The message was blunt and judgmental as the United States delivered its ultimatum on the future of the United Nations mission in Western Sahara: “MINURSO is a peacekeeping mission that should have finished its job a long time ago. This is a mission that began 27 years ago almost to the day. This was a mission designed to achieve a specific purpose. One that MINURSO has not yet been able to complete. That isn’t MINURSO’s fault.”
The fact is, added Amy Tachco, the political coordinator for the United States mission to the UN, “that we as a Security Council have allowed Western Sahara to lapse into a textbook example of a frozen conflict. And MINURSO is a textbook example of a peacekeeping mission that no longer serves a political purpose.”
It was time, the US was demanding, for the UN mission in Western Sahara, located in northwest Africa and called Minurso, to either move toward peace talks or fold up camp. Yet it was a message, it turns out, mothballed from the late 1990s.
Tachco delivered the message on an otherwise sleepy Friday afternoon, April 27, after the UN Security Council rolled over Minurso’s mandate to six months instead of the normal one year. The shorter duration was meant to pressure the new UN envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Koehler, and the relevant parties to act by October, or else.
The “or else” may be a swift decision to shut down Minurso. This time, however, the hard-nosed tone of the US, which holds the primary decision-making role in the Council on Minurso, represented a sharp departure from the approach to the mission’s status. Minurso has been coasting for decades as a cease-fire placeholder between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the quasi-political representative of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic — the indigenous people of Western Sahara — in their quest for independence from Morocco.
The new strategy by the US — sounding an awful lot like a White House directive — is also apparently running a parallel track as the US, the largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping, aims to cut the department’s budget through negotiations in the UN General Assembly’s budget committee, discussions that end by June 30.
(The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has requested a bump for Minurso’s annual budget, to $54 million from $52 million. The mission has only 715 total personnel; its largest troop-contributing countries, in order, are Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan and Russia.)
Oddly — or maybe not — Donald Trump tweeted on April 27 a hint to UN member states about the World Cup location, which Morocco is also competing to host (and as South Africa, for one, wavers in which bid to back):
Minurso’s main job has been to arrange a referendum for the Sahrawis’ goal of full autonomy. The referendum hasn’t materialized since the UN installed the mission in 1991. But the mission has kept Morocco and the Polisario from hurling weapons at each other across a Moroccan-built berm and a buffer strip alongside the berm, demarcated by the 1991 cease-fire agreement between the antagonists. Moroccan-claimed territory is west of the berm; Polisario controls the eastern half.
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, which it said has yet “to be decolonized.” The International Court of Justice found in 1975 that Morocco “had no ties of territorial sovereignty to Western Sahara.” Morocco disagrees.
Western Sahara has a strategic coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and is rich in phosphates. The territory, a former Spanish colony, is bordered by Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. After Spain withdrew in 1975, the territory was administered by Morocco and Mauritania. After Mauritania withdrew, the Polisario continued to battle Morocco until the cease-fire was reached. Flare-ups occur but not on a large scale.
Morocco’s preference is for the Sahrawi territory to become legally autonomous within Morocco and to stop any referendum.
In North Africa, the conflict reflects a broader rivalry between Morocco and Algeria, which actively supports the Polisario. That includes housing tens of thousands of Sahrawis in the desert in one of the world’s largest refugee camps.
Tachco’s remarks to the Council revealed no provenance other than that they originated from the US. What experts on the region have been saying is that the change in heart on Minurso came straight from the White House: John Bolton, the newly ensconced national security adviser.
Bolton is a former appointee under three Republican presidents, having served in the US Departments of Justice and State, including as US ambassador to the UN, for less than two years, under President George W. Bush.
Tachco mentioned Bolton in her conclusion to the Council.
But before she uttered his name, she said: “Our goal is to send two messages. The first is that there can be no more ‘business as usual’ with MINURSO and Western Sahara. The second is that the time is now to lend our support, our full support for Personal Envoy Kohler in his efforts to facilitate negotiations with the parties” — within six months.
The no-more-business-as-usual line worked in the Council on April 27: it voted 12-0 to approve the shorter renewal period of Minurso but included three abstentions, from Russia, China and Ethiopia.
Russia was angry about the US springing the six-month rollover onto the Council without notice. Vladimir Safronkov, the delegate from Russia, said that speeding up the diplomatic process on Western Sahara to six months could have the opposite effect — doom.
