Why the UNSC Resolution on Western Sahara is Positive for Morocco

The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday adopted a new resolution that extends the mandate of the United Nations Mission in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) for an additional year, until April 30, 2016.

Contrary to the hopes and efforts of Algeria and its allies, both in the African Union and within the Security Council, the resolution did not contain any reference to the need to establish a mechanism to monitor human rights in the Sahara and the Tindouf camps, but rather settled for the exact same language as last year.

Although the decision did not bring anything new to the table and merely invited the parties to show their resolve and realism to reach a mutually acceptable political solution, it did praise again the efforts made by Morocco in recent years to uphold human rights, including the adoption of a new code on military justice and Morocco’s accession to the [Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Toture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment. In addition, the resolution also reiterates the need to conduct a census in the Tindouf camps.

While we can’t say that Moroccan diplomacy has achieved a breakthrough in the conflict, we can, however, consider the outcome of this year’s deliberation on the conflict as an important stride in the right direction for Morocco. Four reasons explain why the kingdom came out victorious in this year’s battle.

First, the overall context of the UN Secretary General’s report on the situation in the Western Sahara was favorable to Morocco. In fact, unlike in 2013 and 2014, in his 2015 report Ban Ki-moon made no recommendation to expand MINURSO’s mandate to include a human rights monitoring mechanism in the territory and in the Tindouf camps. In addition, the UN chief highlighted for the first time the need to conduct a census of the population of the Tindouf camps.

The report flies in the face of the conjectures of those who predicted 2015 to be a decisive year in the conflict in favor of Algeria and the Polisario. Following Ban Ki-moon’s 2014 report in which he called on the Security Council to reconsider the political process initiated in 2007 if no progress were achieved by April 2015, many analysts predicted that Ban Ki-moon’s recommendation to the Security Council was a first step towards moving the question of the Western Sahara from Chapter VI of the Council to Chapter VII. In that scenario, the UN would no longer call for a mutually acceptable political solution, but would forge ahead with holding a referendum, in line with Algeria and the Polisario’s demands.

But thanks to the aggressive diplomacy adopted by Morocco and its efforts to improve the situation of human rights, it not only avoided that scenario, but also succeeded in putting the political process back on track and repositioning the focus of the UN on the necessity to reach a political solution to the conflict.

As a result, the pressure is now rather on Algeria and the Polisario, especially after the publication of a compromising report that proves their involvement in the embezzlement of humanitarian aid destined to the Tindouf camps.

It is likely that the Secretary General’s report and the subsequent Security Council resolution convey a strong message to Algeria and its allies that the United Nations will not deviate from its main goal in the dispute over the Sahara, which is to help the parties to reach a political solution based on the principle that both sides find a favorable outcome, away from any politicization of the question of human rights.

The second point is that this resolution was adopted in light of the pressure that the African Union attempted to put on the Secretary General to push him to recommend the extension of MINURSO’s mandate, recommend that the Security Council be seized of the question of the exploitation of natural resources in the territory, and recommend that it conduct a comprehensive review of the political process initiated in 2007, as stated in the Secretary General’s report in April 2014.

These were among the recommendations that came out of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council’s meeting on March 27, which were sent to the UN Secretary General ahead of its annual report on the conflict.

Yet despite all the attempts made by the African Union to pressure the Secretary General to allow it to play a role in the dispute, the Secretary General and the Security Council dismissed these propositions. The best proof of this is the letter that the African Union representative to the United Nations sent to the Secretary General on March 30 asking him to circulate it to members of the Council. The letter was only circulated on April 7, and the AU representative’s request to participate in a session of the Security Council concerning the conflict received no formal answer.

The third point that shows the special importance of this year’s resolution is that in spite of the maneuvers of Algeria and the Polisario during the negotiations to change the language of the resolution, their attempts were met with the rejection of the other members of the Council.

What gives this year’s resolution greater political significance is the fact that it was adopted at a time when three countries known for supporting the Polisario (Nigeria, Venezuela, and Angola) in addition to Chad, are non-permanent members of the Security Council.

