A stunning policy reversal by the United States regarding Western Sahara occurred last week, but it didn’t make many headlines. What happened? When the United Nations Security Council adopted a new resolution on Western Sahara, renewing the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission —Minurso — there for another 12 months, the action meant America’s ambitions in the last year and half to resolve this longstanding conflict have dried up.
This major reversal occurred in the wake of John Bolton, the former national security adviser, having just left the Trump administration, providing no clear path for solving one of Africa’s oldest conflicts and ending the last vestige of colonialism in the continent.
Before Bolton’s recent departure from the White House, the position the US had newly staked out on Western Sahara was stark and bold.
“There can be no more ‘business as usual,’ ” the US acting ambassador to the UN, Jonathan Cohen, said after last year’s vote in the Security Council on Minurso, when the US demanded that the mission’s mandate be rolled over for six months instead of the typical yearlong term.
The Security Council, Cohen said, was “determined to accelerate the political process and move beyond the status quo . . . the Security Council will not let Western Sahara and MINURSO slip into the shadows.”
Yet that is precisely what has happened. In May, Horst Koehler, the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, resigned, and a new wave of political negotiations to free Western Sahara ground to a halt. In the last six months, no new envoy has been appointed. No more peace talks have been held. And US demands to re-evaluate Minurso’s contribution to a political solution have grown eerily silent. Instead, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently hosted the Moroccan foreign minister in Washington, issuing no statement on Western Sahara.
More ominous, the US presidential adviser Ivanka Trump is visiting Morocco this week, a trip that coincides with Morocco’s annual Green March, held on Nov. 6. The official holiday marks the anniversary of the 1975 Moroccan incursion into Western Sahara, when thousands of Moroccans marched to claim the territory from Spain. The move set off the conflict with the native Sahrawi people, who rejected Morocco’s claims of colonization.
Now, thanks to the latest resolution on Minurso, the Security Council will not have to meet publicly on Western Sahara for another year, and the UN Secretariat will face no pressure to appoint a new envoy anytime soon. For Sahrawis like me, it is clear that international efforts to deliver our people’s right to freedom and self-determination have returned to the status quo of do-nothing diplomacy.
The consequences of returning to “business as usual” on Western Sahara cannot be overstated. The Security Council has lost vital leverage over Morocco and sent a dangerous signal to the people of Western Sahara: that the diplomatic process and playing by the rules of the diplomatic game don’t matter.
As a political negotiator for the Frente Polisario — the internationally recognized liberation movement representing the Sahrawi people — I participated in both rounds of UN-led peace talks in Geneva held by Koehler. Throughout my long career as a student-activist-turned-politician, I have championed a political solution to the conflict in Western Sahara. Like so many Sahrawis, I have long believed that the best way to achieve the goal of a free and independent Western Sahara is through nonviolence and UN-led negotiations. But the collapse of the political process — and the strong sense of betrayal we Sahrawis feel by members of the Security Council — throws this assumption into question.
If peace and diplomacy are not our path to freedom, what is?
If the Security Council were fulfilling its responsibilities, the people of Western Sahara wouldn’t have to ask this question. We have waited for nearly three decades for the UN to hold a referendum on our future independence. An entire generation has been born in exile. Throughout it all, we have negotiated constructively with four successive UN envoys. Yet each one has complained that the Council did not treat the issue seriously and that the envoys did not receive full political support from all Council members.
Without that backing, the next envoy will be unable to generate progress toward a political solution. The result, I fear, will be a growing risk of violence, instability and — perhaps — a collapse of the cease-fire. Does the Security Council want another failed agenda item on its record?
We Sahrawis do not want a return to war. But we will not give up our right to freely determine our future. We will not surrender to occupation, and we will not be condemned to living our lives as refugees forever. Having spent 44 years in refugee camps, I know in my bones that peace must be rooted in justice and dignity. We Sahrawis will have our justice and our freedom — one way or another.
Fatma Medhi is a member of the Frente POLISARIO’s negotiation delegation in the UN-led peace process and the vice president of Women Advancement for Economic and Leadership Empowerment in Africa. She is also the former secretary-general of the National Union of Sharawi Women and a long-time nonviolent activist and advocate for women’s empowerment.