Russia also might have felt equally pressured not to hold up the renewal with a veto; ditto on China and Ethiopia (the latter officially endorses Polisario’s liberation movement.)
France is traditionally Morocco’s supporter in the Council, but its remarks were brief, saying, among other things, that Minurso was guaranteeing stability in the region; and as an indirect message to the US, that the renewal for only six months should be an exception.
Tachco, as if paying homage to a reinstated czar, noted toward the end of her remarks: “Reflecting on his time as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton once wrote, quote ‘MINURSO seemed well on the way to acquiring a near-perpetual existence because no one could figure out what to do with it.’ He concluded, quote ‘This could well go on forever.’ “
Tachco also promoted Bolton’s ability as a fortune teller.
“More than a decade later,” she added, “as we gather once again here in this chamber, Ambassador Bolton’s warning has proven accurate. . . . The next step will be . . . to see real and substantive talks resume at last. Should that fail, we will then need to take a hard look at our work and our responsibilities when this mission again comes up for renewal in six months.”
How does Bolton figure in Western Sahara’s future? According to people knowledgeable about Minurso, the US was going to harshly criticize the Polisario in an early draft of the resolution renewing the mandate. Instead, the language in the final version “expresses concern” over the presence of the Polisario in the buffer-strip town of Guerguerat and calls for its immediate withdrawal there. (Guterres’s latest report on Western Sahara also called for Polisario’s withdrawal from the town.)
The town, located in southern Western Sahara, has always been a flash point. More recently, Morocco has been trying to build a road through the berm into Mauritania as a route from Morocco to West Africa.
Many Council members, however, opposed the Guerguerat criticism and other statements in the resolution that they thought were unbalanced or inaccurate. Indeed, the final version avoids criticizing Morocco, which irked certain Council members as well, given that Morocco has violated the cease-fire agreement many times, at least from some viewpoints.
Among the many hats that Bolton has worn in his career with the US government and outside it, he was an unpaid adviser to James Baker, the former American secretary of state, who became the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (Baker was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1992.)
Bolton was a protégé of Baker’s in the State Department, and he slipped into an advisory role to Baker while the latter worked at the UN. Baker’s two attempts to create a referendum for the Sahrawis failed, prompting him to resign in frustration, after Morocco challenged the voter eligibility requirements.
Bolton may now be trying to seize the chance to right this wrong by his former mentor.
From the start, Moroccans were not happy about Bolton becoming national security adviser, possibly because of his soft spot for Western Sahara. Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran in May, saying that Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, supported Polisario by training and arming its fighters via the Iranian embassy in Algeria. Iran denies the charge.
Algeria cried rubbish to the accusations lodged against Polisario. The relationship of the US government to Algeria includes extensive counterterrorism work and protecting private American investments in natural resources there.
If Polisario and Morocco do not set a date to meet through Koehler by Oct. 31, the US could say, end of mission to Minurso. And as the UN peacekeeping department is preparing an internal review of Minurso, due by the end of June, its future hangs on a cliff more so.
Yet as the world is subjected to the erratic behavior of the Trump White House, Bolton could be gone, too, by the time Minurso’s renewal pops up. Even a savvy fortune teller cannot accurately predict the political directions of the Middle East, although Bolton knows the Western Sahara backstory well.
In 1998, he spoke to a Washington audience, expounding on Western Sahara and Baker’s high hopes for a referendum at the time. In his remarks, Bolton described how Secretary-General Annan, who appointed Baker in 1997, might have perceived how his role as the Western Sahara envoy would unfold, sounding strangely relevant to today:
“I think the Secretary General . . . saw the two possibilities the Baker mission would have: number one, that it would succeed and bring about a free and fair referendum in the Western Sahara, that could be fairly described as a victory for the United Nations. . . . I think he had that in mind.”
The other possibility, he said, “was if the Baker mission failed, in which case, I believe, the Secretary General was prepared, and certainly Secretary Baker would have recommended, that MINURSO be terminated and the UN’s involvement cease.”
Then Annan could say, according to Bolton: ” ‘We’re not in these peacekeeping operations for infinity. We’re going to try and take a shot and, if we don’t get agreement by the parties, we’re going to give it up,’ showing Annan was a hard and decisive manager.”
Which is almost the same language that the US uses to describe its ambitions for the current UN secretary-general, Guterres: to lead the UN as a no-nonsense executive.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.