A new opportunity to assert Africa's role in Western Sahara?

The dispute over Western Sahara is one of Africa’s most longstanding crises. Given the latest developments surrounding the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), it can be asked whether the Peace and Security Council (PSC) can use this opportunity to assert its position on the issue of independence for Western Sahara.

The death of the leader of the Polisario Front, Mohamed Abdelaziz, on 31 May could also open the door to a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

At the end of April 2016 members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted in favour of renewing the mandate of its mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, which has been in the disputed territory bordered by Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco since September 1991. The renewal of UN missions is usually adopted with a unanimous vote. This time, however, the vote for the renewal of MINURSO’s mandate for another 12 months was not plain sailing.

The resolution was adopted with 10 votes in favour, two against (Venezuela and Uruguay) and three abstentions (Angola, Russia and New Zealand). The Security Council Report noted that the lack of consensus around the vote ‘reflects the divisions over the developments and process in the run-up to the adoption’. Some countries felt Morocco was let off too lightly following its latest actions undermining the role of MINURSO.

Some countries felt Morocco was let off too lightly
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The UNSC meeting followed a confrontation between Morocco and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the issue. While on a visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria, Ban described Morocco’s continued claim to Western Sahara as an ‘occupation’. This provoked the ire of Rabat, which withdrew its financial support and 83 personnel from MINURSO.

United States accused of supporting Morocco

The text of the renewal of the mandate, which was drafted by the United States (US), asks Ban to report back to the UNSC on the situation within three months. It does not, however, condemn Morocco’s actions. According to the Security Council Report, Venezuela and Uruguay, in opposing the statement by the UNSC, said that members were forgetting the original mandate of MINURSO, namely to organise a referendum in Western Sahara.

In a statement, US representative Samantha Power said the US supported Morocco’s autonomy plan, which has been rejected by the Polisario Front (the organisation that leads the fight for the independence of Western Sahara). ‘It is important that Morocco and the United Nations have a constructive relationship,’ she said.

The US supported Morocco’s autonomy plan, which has been rejected by the Polisario Front
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Chissano asked to address the UNSC

How can African countries weigh in on this situation? On 6 April, following the spat between Ban and Morocco, the PSC held an unscheduled meeting to discuss Western Sahara. The PSC ambassadors received a briefing from former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, the African Union’s (AU) Special Envoy for Western Sahara. The meeting, chaired by Algeria, then adopted a strongly worded communiqué on the issue. It also stressed the need for Chissano to address the UNSC, which did not happen.

Chissano nevertheless travelled to New York at the end of April to speak to members of the UNSC, and in another strongly worded statement he insisted that Africa lead the process on Western Sahara. In a press release on 1 May, Chissano called for a human rights mandate to be included in the resolution to renew the mandate of MINURSO.

Chissano called for a human rights mandate to be included in the resolution
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‘The AU Special Envoy expressed to his interlocutors the deep concern of the AU about the prolonged suffering of people of Western Sahara and the lack of progress towards the early resolution of the conflict in the territory on the basis of the international legality,’ states the press release.

Strained AU–UN relations over Western Sahara

The Western Sahara dispute and the question over who should have primacy in resolving the conflict illustrate of the complex relations between the AU and the UNSC. While the UNSC increasingly recognises the important role the AU plays in peacekeeping in Africa, it remains the primary organisation responsible for global peace.

During the 10th annual joint consultative meetings between the AU PSC and the UNSC in New York at the end of May, the issue of responsibility for African conflicts was again raised. The African Peace and Security Architecture is aimed at ensuring African-led solutions to peace in Africa. However, when it comes to financing those solutions, the AU often calls upon the UNSC to ‘fulfil its responsibilities’ to ensure world peace.

The issue of Western Sahara was not on the agenda at these joint meetings. In fact, in a press statement following an informal PSC–UNSC meeting on 23 May, PSC Chairperson MPJ Molefe of Botswana called Western Sahara a ‘taboo subject’. ‘The AU PSC underscored the imperative of the two Councils to opening joint discussion on issues that have remained taboo, including the situation in Western Sahara, which for Africa, is fundamentally an issue of decolonization,’ she said.

The PSC chairperson called Western Sahara a 'taboo subject'
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The AU has had little impact on the issue of Western Sahara. The fact that Morocco is the only African country that is not a member of the AU naturally plays an important role in this state of affairs. France has strong historical ties to Morocco, which is also seen as an ally of European countries and the US in the fight against terrorism. A number of francophone West African countries also have close business and political links with Morocco and support the kingdom in its claim to Western Sahara. Senegal, for example, voted for the resolution on the renewal of MINURSO’s mandate on 29 April. Egypt did the same, but the third African non-permanent member of the UNSC, Angola, abstained.

This division among the so-called A-3 in the vote over Western Sahara is said to have prompted the call by the PSC that African non-permanent members of the UNSC should vote according to PSC decisions. This attempt by the PSC to control the vote of African member states has been derided for its lack of a solid legal basis within and outside the AU.

Death of Mohamed Abdelaziz

Abdelaziz’s death, after a long illness, could create new avenues for discussions on Western Sahara. Abdelaziz was a hardliner who controlled the ideological stance of the Polisario Front, opposing any compromise with Morocco. He led the organisation for almost four decades until his death on 31 May. He was also the president of the Sahrawi Democratic Arab Republic (RASD), which is recognised by the AU and a number of African countries. His successor has not been named yet.

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