The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2351 (2017), by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2018 and requested me to provide a report to it on the situation in Western Sahara well before the end of the mandate period. It covers developments since the previous report (S/2017/307) and describes the situation on the ground, the status and progress of the political negotiations on Western Sahara, the implementation of resolution 2351 (2017) and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.
On 16 August 2017, I announced my decision to appoint Horst Koehler (Germany) as my new Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, to replace Christopher Ross (United States of America), whose mandate ended on 30 April 2017. Mr. Koehler took up his functions on 8 September. On 1 December, I also announced the appointment of Colin Stewart (Canada) as my new Special Representative for Western Sahara and Head of MINURSO, to succeed Kim Bolduc (Canada), who completed her assignment on 22 November.
II. Recent developments
The situation in Western Sahara, as far as MINURSO was able to observe, remained generally calm during the reporting period. However, tensions between the parties, including on the unresolved issues concerning Guerguerat, as well as security concerns, continued to characterize the operational environment and mandate implementation of MINURSO.
On 28 April 2017, Frente Polisario withdrew its armed elements from the buffer strip at Guerguerat, in the south of the Territory. MINURSO continued to maintain a day-time presence in the area to monitor developments, augmented as necessary by helicopter patrols. The Guerguerat area remained calm and free of the presence of elements of either party for the reporting period until late December, when a small group of Frente Polisario military briefly entered the buffer strip to deliver a message to MINURSO observers to the effect that Frente Polisario would be blocking a car rally scheduled to pass through the Territory to Mauritania. As of 4 January 2018, a small group of apparently unarmed Frente Polisario elements established what the Frente Polisario leadership described as a daylight-hour “monitoring post” inside the buffer strip, approximately 500 metres south-east of the MINURSO temporary observation post. At the time of reporting, the elements remain in the location during daylight hours. Frente Polisario assured MINURSO that the presence consists of unarmed civilian “police”. On 24 January 2018, MINURSO was invited to observe that there were no weapons in their vehicle.
The Security Council, through operative paragraph 3 of its resolution 2351 (2017), recognized that the recent crisis in the buffer strip in Guerguerat raised fundamental questions related to the ceasefire and related agreements and encouraged me to explore ways in which such questions could be resolved. In this regard, the Secretariat sent notes verbales to Morocco and Frente Polisario on 2 June proposing to address these questions, including through the deployment of an expert mission to conduct in-depth consultations with the parties. The Secretariat also solicited information on the questions referred to in paragraph 3 of resolution 2351 (2017).
The proposal was accepted by Frente Polisario in June. In August, Morocco responded that military agreement No. 1 remained viable and a guarantee for the preservation of the ceasefire. Therefore, it considered the proposed mission “untimely” and “inappropriate”.
In a letter dated 9 December 2017, the Secretary-General of Frente Polisario,
Brahim Ghali, protested inter alia that the crisis in Guerguerat had not been resolved, that no United Nations expert mission had been deployed and that no concrete action had been taken by the United Nations to implement the provisions of Security Council resolution 2351 (2017). He warned that Frente Polisario would not “accept the continuation of this state of affairs”.
On 4 January 2018, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations addressed a letter to my Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, expressing concern over the developing situation in Guerguerat, stating that the Frente Polisario presence inside the buffer strip is of a military nature, thus constituting a violation of military agreement No. 1. The message was reiterated by the Moroccan authorities during several exchanges with my Personal Envoy and with my Under-Secretaries-General for Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations.
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 might constitute a change to the status quo of the buffer strip. In a letter addressed to the Secretary-General of Frente Polisario 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.
In a letter dated 7 January, the Secretary-General of Frente Polisario urged that the underlying causes of tensions in Guerguerat “be addressed effectively in the context of a comprehensive approach in which the full implementation of the mandate of MINURSO must take centre stage.” He also recalled that the decision by Frente Polisario to withdraw its presence from Guerguerat in April 2017 was made to facilitate the efforts of the United Nations and would be reviewed in the light of the “commitments of all stakeholders”. With regard to the passage of civilian traffic through the area, he lamented that this implied the expansion of Morocco “up to the border of a third country and the implicit recognition that the final status of the Territory has already been determined”. In conclusion, the Secretary-General of Frente Polisario noted that Frente Polisario remained committed to engaging in substantive negotiations without preconditions and to cooperating fully with me and my Personal Envoy.
On 1 February, the Permanent Representative of Morocco, in a letter addressed to my Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, reiterated the concern of Morocco over the continued presence of Frente Polisario near Guerguerat.
