Recently, the UN Security Council held a rather extraordinary discussion of the situation in Western Sahara, something that has now been on the UN Security Council’s agenda for over forty years. That discussion has passed through various stages: ranging from euphoria in anticipation of a nationwide referendum on independence in the early 2000s to total political amnesia from 2012 to 2015. But now the issue of Western Sahara has taken on great new urgency, and a diplomatic war is on the verge of erupting between the UN and Morocco.
Earlier this year, Morocco, which has occupied Western Sahara since 1975, shut down the work of the UN Mission. The conflict flared up at the highest levels: the Moroccan government spoke out against UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon personally, because in a speech he called Morocco an “occupier”, and the authorities then moved to escalate the situation by expelling all the civilian staff of the UN Mission in Western Sahara.
The Security Council is currently trying to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, but there are serious disagreements between that council’s members. For example, some Security Council members openly support the Moroccan occupation (France, Egypt, Spain, and Senegal) and therefore have officially requested that the UN Security Council take a “mild response” to these events. At the same time, a number of other Security Council members, particularly Venezuela and Uruguay, are insisting that the Security Council take decisive measures.
In this regard note should be made of the unusual voting pattern observed when Resolution 2285 was approved on April 29: ten members cast ballots “in favor” and two “against” (Uruguay and Venezuela), with three abstentions (Russia, Angola, and New Zealand). UN Security Council Resolution 2285 extends the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) for another year and invites Morocco to begin talks aimed at restoring the mission’s full functionality. The states that withheld their approval (both those that voted against the resolution as well as those that abstained) have advocated for a more muscular response to the Moroccan government’s effective declaration of war against MINURSO.
Why has Rabat set itself in such dramatic opposition to the UN? That question became even more compelling at the recent African Union (AU) summit, when the Kingdom of Morocco took the odd diplomatic step of unexpectedly submitting an application to join the union. In 1984, Morocco made a strident exit from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and to this day is the only state on the African continent that is not a member of the AU.
The impetus behind Morocco’s sharply increased interest in Western Sahara was the death of the leader of the national movement for the liberation of Western Sahara known as the Polisario Front (Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro), Mohamed Abdelaziz, who served as the secretary-general of the Polisario as well as the president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and who had been the unquestioned leader of the people of Western Sahara since the creation of the front and the beginning of the armed struggle against the Mauritanian (until 1979 Mauritania also claimed sovereignty over Western Sahara) and Moroccan troops.
Ibrahim Ghali was elected chairman of the Polisario Front at a special congress held by the front on July 12 of this year. He also became president of the SADR. He received the vast majority of the votes cast by the two and a half thousand Polisario congress delegates who had gathered in Algeria’s Dakhla camp for Sahrawi refugees. The new president and leader of the front is 67 years old. He is one of the most prominent figures in the Sahrawi struggle for national liberation. In 1970 he was a founding member of the Polisario, as well as the front’s first secretary-general and the SADR’s first defense minister. He has extensive combat experience, including as the chief of staff of a military district. In recent years he has worked as a diplomat: when he was elected as the newest leader of the Western Saharan liberation movement he was serving as SADR’s ambassador to Algeria…
This was the scenario under which Rabat attempted to take advantage of the change of power in the Polisario in order to seize the initiative. But that attempt failed. Despite the obvious rift in the Security Council, its members still insisted that Morocco allow the return of the UN Mission staff.
To date, the SADR is not recognized as a state by 36 of the 54 members of the African Union, but those statistics do not fully reflect the real situation, since many countries in Africa that do not formally recognize the statehood of Western Sahara do in fact endorse the Polisario as the sole legitimate representative of the people of Western Sahara. Moreover, those same countries are calling for the SADR to be recognized as a member of the OAU and the AU. Given that fact, Morocco’s efforts to confuse the question of the formal recognition of the state with the recognition of its membership in those international organizations do not seem overly persuasive.
And Morocco’s application to join the African Union never received a formal hearing at the summit in Rwanda. But at the same time, the informal reaction to the Moroccan request demonstrated that there is also a rift within the framework of the AU. For example, Zimbabwe has spoken out sharply against the idea of Morocco joining the union, declaring that “no African country that is colonizing another should be a member of the African Union.” Tanzania has reaffirmed its support for the Polisario and the SADR. Speaking much more bluntly than Ban Ki-moon was, African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who back at the union summit in January 2016 stated, “We can no longer be indifferent to the position of the people of Western Sahara. The country now has a whole generation languishing in refugee camps. They have never known any home because they were born and raised in the camps.”
Ms Dlamini-Zuma has repeatedly stated that Africa cannot be viewed as free so long as the people of Western Sahara are under Moroccan occupation and that the African Union will support the people of Western Sahara until their final victory.
In this diplomatic war Morocco is already tasting defeat. At the recent African Union summit, the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, even refused to read aloud a letter from the Moroccan king requesting membership for his country in the AU. And twenty-five of the expelled staffers of the UN Mission in Western Sahara have quietly returned to their posts…