To better grasp the political significance of this achievement, one has to go back to 2013. In fact, the draft resolution proposed by the United States in April 2013 to extend MINURSO’s mandate came at a time when Morocco was a non-permanent member of the Security Council, whereas this year, despite the fact that it is no longer a member of the Council, it succeeded in thwarting all its enemies’ attempts to undermine its position.

The fourth point is the statement made by the Deputy Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations following the adoption of the Council. The French representative clearly expressed his country’s support for the autonomy proposal put forward by Morocco in 2007 and praised Morocco’s efforts in recent years to uphold human rights practices in Western Sahara. Additionally, he emphasized the need to conduct the registration of Saharawis in the Tindouf camps

That the French diplomat expressed his country’s support for the Moroccan position is nothing new. But what makes it more significant and constitutes a setback for Algeria and the Polisario is that this position comes following a year of unprecedented tension in the relations between Rabat and Paris, a tension that Algeria tried to exploit to its advantage, but to no avail.

Morocco’s efforts begin to bear fruit

The absence in Ban Ki-moon’s report and Security Council Resolution 2218 of any reference to the necessity to expand the mandate of MIUNRSO would not have been achieved if Morocco had not changed its tone toward the United Nations over the past year; particularly the firm language that King Mohammed VI used in his recent speeches.

There is no doubt that the United Nations would not have reviewed its position on the issue of human rights in the conflict nor moved away from the politicization of this issue if it were not for the firm stance taken by Morocco recently. This stance was manifested in Morocco’s message to the UN that it would not receive Christopher Ross until he clarified in writing his intentions with regards to his mediation efforts.

Morocco’s position was made very firm during the speech that King Mohammed VI delivered on the occasion of thirty-ninth anniversary of the Green March last November, when he said that “Morocco will remain in its Sahara, and the Sahara will remain part of Morocco, until the end of time.” The king added that the autonomy proposal is the most Morocco can offer in the way of a political and mutually acceptable solution.

The phone call the Moroccan monarch held with the Secretary General on January 22 shows that the UN Chief took the Moroccan position very seriously. This was reflected in the statement published by the Secretary General’s spokesman saying that Ban Ki-moon gave assurances to Morocco that no changes would be introduced to MINURSO’s mandate and that his reports would reflect the facts on the ground. This phone call opened the way for Ross to go back to the region and enabled Kim Bolduc to finally take her post as head of MINURSO.

A shift in the United Nations’ approach on the Sahara?

Unlike the Secretary General’s 2013 and 2014 reports, this year’s report was disappointing for Algeria and the Polisario. This explains why Muhammad Abdul Aziz, the leader of the separatists, sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon accusing him of bias in favor of Morocco and deviating from the United Nations resolutions on self-determination. He also threatened to reconsider his cooperation with the United Nations if it sides with Morocco.

Resolution 2218 reinforces the fears of the Polisario and Algeria that the United Nations may shift its approach on the conflict. Moving forward, I expect two scenarios. The first is what I can call the “best case scenario.” Under this scenario, Christopher Ross would put pressure on the Polisario and Algeria to persuade them to build on the Moroccan autonomy plan presented to the Security Council in 2007, and use it as the basis for negotiations. In this configuration, the UN would dismiss any likelihood that the territorial dispute will be solved through the referendum called for by Algeria and its allies.

In this scenario, the United Nations would have taken into account the recommendations of many analysts and research centers that have called on it to reconsider its conflict resolution doctrine and to get rid of its focus on the application of the traditional concept of self-determination in the Western Sahara conflict.

The second scenario, which is the more realistic outcome, at least for the coming year, is that Ross will continue to tour the region and hold meetings with the parties without providing any concrete proposal that could pave the way towards a solution in the short or medium term.

Based on the foregoing, I think that Morocco should capitalize on the gains achieved this year to persuade the influential Security Council members of the need to adapt the concept of self-determination with the geo-strategic changes in region. This would require that they admit that the Moroccan proposal for autonomy must be the basic building block for every serious political process that aims to find a solution to this conflict.

Morocco should also intensify its efforts to gain greater international sympathy with its position, especially in Africa and Latin America, where many countries still support the thesis of the Polisario and recognize the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Republic.

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