Morocco also underscored that the presence endangered the relaunch of the political process. On 5 February, the Moroccan Coordinator with MINURSO wrote to my Special Representative in the same vein, asking him to continue and intensify his engagement with Frente Polisario in order to obtain its immediate and unconditional withdrawal.
On 6 November, King Mohammed VI delivered an address to mark the fortysecond anniversary of the Green March. He stated that Morocco remains committed to engaging in the political process in the current dynamic that I called for and to cooperating with my Personal Envoy. He indicated that the engagement of Morocco rested on four established principles: (a) rejection of any solution other than the full sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara and its autonomy proposal; (b) all parties shouldering their responsibility to find a final solution; (c) respect for the Security Council as the only international body tasked with overseeing the settlement process; and (d) rejection of any “obsolete proposals designed to divert the settlement process from the set terms of reference”. Morocco would not sit by and wait for the desired solution to be found, but rather press ahead with its endeavours to promote development in “[its] southern regions”, including enabling them to be a link between Morocco and countries further south in Africa. Media reported that Frente Polisario had denounced the speech as a “denial of Morocco’s commitments under the peace process”.
During the reporting period, public life in Laayoune, insofar as MINURSO was able to observe, remained mostly peaceful but marked by a number of demonstrations, which Frente Polisario claims were violently repressed by Moroccan security forces.
Meanwhile, Moroccan investment in Western Sahara continued, and numerous projects were either implemented or announced. Frente Polisario has repeatedly protested illegal exploitation by Morocco of the natural resources of Western Sahara and the creation of a new status quo on the ground.
Public life in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, remained peaceful and free of major incidents, although frustrations continued among refugees about the stalemate in the political process. A few sporadic demonstrations took place in the refugee camps, protesting, for example, water shortages in the Smara camp in May and electricity shortages in the Laayoune camp in January. A small protest was held in Rabouni, near Tindouf, in May against the decision by Frente Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat, demanding that it be reconsidered. Frente Polisario officials confirmed to MINURSO that two small-scale drug-related security incidents took place in the Awsard and Smara camps. The steady decrease in humanitarian aid to the refugees remained of concern. Donor appeals were issued by the World Food Programme (WFP) and by the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Algeria, in May and October respectively. In July, heavy winds caused damage to over 100 household shelters and a number of education facilities in the Dakhla refugee camp, resulting in a small number of injuries.
Frente Polisario repeatedly raised concerns with MINURSO about the increased threat posed by illicit drug smuggling in Western Sahara, claiming that it originated from Morocco. In June, Frente Polisario announced the arrest of 19 Moroccan nationals on charges of drug trafficking. On 31 October, the 19 individuals were sentenced to up to 16 years’ imprisonment. Frente Polisario informed MINURSO that they were being held in a detention facility in Tifariti.
The Moroccan authorities wrote to me on five occasions to, inter alia, express concern about the Frente Polisario being present and constructing sand walls in the buffer strip near Guerguerat. The Permanent Representative of Morocco also wrote to me to reiterate that the Western Sahara conflict lies within the exclusive competency of the United Nations Security Council. He reiterated the categorical opposition of Morocco to any involvement of the African Union in the political process. In a letter dated 18 April 2017, the Permanent Representative described my previous report on Western Sahara (S/2017/307) as being not balanced and criticized certain omissions and shortcomings, in particular as they pertained to the human rights and humanitarian situation in the refugee camps near Tindouf and relations between MINURSO and Frente Polisario.
The Secretary-General of Frente Polisario wrote to me on 16 occasions, deploring what he described as Moroccan violations of human rights, such as the repression of peaceful demonstrations, the illegal detention of the co -defendants in the Gdeim Izik case and the death of one Gdeim Izik prisoner; provocative actions in the territorial waters off south-west Western Sahara; and the illegal exploitation of natural resources, including by declaring an exclusive economic zone in the waters adjacent to Western Sahara. He repeatedly called on the United Nations to institute a human rights monitoring mechanism, implement the 1991 Settlement Plan for Western Sahara, and to “protect the territorial integrity of the Non-Self-Governing Territory of Western Sahara.” With respect to my previous report on Western Sahara, the representative of Frente Polisario in New York expressed concern that the characterization of Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory was cited as a Frente Polisario position, while it is the position of the United Nations General Assembly. He also criticized my repeated calls upon the Frente Polisario to withdraw