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The UN extends its mission in Western Sahara without promoting the self-determination referendum

Several Sahrawis from refugee camps in Algeria block the Guerguerat border crossing on October 21.LIAM BACHIR / EFE

The UN Security Council voted this Friday in favor of extending the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) by one year, until October 31, 2021. The vote, which was scheduled for last Wednesday, It occurred remotely after several members of a diplomatic delegation tested positive for COVID-19. Among the 15 countries that make up the Council, 13 voted in favor of the text of the resolution – drawn up by the United States – while the main allies of the Polisario Front, Russia and South Africa, abstained.

The resolution, as indicated by the Polisario Front in a statement, does not contain “concrete actions” that allow the Minurso “to fulfill the mandate for which it was established in 1991,” when the ceasefire was signed between the two parties. That mandate, according to the Sahrawi organization, was none other than “holding a referendum” of self-determination.

The Moroccan media, led by the official MAP agency, have welcomed the text because they understand that it supports Morocco’s thesis, according to which the only “realistic” solution is the negotiation of autonomy in the Sahara. This autonomy plan enjoys the support of France, Morocco’s main supporter at the UN, and the United States, which considers it a serious and credible project. The MAP agency indicated in a dispatch: “The resolution has consolidated for the fourteenth consecutive year the pre-eminence of the Moroccan autonomy initiative.”

The Moroccan authorities often refer to the Polisario Front as a mere puppet in the hands of Algeria. That is why the Moroccan media are pleased that Algeria has been mentioned up to five times in the text. Indeed, the Council encourages the parties to resume the dialogue that began in Geneva in December 2018 at a round table in which representatives of the Polisario Front and Morocco, as well as Mauritania and Algeria sat.

The Geneva dialogue was interrupted in May 2019 when the personal envoy of the UN Secretary General for Western Sahara, former German President Horst Köhler, resigned for health reasons. That resignation was a blow to the Polisario Front, which had praised Köhler’s effort to overcome the immobilization of the conflict. Almost a year and a half after his resignation, the UN has yet to appoint a replacement.

Meanwhile, everything remains the same in Western Sahara. Morocco administers and controls what it considers to be its “southern provinces”. And on the other side of the border, in the refugee camps near the Algerian city of Tindouf, some 170,000 Sahrawi refugees have been living for 40 years, according to figures from the UN refugee agency (Acnur).

The situation only seems to change every year during the days prior to the Security Council vote on the extension of the mandate of the Ministry, when diplomatic tensions occur. On this occasion, as happened in 2017, the Polisario Front has decided to block the border crossing from Western Sahara to Mauritania since October 21, which is known as the Guerguerat buffer zone, a no man’s land. Dozens of Moroccan trucks have been prevented from moving to Mauritania.

This year, however, it is not certain that the blockade will end once the extension of the Ministry’s mandate is approved. The Polisario Front indicated in its statement that “the inaction” of the Security Council has left it “with no other option but to intensify” its fight. “We hold the occupying State fully responsible for the serious consequences that its dangerous actions may have for peace and security throughout the region,” the letter states.

Meanwhile, Rabat has promoted in recent months the creation of a dozen consulates of allied African countries in the Sahrawi cities of Laayoune and Dakhla. These were joined last Wednesday by the announcement that the United Arab Emirates will also open another consulate in the disputed area and will thus become the first Arab country to do so.