Kicking the Western Sahara Question Down the Road

Ban Ki-moon visits Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) arrives at a Sahrawi refugee camp in Rabouni, 20 kilometers south of the Algerian city of Tindouf, March 5. The U.N. Security Council has voted to extend the peacekeeping mission in the disputed region of Western Sahara, but a political resolution seems far off. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

On April 29, 10 of the 15 U.N. Security Council members voted to renew the mandate for the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), one day before its expiration. Prior to the vote, Angola, a non-permanent member, requested an informal, confidential Security Council meeting held outside the Security Council room, to allow Joaquim Chissano, Special Envoy of the African Union (AU) for Western Sahara, to brief the council. NGOs were barred from attending and no translation services were provided. Morocco, which is the only African country without AU membership and considers the AU biased toward the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), opposed the meeting with Chissano on the grounds that the U.N. is the sole intergovernmental organization legitimately involved in the issue. Angola—along with Russia and New Zealand—ultimately abstained from the vote, while Venezuela and Uruguay voted in opposition.

Despite continued U.S. support for Morocco’s plan for autonomy for Western Sahara, Rabat has expressed displeasure with the U.S. role in the resolution. Apparently, the first draft, for which the U.S. was responsible, contained considerably stronger language than the resolution that was ultimately passed. As passed, Resolution 2285 pushed lightly on Rabat to allow MINURSO to be restored to full-strength, and calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report back within ninety days on the matter. However, Morocco has called the decision to remove support for the peacekeeping mission “irreversible.”

Previous to the April 29 vote, the Polisario Front—the Sahrawi national liberation movement—made it clear that restoring MINURSO (which, even with the resolution, is far from a certainty) is necessary but not sufficient to maintain peace in the region. Short of a Security Council-approved timeline for a referendum—including the option for self-determination—the resurgence of war remains a possibility. Following Polisario Front military maneuvers in the “liberated territories” on April 23, Sahrawi Defense Minister Abdelah Lehbib asserted their forces have “the necessary human and material resources to counter any escalation” from Morocco.

As a necessary compromise, the U.N. pushed lightly on Rabat to allow for the full restoration of MINURSO. Morocco has thus far shown no intention of doing so, and maintains that it will not consider a referendum that includes independence as an option. The Polisario Front has warned of war in the absence of at least a viable plan for a referendum including an option for an independent Western Sahara, an effort that has made little progress since 1991. Both Morocco and SADR are pursuing ‘corner solutions’ in Western Sahara: the former from a position of strength; the latter from the point of desperation. The refugee camps in Tindouf, having recently entered their fifth decade, could in theory exist in perpetuity, and remain a telling scar on the face of the U.N. and the AU, not to mention a North African tinderbox. At present, however, nothing is likely to happen until the secretary-general’s report comes due, at which point the Security Council will revisit the issue.

Tyler Falish is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program and a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.