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Security Council on Western Sahara: A New Strategic Design in the Region

Resolution 2602 of 29 October 2021 does not vary much from the previous resolutions on the conflict, although there are aspects that clearly differentiate it
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PHOTO/ONU/LOEY FELIPE  -   Archive photo of a Security Council meeting

This is the first time that the UN Security Council has met following the strategic changes in the Western Mediterranean and Sahara-Sahel region. The reason for the meeting was whether or not to extend MINURSO's mandate in the Sahara, and under what conditions: an issue at the heart of the geopolitical and strategic balance in the region.

The United States' recognition of "Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara"; Israel's arrival on the political scene in the region following diplomatic recognition between Rabat and Tel Aviv, and Israel's entry into the African Union with observer status; Britain's growing economic, financial, military and security influence in northwest Africa; the installation of diplomatic consular offices in Dakhla, the former Villa Cisneros in the Spanish Sahara; the breakdown of diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco; Algeria's attempts to stifle Moroccan industry by terminating Algeria's gas supply contract with Spain and Portugal, leaving a remnant in Morocco as a toll for the 540-kilometre Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline running through Moroccan territory; the entry of the independent militarised Russian Wagner force into the Sahara-Sahel region; the repeated bilateral and multilateral military manoeuvres led by the US and Britain with Morocco and other countries in the region. All this was not on the agenda of the Security Council meeting, but nevertheless weighed heavily in the debates on the Western Sahara Resolution.

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PHOTO/ONU/MARTINE PERRET - Peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) consult a map as they travel through vast desert areas of Smara, Western Sahara.

There is a new geopolitical and strategic order in the region, and this is how the proposals and interventions of the main actors - the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia, as well as the countries concerned, Morocco and Algeria - should be understood. This is how the idea formulated by the US draft submitted to the Security Council on the need to "align MINURSO's strategic approach" should be understood, which can be understood as a review of its foundations, the format of its implementation and the objectives of the UN mission.

Resolution 2602 of 29 October 2021 does not vary much from previous resolutions on the conflict, although there are aspects that clearly differentiate it.

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File photo - Peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO)

It is true that, after intense discussions prior to the vote, "the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of the agreements and in conformity with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations, and taking note of the role and responsibilities of the parties in this respect" was included in the vote. However, neither the Polisario Front, nor Algeria through its extensive network of influence, has been able to include "the referendum of self-determination" as an unquestionable form of expressing the consent of the people of Western Sahara. In other words, the Security Council leaves open other options for expressing this "self-determination", such as the participation of the population in free political elections, as was done in the Saharawi territory in the last elections in September; And even the opinion of "assemblies and elected bodies" such as the djemaa at the time of decolonisation, or the position of town councils, provincial and regional councils on the Moroccan side, and of popular organisations, trade unions, youth organisations, whether or not they belong to the Polisario Front in the refugee camps in Tindouf and in the diaspora.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of the resolution is that it rejects in substance and in form "the unilateral measures" taken by the Polisario Front in recent months, by unilaterally breaking the ceasefire agreement signed in 1991 and the resumption of warlike actions.  The statement urges the parties "to respect the military agreements signed in 1991".

Equally significant is the reiteration in the statement of the support of the Security Council, the UN Secretary-General and his special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who takes office on 1 November, for the formula adopted by former Special Envoy Kohler of holding "round tables with the participation of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and the Polisario" to seek "realistic and lasting" solutions to the conflict. A few days before the Council meeting, Algeria publicly declared that it "rejects the roundtable formula"; despite this, the Council has reiterated that it is the ideal scheme for advancing discussions.

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File photo - Special Envoy for the Sahara, Staffan de Mistura

On the controversial issue of "human rights", the Council urges the two parties to make progress on respect for rights and freedoms, both in the Saharan territory in Morocco and in the refugee camps in Tindouf, something that neither the Polisario Front nor Algeria, since it is their territory, would admit. In any case, the Security Council does not include human rights monitoring as a task of MINURSO, as the Saharawi independence movement claimed.

An equally interesting aspect is MINURSO's right "to meet with all interlocutors", without specifying which ones. Can it do so with the members of the Moroccan delegation that participated in the Swiss discussions and which included Saharawis elected to the Territory's existing institutions? Can it do so with other representatives of Saharawi factions, such as the Saharawi Peace Movement, or the dissident Polisario faction Jat Achahid? Can it do so with the Algerians? With the Mauritanians?

In any case, although these changes are somewhat cosmetic and do not fundamentally vary from the resolutions on the issue taken at previous meetings, it is Morocco that has benefited the most overall, as opposed to the Polisario Front and Algeria, which have achieved virtually none of their objectives.

AFP/FADEL SENNA - Puesto fronterizo entre Marruecos y Mauritania en Guerguerat, situado en el Sáhara Occidental, el 24 de noviembre de 2020
AFP/FADEL SENNA - Border crossing point between Morocco and Mauritania at Guerguerat in Western Sahara on 24 November 2020.

The vote cast last Friday is therefore striking. The resolution was approved by 13 members, with the other two, Russia and Tunisia, abstaining. Moscow did not want to leave its traditional ally Algiers in a bad position, and Tunisia chose to abstain in order not to antagonise its western neighbour at this critical moment in Tunisia's political landscape. What is striking, however, is that five of the ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, which have supported Resolution 1602, have in the past, and some still do, recognise the Republic proclaimed by the Polisario Front (SADR): Kenya, Vietnam, India, Mexico and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. This can be interpreted as a call for pragmatism, realism and a consensual solution to the conflict.