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Shifting Geopolitics May See Movement in Western Sahara

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative

24 April 2018

As the approach of the UN and Morocco’s traditional allies changes, there may finally be a chance for a breakthrough in the 40-year-old dispute.

A mural at a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria. Photo: Getty Images.

For more than 40 years Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, have contested claims to sovereignty over the Western Sahara. But two key UN players currently seeking to resolve the conflict are both seasoned and serious politicians who might just be able to provide a breakthrough.

The UN secretary-general and former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, previously led the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, for more than 10 years. He has a special concern, as he wrote in an annual status report released by his office on 29 March, for the ‘exasperation’ of thousands of  Sahrawi refugees stuck in camps near Tindouf in southern Algeria for over four decades. The secretary-general’s report is due to be discussed by the UN Security Council on 25 April, along with the associated renewal of the mandate for the UN’s 128-strong peacekeeping and monitoring mission, MINURSO.

His personal envoy to the Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, formerly president of Germany and a child refugee himself during and after the Second World War, is likewise attuned to finding a definitive settlement for the region’s dispersed and divided populations. Neither official, it appears, has much patience with excuses for delaying new negotiations consistent with the self-determination of the Sahrawi people.

The Polisario Front is keen to re-engage bilaterally, but the Moroccans are not, insisting that the Algerian government, as the Polisario’s main diplomatic champion, must also be at the table. However, the chances that Algeria will accept anything but its UN-designated role as a ‘neighbouring state’ are slim to zero. There is also the precedent of four rounds of previous bilateral talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which failed, but which Guterres and Köhler are determined to resurrect, in the spirit of ‘a new dynamic’ that Köhler has identified from meeting all the directly or indirectly concerned parties during the first eight months of his mission.

In a speech in November 2017 to mark the 42nd anniversary of the ‘Green March’ that led to Morocco’s control of the majority of the Western Sahara, King Mohammed VI of Morocco set out four criteria for engaging in a new process, including the rejection of ‘any solution other than the full sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara’.

Yet Morocco is not in as strong a position as its diplomatic gains in recent years might suggest. Traditionally a close ally of Morocco, the US under the presidency of Donald Trump has proved more transactional and self-interested than before, and makes no bones about Algeria’s role being as valuable to the administration’s counterterrorism strategy as Morocco’s role in supporting the ‘G5’ military cooperation among North Africa’s Sahel neighbours. Algeria and Morocco are regional rivals, not allies, meaning that their closest partners, notably France, with its own military mission in the Sahel since 2012, work bilaterally with both, and value both for what they can offer.

Morocco’s thinking has too often been dominated by a divide-and-rule diplomatic strategy. This has failed to gain any significant diplomatic recognition for its claims, above all since Morocco successfully re-joined the African Union in 2017. For every African ally that broadly supports Morocco’s position over the Western Sahara, there are opponents resisting Morocco’s bid to extend its influence within Africa – notably Nigeria, which is blocking Morocco’s bid to join ECOWAS, the economic bloc of West African states.

Where Morocco has enjoyed some leverage is in its relations with the EU. Two recent rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – imposing legal constraints over Morocco’s export of goods from the Western Sahara and offshore fishing rights adjacent to the region – have been offset by the European Commission finding creative ways to negotiate around the limitations that ECJ rulings effectively impose on EU-Moroccan agreements. The underlying realpolitik is that the EU needs its close cooperation with Moroccan police and intelligence services to stem the flow of migration and cross-border criminal and terrorist networks into Europe. European member states also want to secure their fishing fleets’ access to the region’s fishing grounds.

However, this approach only succeeds in kicking international legal arguments down the road. The pro-Sahrawi independence groups behind most recent legal challenges will only redouble their efforts to secure further legal precedents in the wake of their most recent successes.

One avenue the Moroccan authorities have failed to explore fully is the extent to which the Polisario Front speaks for the totality of Sahrawi people. Pro-Moroccan journalists often claim that Polisario leaders are not transparently elected, given the pressures exerted on the refugee populations in Algeria; their electorate self-evidently does not include the vote of the Sahrawi population living in the Western Sahara under Moroccan control.

Morocco has previously resisted attempts to compile a list of Sahrawi voters eligible to participate in a referendum on self-determination, and succeeded in removing the task of organizing a referendum from MINURSO’s local activities in 2004. It may be time, nonetheless, for Morocco to reflect on whether maintaining its current stance over the origins of the population of the Sahara, now considerably supplemented by Moroccan nationals, will continue to serve its purposes.

One reason is that the UN secretary-general has put the monitoring of human rights back on the agenda, along with reiterating the need for a process of self-determination, which remains supported by a succession of Security Council resolutions on the Western Sahara.

Notably absent from the secretary-general’s report, however, is praise for Morocco’s plans to advance the autonomy of the Western Sahara within a context of devolved government throughout Morocco set out under the revised constitution of 2011, which the previous UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon explicitly applauded. Moroccan investments into the Western Sahara officially continue to support this plan, in the name of according more local administrative control to the population under the umbrella of Moroccan sovereignty.

This option may have fallen out of UN favour because of the difficulties Morocco has experienced in extending devolution elsewhere in Morocco. Amidst growing public scepticism about the capacity as well as willingness of Morocco’s centralized authorities to cede financial as well as political control to the regions, the aftermath of popular protests in the city of Al Hoceima in the northern Rif continue to concern Moroccans growing impatient at the slow delivery of promised reforms.

For Morocco’s strategic interests in the Sahara, the provision of more explicit evidence to the UN to demonstrate how autonomy will improve the lot of the Sahrawi population living there could generate just the kind of ‘new dynamic’ that Horst Köhler has called for. The alternative, which consists of blaming Algeria and the recent provocations of the Polisario Front within the local buffer zone covered by a 1991 ceasefire agreement, cuts little mustard with the current UN team or with Morocco’s traditional allies on the UN Security Council.


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