The saga of Western Sahara, a disputed territory that has been stuck in limbo in North Africa for decades, will receive its annual nod this month by the United Nations Security Council, but this time actual changes may be afoot if the council acts more decisively, particularly on human-rights matters. Christopher Ross, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy to Western Sahara since 2009, has intensified his shuttle diplomacy to resolve one of the longest-running regional problems before the UN.
Rising incursions by jihadists in Mali and western Algeria this year have pushed Ross’s work to the forefront at the UN, as the Sahel region simmers with deadly terrorist assaults and the UN sends a peacekeeping force to Mali.
Indeed, a new report from the UN secretary-general on Western Sahara says that a common thread at all of Ross’s stops was “concern over the security and stability of the Sahel region and beyond.” Yet, the report noted, the “tense regional context has rendered positions more rigid and raised mutual suspicions between neighbours.”
Ross, an American with extensive experience in the United States State Department, was a former ambassador to Algeria and to Syria. As part of his UN diplomacy, he has been talking more with the relevant parties to the dispute, meeting with Algerian officials this year and visiting the self-ruling Sahrawi refugee camps there in Tindouf, a desert sprawl that is home to thousands of people from Western Sahara for nearly four decades. Roth also visited Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, for the first time; Nouachkott, Mauritania’s capital; and King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
In addition, Ross convened with officials from the so-called Group of Friends of Western Sahara in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain, Switzerland and the US to gauge their stances regarding Western Sahara’s legal fate with Morocco. What’s at stake is a referendum to determine whether the territory should become fully independent, remain autonomous within Morocco or fold completely into the country’s hands.
It’s a political battle between Morocco and the Polisario Front (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) that Western powers and Moscow have preferred to leave hanging. It’s a quiet turf war as well between Morocco and Algeria, which financially backs the Polisario Front, the representatives of the Sahrawis. Ross’s shuttling methods mean that no high-level talks between these parties are taking place.
Legally, the demands of the Sahrawis for self-determination date to 1963, when Western Sahara was deemed a “non-self governing territory” by the UN that remains “to be decolonized.”The International Court of Justice found in 1975 that Morocco “had no ties of territorial sovereignty to Western Sahara.”
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has voiced frustrations with the impasse but has left it with the Security Council, which in turn has relegated responsibility to the leaders of the Polisario Front and Morocco. The new UN report emphasizes that delays hurt and that Ross “has repeatedly urged the parties to recognize that the passage of time can only worsen the situation.”
Ross and Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, a German and the special representative of the secretary-general and head of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso), which has a peacekeeping force but no human-rights component, are to brief the Security Council on April 22. The council will most likely renew the Minurso mandate for another year, which operates with a $58 million annual budget. (The annual budget for the Tindouf refugee camps costs the UN about $25 million.)
Western Sahara has a long strategic coastline along the Atlantic Ocean on the northwest edge of Africa. It is the size of Britain, bordered by Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco and formerly a Spanish colony. After Spain withdrew in 1975, the territory was administered by Morocco and Mauritania. The Polisario Front fought for independence for Western Sahara from Spanish, Mauritanian and Moroccan occupation. After Mauritania withdrew, the Polisario Front continued to fight Morocco. It has kept its army but renounced violence.
The two parties reached a cease-fire agreement in 1991 through a plan that provided that a referendum be held and that established Minurso to monitor the cease-fire and carry out the vote. The vote has never happened.
Ross last briefed the Security Council on Nov. 28 with Weisbrod-Weber on the latest fall-out between Morocco and the Polisario Front on talks over the referendum. Morocco, which is an elected member of the Security Council through 2013, rejects the full-independence option and contends that it has a historical right to the region. It has offered the Polisario Front the choice of autonomy within Morocco.
“Our objective is to find a compromise solution,” Mohammed Loulichki, the Moroccan ambassador to the UN, said in an interview with PassBlue in April. It would be a negotiated solution agreeable to everyone, “something realistic” that included the consultation of “friends and allies” like the US, Britain, Spain and France. He suggested that examples of such autonomy would be Catalonia in Spain or Aceh in Indonesia, an arrangement that would allow Morocco to step in “when the region cannot rely on its own resources exclusively.” He listed the “hundreds of millions of dollars” Morocco has spent in Western Sahara on infrastructure and education.
Leaving Morocco to “step in” may reflect Western Sahara’s rich natural resources in phosphates, fishing and potential offshore oil and disagreements over Morocco’s extraction of these resources. The Polisario say that extraction should be done under their watch to benefit the local population. Loulichki noted in the interview that Morocco was entitled to explore offshore oil resources but agreed that it must “benefit the local population.” So far, he said, the country has found no oil.
Meanwhile, Sahrawi refugees continue to live in the Tindouf camps in Algeria at the Moroccan border and in the “liberated territories” east of the berm, the Moroccan-built sand wall in Western Sahara. In 2011, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that the majority of the Sahrawis in the Tindouf camps “remains chronically food insecure and their nutrition situation is not satisfactory.” The number of people in the camps is disputed, since there has been no census: the UN says 94,148 people; Algeria says it is closer to 165,000; and Morocco, about 50,000. Numerous UN agencies provide services to the camps, including a nursing-midwife school, but youths have no work, a condition that could lead to their recruitment into jihadist leagues, the report said.
Many human-rights reports, including those by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have indicated that Sahrawis in Western Sahara suffer such violations as arbitrary detention, civilians tried in military courts, kidnappings, beatings during demonstrations, coerced confessions and torture by Morocco. The US State Department says that in Western Sahara “there were credible reports that security forces engaged in torture, beatings and other mistreatment of detainees.”
Nevertheless, the US is developing closer ties to Morocco in its counterterrorism work amid the tinderbox region of North Africa. France has fallen on the side of Morocco and rejected human-rights criticisms to be included in UN resolutions on Western Sahara. Its military response in Mali this year and the flagrant terrorist action in western Algeria this winter could solidify this resistance.
France “has routinely prevented the Security Council from even allowing the UN to monitor human rights in the Territory,” Carne Ross, a consultant for the Polisario Front, wrote in a blog post for the Middle East Institute. “The result is that MINURSO is the only UN peacekeeping mission established since 1978 to be operating without this most basic of capacities, despite the UN itself considering human rights monitoring to be an indispensable feature of modern peacekeeping.”
Loulichki said in his interview that Morocco was ready to “improve relations” with Algeria over the Western Sahara argument. That eagerness may have more to do with strategizing over the terrorist threats in the area than with Sahrawi grievances. “One country cannot on its own means defeat instability” in the region, he said.
Alice Volkov contributed reporting to this article.
 Carne Ross,
 UN report.
 United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Western Sahara,’ Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/186653.pdf, page 4.