Reading Between the Lines of Ban Ki-moon’s Report on Western Sahara

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, released his annual report on the Western Sahara conflict on Friday. To the dismay of the Polisario, Algeria, and the African Union, this year’s report takes into account some of Morocco’s major longstanding concerns and demands regarding the conflict.

Unlike the reports submitted to the Security Council in the past two years, Friday’s report does not recommend the establishment of a mechanism to monitor human rights in the Western Sahara. As laid out in paragraph 78 of the advanced copy of the report, monitoring of human rights will be entrusted to the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in both the Western Sahara and Tindouf camps.

“I call on the Parties to continue and further enhance their cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms and OHCHR, including by facilitating OHCHR missions to Western Sahara and the refugee camps near Tindouf, with unrestricted access to all relevant stakeholders,” the UN chief said in the annual report.

The near complete silence observed by the websites that support the Polisario signals that the report has not been perceived as favorable to the separatist movement’s positions. Unlike in previous years when the pro-Polisario websites welcomed the UNSG report and expressed jubilation at the recommendations it included with regards to the establishment of a human rights monitoring mechanism in the disputed territory and the Tindouf camps, this time around they merely published the news reports from international news agencies such as AFP and Reuters.

Ban Ki-moon’s report acknowledges the efforts made by Morocco to promote human rights, including the adoption of a new code on military justice and the accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This reference to the progress achieved in upholding human rights principles signals that Morocco is steadily gaining the trust of influential players in the international community in the efforts it has made since the accession of King Mohammed VI to the throne to uphold human rights and bring them in line with international standards.

However, while commending the “positive steps that Morocco has taken on the protection of human rights, the report calls for “independent and impartial understanding” of human rights in the Western Sahara.

“These missions and other future forms of cooperation . . . should contribute to an independent and impartial understanding of the human rights situation in both Western Sahara and the camps, with the goal of ensuring protection of all,” the report notes.

The report also recognizes one of the concerns that Morocco has been bringing to the attention of the international community with respect to the proliferation of terrorist organizations in the Sahara and the Sahel region, and the frustration of young people living in the Tindouf camps, which could lead them to join such terrorist organizations. These factors undermine security and stability in the region, hence the report’s emphasis on the need to find an urgent solution to the conflict.

Call for a census in the Tindouf camps

But one of the most important positive points in the report, is Ban Ki-moon’s emphasis for the first time on the need to conduct a census in the Tindouf camps, thus recognizing one of Morocco’s old longstanding demands.

“I note continuing questions about the number of refugees requiring assistance. These highlight the need to address the registration of the refugee population,” Ban Ki-moon states in paragraph 77 of his annual report.

It is true that the report makes no mention of the recent report of the European Union’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which substantiated the involvement of Algeria and the Polisario in the embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined for the camps. However, by referring to the “questions about the number of refugees requiring assistance,” it tacitly echoes Morocco’s skepticism of the number of refugees reported by Algeria and the Polisario to the international donors that provide humanitarian aid to the population living in the camps.

Acknowledgement of Moroccan investments in the territory

The report also notes the important investments that the Moroccan government has made to improve road and port infrastructure in the Saharan provinces, apparent recognition of the significant effort made by Morocco since 1975 to build full-fledged cities out of nowhere. This mention also rebuts the false allegations some have made about Morocco benefitting from the natural resources of the territory, when, in fact, all the achievements that have been accomplished in building infrastructure have been made possible thanks to the solidarity and sacrifice of the rest of Moroccans living in other areas of the kingdom.

The acknowledgement in the report of Morocco’s financial contributions echoes one of the key statements in King Mohammed VI’s speech last November when he stressed the sacrifices Moroccans have made over the decades to allow the Saharawis to lead a dignified life.

The King stated then, “It is a fact that what is produced in the Sahara is not even enough to meet the basic needs of its population. Let me say this, in all sincerity: Moroccans have borne the cost of developing the southern provinces. They have paid out of their own pockets and given from the earnings intended for their children so that their brothers in the south may lead a dignified life as humans,”

“Since we recovered the Sahara, for every single dirham of revenue from the Sahara, the state invests 7 dirhams there, as part of the solidarity between the regions and between the sons and daughters of the nation,” he added.

The tone adopted in the report shows that that the UN Secretary-General has fulfilled the promise he made to King Mohammed VI in their phone call on January 22. During that phone call, the UN chief stressed that MINURSO will continue to exercise its existing mandate as set forth by the Security Council, and that his “reports to the Council on this issue will remain objective and reflect facts.”

In contrast to the acknowledgment of Morocco’s concerns, the report does not acknowledge any likelihood that the African Union can play a role in finding a solution to this conflict. This is per se a setback for the Polisario, Algeria, South Africa and the African Union, who have spared no effort in recent months to attempt to influence the content of the report of the Secretary-General and persuade him to include a recommendation on the establishment of mechanism to monitor human rights in the Western Sahara.

Moroccan firmness push the UN to take its concerns into account

The conciliatory tone of the report comes as a result of the pressure Morocco and its allies in the Security Council put on the UN chief, Rabat’s refusal to receive the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General, Christopher Rose, while demanding that he provide in writing an outline of the nature of the efforts he intends to undertake to help the parties to reach a political and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict, as well as its refusal to receive the head of MINURSO, Kim Bolduc.

Undoubtedly, the firm way in which King Mohammed VI addressed the question of Morocco’s territorial integrity on the occasion of the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Green March on November 6, also contributed to the tenor of the report. During that landmark speech, King Mohammed VI said that “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time,” adding that the autonomy proposal is the most Morocco can offer in order to put an end to this conflict.

The fact that the report echoes a lengthy passage of the Royal speech last November, suggests that the firm tone adopted by King Mohammed VI was present in the mind of the UN team that contributed to the preparation of the annual report of the Secretary-General.

Based on the foregoing, the resolution that will be adopted by the Security Council at the end of this month to renew the mandate of MINURSO will most likely not include any reference to the establishment of a mechanism to monitor human rights in the Western Sahara.

Also, taking into the account the OLAF report on the embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined to the Tindouf camps, and the UNSG’s recommendation, the Security Council will undoubtedly call for a census of the Tindouf population to be conducted. Instead of merely referencing the census in one of the preamble’s paragraphs of its upcoming resolution, chances are that the call for a census will be made in one of its operative paragraphs, which would give it more weight.

As in previous resolutions, the Security Council is expected to also renew its confidence in the efforts of the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General in order to bridge the gap between the parties to the conflict and to help them to reach a mutually accepted political solution.

That being said, despite the fact that the report seems slightly positive for Morocco, Moroccan diplomacy has yet to achieve major breakthroughs that would pave the way towards the settlement of the conflict. For most observers, there is still no solution in sight and the road will remain tricky in front of all parties seeking to put an end to the conflict. Since the beginning of 2013, Morocco has been forced to deal with the attempts of the African Union — at the behest of Algeria, South Africa and Nigeria — to play a role in the conflict.

There is no doubt that Algeria and its African and Latin American allies will to intensify their efforts to stall the negotiations process and abort all efforts made by Moroccan diplomacy to achieve a major breakthrough that would lead to a political solution in line with the interests of Morocco and the autonomy proposal it put forward in April 2007.

Therefore, Moroccan government ought to remain more vigilant than ever to prevent the Polisario’s backers from undoing the progress Morocco has achieved over the past year and from diverting the UN’s attention from its core mission, which is to help the parties to reach a mutually acceptable political solution away from any politicization of the question of human rights.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him @Samir Bennis