Since April 1 Morocco has launched an unprecedented diplomatic offensive to mobilize support for its position on the Western Sahara. Morocco has warned the United Nations about the Polisario Front’s incursions into the whole area east of Morocco’s defense wall, known as the Berm, including the buffer zone.
In Morocco’s view, any presence of the Polisario militia in the area constitutes a violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement between the two parties, as well as the Military Agreement 1 of 1997-1998, and warrants an intervention from the United Nations to prevent any change of the status quo. Morocco has threatened that it might resort to military action to preserve the status quo in case the UN fails to discharge its mission.
Since Morocco stepped up its rhetoric to countermand the Polisario’s political and physical incursions into the area, it has not been clear whether Morocco’s diplomatic offensive has been based on solid arguments or the correct interpretation of the terms of 1991 ceasefire agreement.
Disconnect between Morocco and the UN Secretariat
The confusion was compounded when the United Nations Secretary General’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarik, stated earlier this month that the UN peacekeeping mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, had not observed any illegal Polisario activity in the buffer zone. Many viewed this statement as a rebuke to Morocco’s claims regarding the Polisario’s violations of the ceasefire agreement and its attempts to impose a fait accompli in the area, in effect claiming the ceasefire area to be “liberated.”
Subsequent to this statement, Morocco provided the UN with satellite pictures documenting the presence of the Polisario in many areas covered by the ceasefire. Despite Morocco having made a persuasive case demonstrating the Polisario’s violations of its commitments, the United Nations Secretariat still seems unconvinced, laying bare a clear disconnect between Morocco and the UN regarding the interpretation and implementation of the ceasefire. The disconnect became more stark when the UNSG’s spokesperson told the press on April 19 that Tifariti and Bir Lahlou, which the Polisario describes as “liberated zones,” were not part of the buffer zone.
The statements of the UNSG’s spokesperson has many asking whether the United Nations is upholding the ceasefire and whether it is leaning in favor of the Polisario. If this is case, what should Morocco do to make its voice heard and pressure the United Nations into fully playing its role?
The speculations that ensued since Morocco launched its diplomatic offensive were caused by the UN’s lack of resolve to call things by their name and denounce the Polisario’s violations of the ceasefire agreement. When Morocco called on the UN earlier this month to shoulder its responsibility and thwart the Polisario’s attempts to change the status quo of the region, its demand relied on a careful reading of the terms of the ceasefire agreement. Morocco not only seeks to prevent the Polisario from making repeated incursions into the Guerguerate, in the buffer zone, but it also intends to prevent the separatist movement from having any foothold in the entire area east and south of Morocco’s defense wall.
Against this backdrop, it appears clear that Mr. Dujarik’s statements regarding the buffer zone were misguided and demonstrate the UN’s failure to uphold the ceasefire agreement. In addition, the UN’s failure simply fuels the Polisario’s rhetoric that the territory located outside of the buffer zone is not covered by the ceasefire agreement and can, thus, be described as “liberated zones” where it can establish part of its administration.
Ceasefire agreement validates Morocco’s claims
Yet the terms of the ceasefire agreement are crystal clear and leave no room for varied interpretations. When Morocco agreed to abide by the terms of the ceasefire in 1991, it did so out of good will to facilitate the task of the United Nations and assist the Secretary General in his good offices to implement the Settlement Plan.
Morocco’s withdrawal from the areas east of the berm could not and should not be interpreted as a renunciation of its rights or claims to all the area. This argument is supported by paragraphs 54 and 56 of the Settlement Plan. According to paragraph 54, “Morocco has agreed to an appropriate, substantial and phased reduction of its troops in the Territory during the transitional period to a level acceptable to the Secretary General.” According to paragraph 56, “the Moroccan troops remaining in the Territory will consist only of troops deployed in static or defensive positions along the sand wall constructed by Morocco close to the eastern and southern frontiers of the Territory.”
According to paragraph 57, “Frente Polisario troops will be confined to locations to be designated before the D-Day by the Special Representative and their activities will be closely monitored by the Military Unit of MIUNRSO.” Focusing on this paragraph, there are no “liberated areas” in the whole area east of Morocco’s defense wall and any Polisario activity there must be construed as a violation of the ceasefire, requiring action from the United Nations.
The structure of MINURSO’s Military Unit and its mandate provide further support. According to the terms of the ceasefire agreement, UN military officers tasked with supervising the ceasefire are located in nine sites: Four of them are located west of the Moroccan berm (Smara, Mahbas, Oum Dreyga, Awsard) inside the area under Morocco’s sovereignty, and five team sites are located east of the berm (Bir Lahlou, Tifariti, Mehaires, Mijek, Awsard), which the Polisario claims are its “liberated zones.”
Additionally, the responsibility of the nine team sites covers an area stretching between 12,000 to 47 square kilometers spanning outside and inside Morocco’s defense wall. That five teams are located in these areas leaves no doubt that the latter are covered by the ceasefire agreement and cannot by any stretch of imagination be labelled as “liberated zones.”
The Polisario’s claims regarding these areas are challenged by the terms of Military Agreement 1 signed between MINURSO and the Polisario in December 1997 and between MINURSO and Morocco in January 1998. The agreement divides the area supervised by MINURSO’s military officers into five areas: a five-kilometer-wide buffer zone east and south of Morocco’s defense wall, two restricted areas (30 km east and west of the Morocco’s defense wall respectively), and two areas with limited restrictions, “which are the two remaining vast stretches of land of Western Sahara on both sides respectively.”
The Polisario and its supporters claim that because the areas of Tifariti and Bir Lahlou are located 90 km away from Morocco’s defense wall, they fall out of the buffer zone and the two restricted areas, and therefore, they are “liberated zones” where the Polisario can freely build any structures and move its militiamen. However, the Military Agreement 1 expressly prohibits “the reinforcement of existing minefields, the laying of mines, the concentration of forces, the construction of new headquarters, barracks and ammunition storage facilities.”
UN Fails to uphold ceasefire agreement on Western Sahara
The Polisario has not only attempted to rewrite history and the agreements, but has also launched military actions to harass UN military officers working on the team sites located in Tifarity and Bir Lahlou. It perpetrated the latest of such incidents on March 16 in the vicinity of the Tifarity team site when MINURSO’s military officers were stopped by armed Polisario members, who fired shots in the air.
It is troubling to see that instead of immediately denouncing the Polisario’s harassment of MINURSO’s military units and reporting them to the press, the UNSG’s spokesperson waited a whole month to unveil the incident. This delay stands in stark contrast to the spokesperson’s rush to point out earlier this month that MINURSO reported no illegal activity in the buffer zone.
Based on this analysis, it appears abundantly clear that the action the Polisario has undertaken in Tifarity and Bir Lahlou, including the building of new headquarters and the harassment of UN military officers, constitutes a clear violation of the 1991 ceasefire agreement and Military Agreement 1. It is, therefore, incumbent on the United Nations to live up to its responsibility and denounce the Polisario’s attempts or actions that run counter to the letter of the governing agreements.
The UN’s failure to uphold those agreements would warrant the inevitable decision by the Moroccan government to declare them null and void. To avoid such a political crisis, the upcoming resolution of the Security Council on the Western Sahara should make clear that the Polisario is bound by the terms of these agreements and cannot undertake any actions to change the status quo of the region. The resolution should counteract any ambiguity in the interpretation of the ceasefire and expressly state that the areas located east of Morocco’s defense wall (Tifarity and Bir Lahlou) are not “liberated areas,” but that the authority of MINURSO’s military officers extends to them as well.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis