1. The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2548 (2020), by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 31 October 2021 and requested me to submit a report on the situation in Western Sahara before the end of the mandate period. The report covers developments that have occurred between 1 September 2020 and 31 August 2021 since the issuance of my previous report of 23 September 2020 (S/2020/938) and describes the situation on the ground, the status of political negotiations on Western Sahara, the implementation of resolution 2548 (2020) and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.
II. Recent developments
2. The situation in Western Sahara has significantly deteriorated since my previous report. The resumption of hostilities between Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) and the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have considerably changed the operational environment of MINURSO, limiting the Mission’s ability to implement its mandate.
3. Between 18 and 29 October 2020, MINURSO observed nine generally peaceful protests by groups of up to 80 Sahrawi civilians, including women and children, near the berm and at MINURSO team sites in Agwanit, Bir Lahlou, Mehaires, Mijek and Tifariti. The demonstrators conveyed to MINURSO a number of demands, including that “a referendum be held” and a solution be found to the status of the Territory; that the road in the buffer strip at Guerguerat be permanently closed; and that “Sahrawi political prisoners be released from Moroccan jails”. In each instance, the protests dispersed peacefully on the same day without security incidents.
4. On 21 October 2020, MINURSO observed that a group of approximately 50 people, including women and at least 1 child, were present in the buffer strip at Guerguerat. Demonstrators set up a roadblock at the paved portion of the ro ad inside the buffer strip, obstructing all traffic between the Territory and Mauritania. The same day, MINURSO implemented enhanced monitoring measures to keep abreast of developments and liaised with the parties to call for calm.
5. On the same day, in a letter addressed to my Special Representative for Western Sahara, the Moroccan Coordinator with MINURSO expressed concern regarding the demonstration “sent by the Frente POLISARIO” and called on my Special Representative to “demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of polisario from the buffer strip”, while noting that Morocco “reserve[d] the right to take any necessary actions, including intervention on the ground, to ensure the free circulation of civilian and commercial traffic and to re-establish the status quo ante”. In a written communication to my Special Representative on the same day, the Frente POLISARIO representative in New York, then also in his capacity as Acting Coordinator with MINURSO, denied their involvement in the demonstration.
6. On 22 October, in addition to the daily presence of military observers and regular helicopter reconnaissance, MINURSO deployed a civilian-military team to the buffer strip at Guerguerat to help defuse tensions. MINURSO was obstructed by the protestors from moving beyond the roadblocks to conduct a full on-the-ground verification of the area. The protestors reiterated the demands that had been presented to MINURSO earlier in the month during the demonstrations east of the berm (see para. 3 above).
7. On 22 October, in a letter addressed to me, the Secretary-General of Frente POLISARIO, Brahim Ghali, stated that the “presence of Sahrawi civilians in the buffer strip at Guerguerat [was] not a violation of any military agreement”.
8. From 22 to 29 October, MINURSO helicopter reconnaissance over Guerguerat observed the presence in the buffer strip of up to 12 armed Frente POLISARIO personnel in military uniform and up to eight military-style light vehicles, two of which had mounted heavy weapons. The Frente POLISARIO representative in New York and then Acting Coordinator of Frente POLISARIO with MINURSO informed my Special Representative that these military elements were deployed exclusively to protect the civilian protesters. My Special Representative advised Frente POLISARIO that this would nonetheless be in violation of military agreement No. 1 and urged Frente POLISARIO to withdraw its military personnel and vehicles from the buffer strip. On 29 October, MINURSO aerial reconnaissance observed that some, but not all, of the vehicles had been withdrawn.
9. Starting on 26 October, MINURSO helicopter reconnaissance observed 16 Royal Moroccan Army vehicles west of the berm, carrying heavy-duty earth-moving machinery in the direction of Guerguerat. To reduce tensions, and as no construction or maintenance requests had been authorized in the Bir Gandouz sector at the time, the Mission, in accordance with its role under military agreement No. 1, requested that the Royal Moroccan Army withdraw the equipment. The Royal Moroccan Army assured MINURSO that it would comply, although no withdrawal was observed.
10. On 6 November, MINURSO helicopter reconnaissance observed the arrival of a Royal Moroccan Army military force comprising approximately 250 vehicles, many with heavy weapons, about 12 km north-east of Guerguerat in the area defined under military agreement No. 1 as the restricted area. MINURSO advised the Royal Moroccan Army that military agreement No. 1 stipulated that such concentrations of forces in that area would constitute a violation and therefore urged the Army to withdraw.
11. On 7 November, King Mohammed VI of Morocco delivered a speech on the occasion of the forty-fifth anniversary of the Green March rejecting the “unacceptable practices designed to disrupt the normal flow of traffic between Morocco and Mauritania” and asserting that Morocco would “respond, with the utmost firmness and resolve, to any practices or attempts designed to undermine the security and stability of its southern provinces”.
12. In a letter dated 12 November, King Mohammed VI urged me to “redouble” my efforts to find a prompt and definitive end to the “acts of intolerable and destabilizing provocations” by Frente POLISARIO in the buffer strip at Guerguerat. The letter added that “the Kingdom of Morocco…by virtue of its responsibilities and in full compliance with international legality, reserve[d] the right to act, at the time and in the manner it deem[ed] necessary, in order to safeguard the status of the zone and restore free movement”.
