Western Sahara Part 3

By | July 5, 2021

New mediators

Baker’s successor as UN envoy, the Dutchman Peter van Walsum, announced in 2008 that he considered Polisario’s goal of an independent Western Sahara to be no longer “realistic”. To break the deadlock, van Walsum therefore called on the Security Council to propose another way forward, that is, to allow him to explore some form of autonomy solution.

This provoked sharp criticism from the Polisario, who declared that they no longer had confidence in the Dutchman as mediator. He resigned shortly thereafter and was replaced in January 2009 by US diplomat Christopher Ross.

Ross continued to organize talks between Polisario and Morocco, to no avail. The Security Council, in turn, continued to routinely extend Minurso’s mandate. Despite the fact that Minurso still formally has as its main goal to organize a referendum, for political reasons it no longer conducts any work to realize it, but is content to monitor the ceasefire. A breakthrough for the UN negotiations in this deadlock seems unlikely.

In recent years, however, several states have supported Polisario’s demand that Minurso be provided with an expanded mandate to monitor human rights in both Western Sahara and the refugee camps. Since the protests in the occupied territories in 2005, the issue of human rights has received increasing attention. Despite this, Minurso is one of very few UN operations that is not allowed to register and combat human rights violations in its area of ​​work. Morocco opposes an extended mandate and France has blocked all proposals in that direction in the Security Council.

Riots in El Aaiún

The question became more topical after violence broke out in the Moroccan-occupied parts of Western Sahara in the autumn of 2010. After a few weeks of protests against discrimination and poverty, several thousand Saharans had gathered in a tent camp outside El Aaiún. When the police stormed the camp, riots broke out which quickly took on ethnic and nationalist overtones. Eleven policemen and two Sahrais were killed, hundreds were arrested and injured, and several buildings were burnt down.

In 2013, a military court in Rabat sentenced nine Western Saharans to life in prison for their involvement in the violence. In the same year, violence broke out in connection with a demonstration for independence in El Aaiún, and even later riots have occurred.

After the United States also backed the demand for the UN to monitor human rights, Morocco withdrew in April 2013 from a planned joint military exercise with American troops. Morocco called the proposal an interference in the country’s internal affairs. The United States then backed down on the issue.

Western Sahara Riots in El Aaiún

Increased tensions

In the spring of 2016, Morocco ended up in the most serious dispute to date with the UN since the 1991 ceasefire. The government in Rabat accused Ban of not being neutral and ordered civilian UN personnel to leave Western Sahara. About 75 people were deported in March. About a third could return after a few months, but just over a year after the deportation, it was still unclear whether the staffing would return to the same level as before.

In August 2016, tensions escalated as Morocco began building a road south of the buffer zone separating the parties, near the border with Mauritania. According to Morocco, it was an effort to prevent cross-border smuggling, but the Polisario saw it as a provocation. Both sides sent armed soldiers into the buffer zone and thus, according to the UN, were guilty of violating the ceasefire.

Morocco withdrew its troops from the zone in February 2017. Shortly afterwards, UN envoy Ross resigned, whom the Moroccans accused of being biased in Polisario’s favor. After Polisario also withdrew from the zone, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in April in support of new talks on Western Sahara. The new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed former German President Horst Köhler as the new UN envoy. During the autumn, Köhler visited Morocco and the refugee camps in Algeria, in an attempt to start a new round of talks.

Sweden and Western Sahara

Since the early 1960’s, at the initiative of Morocco, Western Sahara has been included in the UN list of non-autonomous territories to be decolonised. At the time, the area was a Spanish colony and went by the name Spanish Sahara. In 1975, Morocco annexed the area, after which Spain left. A difficult conflict over the status of the area has since prevailed between Morocco and the Western Saharan liberation movement Polisario.

A ceasefire has existed since 1991. Under the UN leadership, negotiations on a political solution are underway. The Swedish government fully supports the UN Secretary – General’s Special Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross,’s efforts to find a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that gives the people of Western Sahara self – determination in accordance with the principles decided by the UN Security Council.