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My Work on the Origins of Minurso, the UN Mission in Western Sahara

A UN team in Western Sahara conducting a cease-fire patrol and monitoring for illegal movements near the border with Mauritania, 2010. The essay by a now-retired UN official involved in setting up the referendum mission 30 years ago offers insights as to why the vote for independence by the Sahrawi people has never occurred. MARTINE PERRET/UN PHOTO

It is now 30 years since the United Nations referendum mission for Western Sahara, known as Minurso, was created, and I was one of the original staff members.

Starting in 1971, Sahrawi students in Morocco started a movement for the independence of Spanish Sahara. The Sahrawi are the Indigenous people of the western region of the Sahara Desert, and the political arm of the Sahrawis is the Polisario Front, which was formally constituted on May 10, 1973. The first attack by the Sahrawi movement against Spanish positions occurred on May 20, 1973.

Less than two years later, in October 1975, Spain began negotiations for a handover of power with leaders of the Polisario. However, to pre-empt this step, on Nov. 6, 1975, Morocco invaded Western Sahara. The Spanish government did not want to fight and signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania on Nov. 14, 1975, to transfer the territory to both countries. But the Polisario kept fighting Morocco from its base near Tindouf, in Algeria.

In April 1991, the UN managed to get an agreement for a cease-fire between the two parties. The plan provided for a referendum to be held in which the Sahrawi people would decide whether they wanted to be independent or Moroccan, and the UN created Minurso (which stands for, in French, Mission des Nations Unies pour le Référendum au Sahara Occidental).

The head of Minurso was a Swiss diplomat, Johannes Manz, and his deputy was a former Pakistani UN staff member, Zia Rizvi. As a first step, the UN created the Identification Commission for the crucial responsibility of deciding who would be allowed to vote in the referendum. Once the list of voters was established, the Commission would change its name to the Referendum Commission and would then organize and supervise the vote.

I was officially detached on Aug. 1, 1991, from the UN Population Division to the Identification Commission of Minurso. The chairman of the Commission was Macaire Pedanou, a UN staff member from Togo, and there were five vice-chairpersons, including myself.

The cease-fire was scheduled to start in early September, and it was decided that the vice-chairpersons of the Commission would leave New York City for Laayoune (the capital of Western Sahara) on Sept. 7, 1991. The remainder of the Commission, about 30 people, were to join us later.

We boarded a Royal Air Maroc plane in New York City, on Sept. 7, with 100 kilograms of luggage each, enough for an expected six months in the desert. When we arrived in Casablanca, on the morning of Sept. 8, however, we were not allowed to proceed to Laayoune and were taken by force to Rabat, the capital, by the Moroccan secret police. We were kept there for nearly two weeks, until Sept. 21, for what amounted to daily brainwashing sessions with people justifying Moroccan possession of Western Sahara. We found out that our abduction had been organized by the minister of interior of Morocco, Driss Basri, with the agreement of Zia Rizvi, who was waiting for us in Rabat.

Rizvi had become de facto head of the UN mission in Morocco because Manz had given an interview to the media that the Moroccan government viewed as supporting the Polisario position, and he was no longer welcome in Morocco. While Manz initially planned to be full time in the country, he spent only two full days there.

On Sept. 21, 1991, we flew to Laayoune. There, instead of  staying in a tent in the desert, we were put in a five-star former ClubMed hotel!!!

During the next three weeks, from our base in Laayoune, we were very busy visiting the five regions of Western Sahara, as well as Tindouf, in Algeria, where the Polisario had their offices. I also went to Nouadhibou in Mauritania, where there were also Sahrawi refugee camps. The purpose was to discuss with the local authorities how to implement the identification of those who would be allowed to vote in the referendum.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, back in Laayoune from a trip to Boujdour, a seaside town in Western Sahara, we were told by Governor Azmi, who was designated by the Moroccan government to handle Minurso, that Rizvi had instructed him that we should all go back to New York City on Monday, Oct. 14. No reasons were given.

That day, as ordered, we took the plane for Casablanca and from there to New York City, where we arrived on Oct. 15.

The author in 1991, near Tindouf, Algeria, next to the plane assigned to the Identification Commission.

I later found out that just a couple of days before Rizvi ordered us to go back to New York City, another vice-chairman on the Commission, Gaby Milev, had found a solution to a practical problem that we had to solve in order to start the identification of voters. He had showed it to Rizvi, who ordered him not to mention it to anyone and took from him all the documents related to it. Two days later, we were ordered to go back to New York City.

While we were no longer in the Sahara, we were still members of the Identification Commission, and we worked on a report about how to go on with our job, to be presented to the Security Council through Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

In November, our chairman, Macaire Pedanou, presented our report to Pérez de Cuéllar, who asked him to modify it to make it more friendly to Morocco. Macaire replied that it was not his report but that of the Commission, and that he would convey the request to the other members of the body. We met and all agreed not to modify our report.

Nevertheless, the secretary-general had the report modified before it was presented to the Security Council. The main change was to say that the UN would execute the referendum “after agreement of the parties” (Morocco and Polisario), instead of “after consultation with the parties.” It meant that Morocco was given the power to stop the UN from organizing the referendum.

In a separate issue, I found that in May 1991 Rizvi had been fired, because of serious financial irregularities, from his UN post in Afghanistan. But he was then offered the post of deputy to Manz in Minurso by his friend Virendra Dayal, who was the director of the executive office of the secretary-general.

To make things even weirder, later in 1992, Pérez de Cuéllar, who had retired on Dec. 31, 1991, was offered a position with a company controlled by King Hassan of Morocco, the Omnium Nord-Africain (ONA). He resigned from it as soon as his role became public.

Manz was unhappy with what was happening, and he resigned from his position as special representative of the secretary-general for Western Sahara on Dec. 20, 1991. The members of the Identification Commission were sent back to their original posts in the UN on Jan. 31, 1992.

There are two possibilities to explain what happened. The one that seems the most likely to me is that Pérez de Cuéllar modified the report to the Security Council at the request of France, whose president, François Mitterrand, was openly backing Morocco (although his wife, Danielle, was the head of an organization to support the Polisario), and of the United States, which officially favored the right of people for self-determination but did not want an independent Western Sahara close to Algeria, Libya and the then-Soviet Union. The less likely possibility is that Pérez de Cuéllar had been given incentives by Morocco to stop the referendum.

In summary, if Manz had not given his interview to the media in 1991, he — and not Rizvi — would have been in charge of the daily operations of Minurso in Morocco. As a consequence, we would not have been sent back to New York City after five weeks, and we could have proceeded with our mission to organize the referendum, according to the authority given to Minurso by the Security Council.

The independent country of Western Sahara would have been created in 1992.

After the Identification Commission was disbanded on Jan. 8, 1992, Minurso continued to have an office in Laayoune, its only purpose being the monitoring of the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario.

In April 1993, the UN decided to reactivate the Identification Commission, and appointed Erik Jensen, a UN staff member, as its chairman. I was the only member of the original Commission to be asked to join the new one, and I was assigned to train the new members, as they had no knowledge about the background.

To my big surprise, I discovered that all the files from the Identification Commission had disappeared from the UN office in New York City. Fortunately, I had kept very good files with me, which allowed me to give detailed information to the new members.

I was transferred full time back to Minurso on May 16. However, I could not leave right away because I was getting married on May 31. I left on June 16, one day after my wife and I came back from our honeymoon. I stayed there for five months, half the time in Laayoune and half the time in Tindouf, and I went back to my regular work in New York City on Nov. 16, 1993.

As of September 2021, Morocco is still administering Western Sahara as part of Morocco, while the African Union considers that it is an independent country occupied by Morocco, and Minurso is still there with the mission of organizing a referendum. The Security Council is planning to renew its mandate yet again, on Oct. 29.

Joseph Alfred Grinblat is a statistician-economist-demographer who retired from the United Nations in 2004, after spending 30 years in the UN Population Division, except for two peacekeeping mission stints in Western Sahara. He also spent four years in Tunisia (1969-1973), working for the Population Council and the Ford Foundation. He lives in Flushing, New York.

7 thoughts on “My Work on the Origins of Minurso, the UN Mission in Western Sahara”

  1. encore aujourd’hui ne peut donner les statistiques sur une population sahraoui combien de sahraouis car et du côté Maroc et du côté Algérie il y a des immigrés de l’interieur qui viennent au Sahara pour gonfler les statistiques ce qui est inadmissible et non conforme au droit international et que MINURSO est incapable de faire un travail sérieux et juste…donc à cette question du Shara occidental avec l’ONU arrive à donner une résolution qui impose un droit de contrôle international sur les droits de l’homme ou non c’est et il semble tous les observateurs , sérieux, s’accordent à dire iln’y a qu’une guerre Algérie par le biais des sahraouis vs Maroc qui dira le droit ,et donc c’est l’avis d’Alger qui compte débuter cette guerre après le vote de l’ONU

    Reply
  2. Excellent témoignage qui rejoint ceux des autres personnes intègres qui dévoilent les causes réelles de l’échec des Nations Unies au au Sahara Occidental. Il faut aussi se rappeller et rendre hommage à Johannes Mans qui ne voulait pas se convertir en vice roi, Franck Roddy qui a dénoncé les pratiques marocaines pour musullé la Minurso et falsifier le corps électoral, James Baker qui a introduit la question des disparus en contraignant le Maroc à donner les premières réponses sur leur sort et le rôle du CICR dans les résolutions du Conseil de Sécurité (mention complètement disparue après sa démission), Francisco Basgtali qui a soulevé et s’est mobilisé pour la prise en compte de la question des droits de l’homme en envoyant pour la première fois une mission du Haut Commissariat des Nations Unies au Droits de l’Homme, Christopher Ross et Ban Ki Moon qui ont dit la vérité ainsi que de nombreux membres de la Minurso dont la probité et l’intégrité permettent de croire que l’Organisation des Nations Unies peut toujours se racheter et laver son image ternies au Sahara Occidental. C’est pourtant simple respecter et faire respecter ses propres principes et le Droit International, sinon elle sera condamner par l’histoire de faciliter la guerre ou lieu et place d’œuvrer pour la paix, la stabilité et le développement si chers dans ses discours.
    Abdeslam Omar Lahsen
    Président de l’Association des Familles des Prisonniers et Disparus Sahraouis (Afapredesa)

    Reply
    • Merci bien Abdeslam pour ta réponse pertinente.
      Heureusement qu’il y a encore toujours des personnes qui continuent à dévoi
      ler la vérité, à continuer la lutte même après tant d’années et après tant de difficultés

      Reply
  3. Unfortunately, this is another proof that the UN has long betrayed the innocent people of Western Sahara. I think the problem has never been on who is elegible to vote, because Spain, as an administering power, has a list of all the Saharawis who was born during the Spanish colonialism era. The problem is that the idea of the referendum was a tactic from the part of Morocco and other super powers to stop Saharawi army advancements and gain time and of course prepare the next scenario, which we are living after 32 years. As a Saharawi, I no longer have a confidence on this international body. Things now have changed, because as from this moment the final word is at the hand of the Saharawi people themselves and not on a very faked body like the MINURSO and the UN as a whole.

    Reply
  4. I am fascinated but not surprised at Mr. Grinblat’s account of the creation and beginnings of MINURSO. Apart from the superpower shenanigans, the problem is lack of spine in the UN bureaucracy. In my experience Mr. Cuellar was a good SG but did not have the capacity to fight the interests of France or the US. UN agenda and action are very much influenced by powerful nations and SG’s tend not to rush in where angels fear to tread, to quote Alexander Pope. Zia Rizvi was from UNHCR where he was the right hand man of Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan, then the the High Commissioner. The Prince took him to Afghanistan during Operation Salam. Rizvi acquired the reputation of someone who could ‘deliver’ cutting across UN red tape. I was not aware of the details revealed by Mr. Grinblat, and we can all be thankful to him for doing that. This story says so much about UN, an organization we love and lament. But this is what we have and we need to continue our efforts to make it work. Unfortunately the Saharawis are not the only people waiting for referendum. Our sympathies go to all of them.

    Reply

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