Horst Koehler, a former German president who has been the United Nations special envoy for Western Sahara since last year, is bringing the parties to the longstanding conflict over that region to a roundtable meeting in Geneva soon. Koehler expressed his intent last summer to bring all the relevant players together by the end of the year, so the clock is ticking.
The UN mission in Western Sahara — and Koehler — are being pressured to resolve the outstanding issues of the region by the United States, which holds the primary decision-making role over the mission in the Security Council.
The US mission to the UN, for example, managed to get the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, called Minurso, renewed for only six months last spring, rather than the standard one year, to the consternation of its fellow powerful members France, China and Russia. In November, the Security Council again renewed the UN mission for six months, with another Russian abstention.
The foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario Front — the political party representing the indigenous people of Western Sahara, who seek independence from Morocco — are invited to the Dec. 5-6 gathering. The Polisario Front announced it would send a five-person delegation to Geneva, including the party’s representative to the UN, Sidi Omar, and its leader, Khatri Addouh.
The roundtable is unlikely to delve too far, as the goal is to instill confidence among the parties toward a longer process, said a representative involved in the meeting. It is occurring the same week as a more urgent consultation — on the war in Yemen — is scheduled to take place in Sweden, led by another UN envoy. More media will undoubtedly be reporting on that meeting, which is also backed by the US, than on Western Sahara.
For 27 years, Minurso (the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara) and a series of UN envoys for Western Sahara have tried to broker a settlement on the territory dividing Morocco and the Polisario Front ever since Spain withdrew from the North African desert region in 1975. The territory is bordered by Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and the Atlantic Ocean. After Spain withdrew, it was administered by Morocco and Mauritania.
While Mauritania left the conflict, the Polisario continued to battle Morocco until a cease-fire was reached by the UN in 1991, accompanied by the promise of the territory holding a referendum on independence that has never materialized.
It has been a bitter feud with little give and take. Morocco accuses Algeria of backing the Polisario Front militarily and financially — which is why the country insisted that a representative from Algiers, the capital, participate in the meeting. Algeria denies the allegations. Last week, Morocco made friendly overtures to Algeria, which rebuffed them.
The person close to the Geneva roundtable shared his concern with PassBlue that Morocco’s approach to the meeting will undermine the Polisario Front’s status.
“The Moroccans frame the conflict that way to try and marginalize/delegitimize the POLISARIO and the Saharawi cause more generally,” the representative, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in an email. “So their narrative is that Western Sahara is an external conflict between Algeria and Morocco rather than one in which the local/indigenous people of the territory have resisted a Moroccan invasion/colonial occupation.”
The other narrative of Morocco is that the referendum for the Sahrawis is dead. Morocco wants Western Sahara to become a semiautonomous state within Morocco.
The Western Saharan narrative is also about resistance. On Twitter, the Polisario Front recently said the region “remains the last colony in Africa waiting to be decolonised in line with UN relevant resolutions, which recognise the inalienable right of the #Sahrawi people to self-determination and independence.” The territory is home to about 500,000 people, but many more Sahrawis have claimed asylum in Algeria.
The US appears to be pushing a deadline to resolve the conflict through the personal interest of John Bolton, the national security adviser. Bolton was an unpaid adviser to James Baker, the former American secretary of state, when he was the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004.
Bolton had been 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. Bolton was also a US ambassador to the UN from 2005-2006, eager to downsize UN peacekeeping missions.
Now, Bolton’s presence in the White House has apparently renewed his appetite for closing not only longstanding UN missions like Minurso but also the peacekeeping operation in Cyprus, especially if political goals are not underway.
“Bolton certainly seems to be playing a big role,” said the person knowledgeable about the roundtable. “There was already momentum generated” by the US under Ambassador Nikki Haley, but since Bolton became national security adviser, “that has intensified.”
The US stance on a referendum isn’t clear. It lent some rhetorical support to the Moroccan autonomy track under the Obama administration — referring to it as a “one possible option” that is “serious, realistic and credible.” But the US hasn’t ruled out a referendum, either. There is also the question about what choices would be included in a referendum.
David Hale, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, traveled last week to Morocco and Algeria to signal that the US is taking the Geneva meeting seriously and expects the parties and neighbors in the region to do the same.
A State Department spokesperson told PassBlue regarding the Geneva roundtable: “We support Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General Koehler’s efforts to achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”
Koehler traveled to the region and met with local authorities in June, stressing in a press release “the need for a new spirit of realism and compromise” to find a durable solution.
The meeting in Geneva may reveal if this new spirit will come to life.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.