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Washington Must Act at the UN on Western Sahara’s Dangerous Crisis

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Sahara occidental
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ICG
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On 29 October, the UN Security Council will vote on the UN mission in Western Sahara’s renewal. Following last year’s resumption of hostilities and the appointment of a new envoy, Council members should signal their commitment to relaunching negotiations and an even-handed approach to the conflict.

The resumption of hostilities in Western Sahara exacerbates the plight of tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees and fuels conflict in North Africa, the Sahel and Europe. The UN Security Council, months after fighting has restarted, has yet to take a clear stance to address the crisis. It is time now for Washington to act and place a higher priority on resolving the conflict. Given its influence over both parties, the U.S. has a special responsibility ahead of an important Council meeting on the disputed territory this month.

Morocco and the Polisario Front have been locked in a conflict over Western Sahara since 1975. Following a long diplomatic deadlock and the May 2019 resignation of the UN Personal Envoy, Horst Köhler, the gap between Rabat and the pro-independence movement widened. Tensions rose after Morocco encouraged African and Arab governments to open consulates in Western Sahara and the Polisario riposted by blockading a main road through the territory’s southern Guerguerat region.

An estimated 173,000 refugees live in five camps near the Algerian border with Western Sahara and wish to return once the fighting is over. The camps’ living conditions are precarious. In April 2020, the UN Refugee Agency estimated that only 12 per cent of the refugee population was food secure, with acute malnutrition for children aged six to 59 months up from 4.7 per cent of the population in 2016 to 7.6 per cent in 2019.

For several months this resumption of hostilities failed to elicit a discernible international response. The U.S. administration appears to prefer avoiding to confirm or rescind former President Donald Trump’s December 2020 recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a major win for Rabat. Instead, Washington has focused on restarting the UN-led diplomatic process by pressuring Morocco to accept the latest candidate for the UN envoy position, Staffan de Mistura. In October, the UN announced the appointment of this widely experienced diplomat.

This is a positive step, but the international community’s overall slow reaction to the events in Western Sahara has frustrated pro-Polisario Sahrawis. Displaced youth are probably the most disillusioned group. Some are now demanding the Polisario attempt more daring military operations against Rabat. Over time, long-term international inertia could lead frustrated youth to enter and escalate the fight themselves, particularly if they find an external actor willing to support them.

Recent tensions between Morocco and Spain have also highlighted other risks. In mid-May, Rabat allegedly allowed thousands of would-be migrants to surge toward its border with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast. That appeared to be a retaliation against Madrid’s April decision to host Polisario leader Brahim Ghali, who needed urgent hospitalisation for COVID-19. Morocco resumed its normal border policing only a few days later, but this incident highlighted the conflict’s potential security repercussions for Europe.

If the U.S. believes benign neglect of this long-running crisis will serve its interests, it should think again.

With the new envoy in place and two key UN Security Council meetings on Western Sahara scheduled for mid- and late October, Washington should seize the moment to push at the Council for talks to resume now.

To show that it means business, the U.S. ought publicly to present possible changes to the mandate of MINURSO, the UN’s Western Sahara peacekeeping organisation. It could propose to shorten MINURSO’s mandate from twelve to six months so that the Council can consider and act on the evolving situation on the ground more frequently to put pressure on both sides. In the next resolution reauthorising MINURSO, it could also add to standard language on seeking “a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution” a reference to Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Without that addition, the Polisario will continue to see the UN as endorsing Morocco’s 2007 Autonomy Plan as the permanent solution to the conflict. That Plan would keep Western Sahara under Rabat’s sovereignty while recognising a degree of self-government to the region, with no provision for Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. By adding clarifying language and projecting a more balanced approach to the conflict, the Council could help encourage the Polisario back to the negotiating table while leaving open choices for self-determination and Moroccan ideas for achieving this.

These signals could be just enough to convince both sides that Washington and the Security Council are seriously committed to finding a durable solution to the conflict, and the pro-independence movement and the Sahrawi refugee population that there is still hope for a political settlement. Pressing the parties to restart talks is the only way for Washington to open the path to improve the humanitarian conditions for thousands of refugees and contain the stability threats to the region and Europe emanating from this conflict. Human lives are plainly at risk and early action to head off further escalation would be both wise and timely, as the situation is deteriorating. The consequences of a failure to act are clear and contrary to American and world interests.