall that divides the Moroccan-administered portion of Western Sahara from that held by the Polisario Front.)   

The human rights situation is another issue of concern. The Secretary-General’s 3 October 2023 report noted that OHCHR was unable to conduct any visits to Western Sahara for the eighth consecutive year despite multiple requests and strong encouragement from the Security Council for enhanced cooperation in resolution 2654 of 27 October 2022, which extended MINURSO’s mandate for one year. The report added that OHCHR continued to receive allegations pointing to the shrinking of civic space, including through obstruction, intimidation and restrictions against Sahrawi activists, human rights defenders, and student movements. It further noted that Moroccan authorities reportedly continued to prevent gatherings in support of the right to self-determination and Sahrawi commemoration events. 

A possible option for Council members would be to issue a press statement to express support, during the upcoming Council meeting, for de Mistura’s efforts and any strategy or approach that he is developing and urge the relevant parties to resume negotiations and show flexibility in their engagement with the Personal Envoy and each other, in the hopes of ending the current impasse and achieving progress towards a political solution.  

Council Dynamics  

Council members differ starkly in their national positions on Western Sahara. The US, the penholder on Western Sahara, recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the region in December 2020 during the administration of President Donald Trump and committed to opening a consulate in the disputed territory. The Biden administration has not changed this position. While France has traditionally supported the Moroccan autonomy plan, the UK supports a “just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.  

The African members of the Council do not have a common position. Sierra Leone recognises Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and established a consulate in Dakhla in August 2021. At the same time, Algeria and Mozambique strongly support the right to self-determination for the Sahrawis and maintain diplomatic relations with SADR. These members are likely to push for more negotiations to determine the status of Western Sahara and for a focus on the human rights situation in the region. Guyana, which is a member of the “A3 plus one” grouping, withdrew its recognition of the SADR, dating from 1979, in November 2020.  

Some members, such as Algeria and Russia, have also opposed the roundtable talks—an initiative launched by former Personal Envoy Horst Köhler, which brought together Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and the Polisario Front. Algeria sees this initiative as potentially reframing the situation as a “regional conflict” instead of one between Morocco and the Polisario Front, with Algeria and Mauritania viewed as “concerned neighbours”. Algeria insists that it is not a party to the conflict and that it cannot take the place of the Polisario in negotiations but is prepared to step up its role in the political process as a neighbouring state. 

11 thoughts on “AFRICA: Western Sahara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *