UN Chiefs Western Sahara Report a Breath of Fresh Air for

Washington D.C. – United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, released the advanced copy of his much-anticipated annual report on the situation in the Western Sahara, which was obtained by Morocco World News. The report, the basis for the Security Council’s upcoming decision whether or not to renew the mandate of the UN mission in the territory, known as MINURSO, includes a number of points that will certainly be welcomed by Morocco.The Western Sahara Question is a UN Prerogative Prior to the publication of the report and in light of the meetings that the UNSG personal envoy, Horst Kohler, held with representatives of the African Union and the European Union, many in Morocco feared that these meetings heralded a new approach by the UN to involve other parties in the negotiating process.  Moroccan observers feared that the UNSG was paving the way for the African Union to become a full-fledged stakeholder in the UN-led political process, a position that Morocco has fiercely opposed for years. With the publication of the new annual report, the UNSG leaves no doubt that the United Nations is the only international organization that has the legitimacy and credibility to help the parties reach a mutually acceptable political solution.In paragraph 26 of the draft report, Guterres noted that all the African Union and European Union officials who met with Personal Envoy, Horst Kohler, in recent months, reiterated their support for the Personal Envoy and acknowledged the leadership of the United Nations in the political process.“In these discussions, the interlocutors pledged support for my Personal Envoy’s efforts and acknowledged the lead of the United Nations in the process,” Guterres said.As in previous reports, the UNSG report steered away from mentioning the European Court of Justice rulings on the EU-Morocco Fisheries Agreement. This omission is an apparent setback for the Polisario and Algeria, which have redoubled their efforts in recent years to persuade the United Nations to politicize the issue of the alleged exploitation of natural resources in the territory.UN Concerned about Buffer ZonesThe situation in the buffer zone of Guerguerat also features prominently in Guterres’ annual report. Polisario members have been violating the UN 1991 ceasefire agreement through their illegal armed maneuvers in the region.Guterres reiterated the firm position of the United Nations against the presence of the Polisario in the Guerguerat area. In paragraph 8, the UNSG reaffirmed his appeal of January 6, 2018 for the Polisario to withdraw, such that the flow of commercial and civil traffic is not hindered and such that no action taken could constitute a change in status of the buffer zone.“On 6 January, I expressed deep concern about recent increased tensions in Guerguerat, calling on the parties to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid escalating tensions. I also called for regular civilian and commercial traffic not to be obstructed and for no action to be taken that may constitute a change to the status quo of the buffer strip. In a letter addressed to Mr. Ghali and dated 5 January, I requested that the parties refrain from actions that could undermine the efforts of my Personal Envoy to relaunch the political process, while also reiterating my commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict,” he said.While recognizing Morocco’s efforts to avoid escalation in the buffer zone, Guterres expressed in paragraph 80 of his report concerns about “the renewed Frente Polisario presence in Guerguerat, and the challenges such actions by either party may bring to the ceasefire.” He, therefore, called on the Polisario to “withdraw from the buffer strip as they did in April 2017.”Two Details of Great Significance to Morocco In any report of the Secretary General, what matters most is the chapter on “observations and recommendations.” This year’s annual report contains two details that are of great significance.The first detail is the emphasis on Guterres’ call on Algeria to contribute to and increase its engagement in the political process. In paragraph 78 of the draft report, the UNSG stresses the importance that Algeria, along with Mauritania, contribute effectively to the UN-led political process aimed at helping the parties to reach a mutually agreed political solution.“I would like to reiterate the Security Council’s call on neighboring States, Algeria and Mauritania, to make important contributions to the political process and to increase their engagement in the negotiating process,” he said.This year’s language concerning Algeria’s involvement in the process is stronger than previous years when the UNSG limited himself to pointing out that “Algeria and Mauritania, as neighboring countries, can and should make important contributions to this process.”The significance of this year’s language is that it stresses the need for Algeria to be involved in the political process, thus echoing Morocco’s diplomatic position, which has long emphasized that Algeria is a major party in the conflict and should therefore be involved in the UN-led political process.The second detail relates to the concept of self-determination. In paragraph 78 of the report, the UNSG insists that the parties to the conflict should show a spirit of compromise in reaching a political solution, in accordance with the resolutions adopted since 2007. In this paragraph, the UNSG makes no mention of the concept of self-determination, whereas all previous reports referred to this concept when talking about the need to conduct “direct negotiations between the parties, which are to occur without preconditions, in good faith.”“In its resolutions since the beginning of 2007, the Security Council has directed me to facilitate direct negotiations between the parties, which are to occur without preconditions, in good faith, taking into account the efforts made since 2006 and subsequent developments, while working with realism and a spirit of compromise,” Guterres said.This paragraph contrasts starkly with the second paragraph of the “observations and recommendations” of last year’s report in which the UNSG mentioned the concept of self-determination.“In a series of resolutions beginning in 2007, the Security Council has directed the Secretary-General to facilitate direct negotiations between the parties to reach a “mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” Over the years, the Council has provided ample guidance that the negotiations are to occur without preconditions, in good faith, taking into account the efforts made since 2006 and subsequent developments, and working with realism and a spirit of compromise,” Guterres said in his report published in April 2017.In addition, the report raises serious concerns of the United Nations with regard to the security situation in the buffer zone. It is very significant that these concerns appear immediately after the paragraph where the UNSG expressed his concerns about the Polisario’s repeated maneuvers in Guerguerat.“Further, I remain deeply concerned about security in Western Sahara, in particular in the vast and empty desert expanse east of the berm, where unarmed military observers of MINURSO remain vulnerable to threats by criminal and terrorist groups,” the UNSG said.This statement echoes the efforts that Morocco has made in recent years to draw the attention of the international community to the possibility that the Tindouf camps and the vast areas of the buffer zone may become safe havens for terrorist and criminal organizations.The report, however, falls short of calling for conducting a census in the Tindouf camps to determine the exact number of people living there. For the past several years, Morocco has called on the United Nations to conduct a census in the territory and to shed light on the systematic embezzlement of the humanitarian assistance destined to the population living in the camps.A Need for CautionHowever positive the language of the UN report might appear, Moroccans should not assume that the dynamics of the conflict are in their favor. Moroccan diplomacy has yet to convince the Security Council of the validity of its approach to putting an end to the conflict. What matters most is the resolution that the Security Council will decide on April 30. It remains to be seen whether it will reflect the same language regarding Algeria and Mauritania’s involvement or whether it will settle for using the same language as last year’s resolution.With the appointment of John Bolton, a hawkish American politician known for his sympathy towards the Polisario, as the new National Security Adviser for President Donald Trump, Moroccans would better be served to show some caution. At this juncture, with Bolton scheduled to start his new job on April 9, it would be hard to predict the outcome of UN Security Council deliberations next month about the conflict.Will the UN finally depart from its fixation on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence? Will it explore other avenues to help the parties reach a mutually acceptable political solution? Will its members admit that a solution to this complex conflict cannot be found based on the same principles of the 1960s and the 1970s? Or will Bolton, known for his support for a referendum on self-determination, weigh in on the deliberations of the Security Council prior to the adoption of the new annual resolution? Will his appointment usher in a new chapter in the UN-led political process?The language of the resolution that will be adopted at the end April will demonstrate to what extent the UN is ready to bring about a political solution to the conflict.

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