13. On the morning of 13 November, MINURSO observed the protestors in the buffer strip at Guerguerat and the armed Frente POLISARIO elements abruptly departing the site of the demonstration. Shortly thereafter, an exchange of fire was heard, including two gunshots from the direction of Frente POLISARIO positions and heavy weapons fire from the direction of the berm adjacent to where the Royal Moroccan Army had deployed (see paras. 9 and 10 above). Royal Moroccan Army elements were then observed arriving at the site the protestors had held in the buffer strip. No casualties were reported to MINURSO from the day’s events. That evening,
MINURSO helicopter reconnaissance, which could not fly earlier due to the live -fire conditions, observed three new breaches across the berm south-east of Guerguerat. Approximately 6 km east of the paved road, MINURSO helicopter reconnaissance observed that Royal Moroccan Army bulldozers had begun constructing a new sand wall through the buffer strip.
14. In a letter addressed to me the same day, Mr. Ghali condemned “the brutal attack on unarmed Sahrawi civilians” noting that “the military operation by Moroccan forces [was] an act of aggression and a flagrant violation of the ceasefire”, which “the United Nations and the Security Council should condemn in the strongest terms”. In a statement issued the same day, the Moroccan Minister for Foreign Affairs noted that Moroccan actions at Guerguerat took place in a “peaceful manner, without clashes or threat to the safety of civilians”.
15. On 14 November, Mr. Ghali issued a “decree” declaring “an end of [the Frente POLISARIO] commitment to the ceasefire”, and “the consequent resumption of armed struggle in defence of the legitimate rights of [the Sahrawi] people”.
16. Since then, low-intensity hostilities have continued, with regular reports by the Royal Moroccan Army and Frente POLISARIO of shots fired across the berm.
According to MINURSO calculations based on reporting by the parties, the incidence of reported firing has decreased since January and has primarily been concentrated in the north of the Territory near Mahbas. While MINURSO did not identify major discrepancies in the number and the location of the firing incidents reported by the parties, their impact is the subject of contradicting claims. Frente POLISARIO has regularly claimed in their communiqués to be inflicting significant damage to the Moroccan side. Morocco has publicly refuted such claims and the Royal Moroccan Army has conveyed to MINURSO that they only return fire “in cases of direct threat against [Royal Moroccan Army] troops” and “always in proportion to actions” of Frente POLISARIO. On 1 February, the Frente POLISARIO Coordinator stated in a written communication to MINURSO that “since 13 November 2020, the entire Territory of Western Sahara has become a zone of open war”. In a letter addressed to me on 23 February, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations asserted that there was a “total absence of any armed conflict”.
17. During the reporting period, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea,
Eswatini, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Jordan, Libya, Malawi, Senegal, Sierra Leone,
Suriname, the United Arab Emirates and Zambia inaugurated or announced their intention to inaugurate “Consulates General” in Laayoune or Dakhla. In letters addressed to me on 23 October 2020, 28 October 2020, 4 November 2020, 15 December 2020, 17 December 2020, 19 December 2020, 5 March 2021, 6 April 2021 and 30 August 2021, Mr. Ghali called these diplomatic representations a “violation of international law and…breach of the international legal status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory”.
18. On 10 December 2020, in a presidential proclamation, the United States of America recognized “Moroccan sovereignty over the entire Western Sahara territory” and reaffirmed its “support for Morocco’s serious, credible and realistic autonomy proposal as the only basis for a just and lasting solution to the dispute”. In a letter sent on 17 December, the Acting Coordinator of Frente POLISARIO underscored that the proclamation was “a regrettable and unilateral position that violate[d] the [United Nations] Charter and resolutions”. On 24 December, the United States announced that it would inaugurate a “virtual presence post for Western Sahara”.
19. West of the berm, Morocco continued investing in infrastructure development during the reporting period. On 30 April 2021, Moroccan authorities announced the winner of a bid to construct the Dakhla Atlantic Port and construction is now under way. Furthermore, work on building an expressway linking Tiznit in Morocco to Dakhla continued. On 24 and 26 June, diplomatic delegations from Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen visited Dakhla and Laayoune to explore investment opportunities. Frente POLISARIO considers such investments an attempt “to consolidate and normalize [the] military occupation and the illegal annexation of parts of Western Sahara” (S/2020/938, para. 8).
20. On 24 August, Algeria announced it was severing diplomatic relations with Morocco, citing, inter alia, “Morocco’s abandonment of the commitment made by King Hassan II in a joint communiqué” to support “a just and final solution to the Western Sahara conflict through holding a free and fair referendum that allows the Sahrawi people to decide their future in full credibility and without any restraints”. The same day, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement taking note of “the unilateral decision of Algeria to sever diplomatic relations with Morocco”, which it “regret[ted] as completely unjustified”.
21. On 27 August, I announced the appointment of Alexander Ivanko (Russian Federation) as my new Special Representative for Western Sahara and Head of MINURSO, to succeed Colin Stewart (Canada), who completed his assignment on 26 August.