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Western Sahara

Expected Council Action

In March, Council members are expected to meet in consultations to receive a briefing from the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy on Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, who was appointed on 16 August 2017, and Special Representative Colin Stewart, appointed to head the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) on 1 December 2017.

The briefing, originally slated for February, is in response to resolution 2351, adopted on 28 April 2017. In renewing the mandate of MINURSO for an additional year, the resolution requested the Secretary-General to update the Security Council within six months of the appointment of the new personal envoy. The resolution called for information about the ways in which the envoy, working with the parties, was progressing towards a mutually acceptable political solution that would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara; how MINURSO’s performance measures were being developed and implemented; and how structures and staffing could be reorganised to achieve mission goals efficiently. 

MINURSO’s mandate expires on 30 April.

Key Recent Developments

Köhler has been holding consultations with various actors in relation to Western Sahara. He met representatives of the Polisario Front in Berlin in late January. Reports indicate that he had extended an invitation to Morocco to meet with him separately in Berlin as well. However, this meeting did not materialise. He also met with representatives of neighbouring countries Algeria and Mauritania in Berlin, and with Chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat in Addis Ababa on 12 January.

Early in the year, tensions heightened on the ground in the area of Al-Guerguerat, in the buffer strip below the Berm near the Mauritanian border. On 5 January, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) sent a letter to the Council with an update on developments in the context of the “Africa Eco Race”, during which vehicles in an auto rally were scheduled to cross through the buffer strip in the Al-Guerguerat area on 8 January on their way to Mauritania.

The note said that on 29 December 2017, three apparently unarmed uniformed personnel of the Polisario Front arrived in Al-Guerguerat and informed MINURSO military observers there that the Polisario intended to stop vehicles participating in the auto rally. On 3 January, three Polisario uniformed personnel temporarily took up position in Al-Guerguerat and stopped several vehicles approaching the border before allowing them to proceed.

Also that day, Polisario's coordinator with MINURSO conveyed to the mission that the group viewed such races as a violation by Morocco of the terms of the ceasefire and that it would not accept the passage of the race through Al-Guerguerat. He also recalled Polisario's warning that, unless the provisions of resolution 2351 were implemented, the Polisario was ready to redeploy to Al-Guerguerat at any time. In particular, the Polisario insisted that the provision contained in operative paragraph 3 of the resolution, whereby the Council recognised that the recent crisis in the buffer strip in Al-Guerguerat “raises fundamental questions related to the ceasefire and related agreements and encourages the Secretary-General to explore ways that such questions can be resolved”, must be implemented.

In discussions with Stewart, the Moroccan coordinator on 4 January warned of serious consequences in case of interference with the auto rally and noted that the presence of uniformed Polisario elements, which he characterised as "military", constituted a violation of Military Agreement No. 1 of the 1991 ceasefire.

On 5 January, eight Polisario personnel in two vehicles took up position in the buffer strip at Al-Guerguerat. They wore police uniforms but insisted that they were unarmed and had no orders to interfere with the race. The Moroccan coordinator reiterated his position of the day before, indicating that the mere presence of Polisario personnel, in whatever uniform, was a “provocation”, and that Morocco considered their presence unacceptable regardless of whether or not they interfered with the race. In the end, the Polisario personnel remained in place and the race went on without incident.

Council members were last briefed on Western Sahara in consultations on 22 November 2017 by Köhler and the outgoing Special Representative, Kim Bolduc, on her final day on the job.

The last Council outcome on Western Sahara was resolution 2351 of 28 April 2017, which renewed MINURSO’s mandate. The resolution called on the parties to resume negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith to facilitate a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution. The resolution reaffirmed the need to fully respect military agreements reached with MINURSO on the ceasefire and called for full adherence to those accords, and it recognised that the crisis in the Al-Guerguerat buffer strip that began in August 2016 raised fundamental questions about the ceasefire and related agreements.

Key Issues and Options

The main issue is that the parties to the conflict remain deadlocked and the political process has stalled because the parties’ respective proposals for the basis of a political solution as outlined in 2007 are mutually exclusive. The Council may consider ways in which it can support the new personal envoy in his endeavours to convene a fifth round of negotiations between the parties. Council members may consider how they can encourage the parties, collectively or bilaterally, to approach such talks in good faith.

Council Dynamics

Council members are deeply divided on how they view the conflict. These divisions have rendered the Council largely unable to agree to outcomes on Western Sahara, even during successive recent crises. Following Morocco’s expulsion of MINURSO’s civilian component in March 2016 and the crisis in Al-Guerguearat that August, the Council remained mostly silent because of the insistence of some members, notably permanent member France, which staunchly supports the Moroccan position concerning Western Sahara.

The African members of the Council do not have a common position. As with the composition of the Council last year, it appears that Ethiopia is the only African member that recognises an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as proclaimed by the Polisario in 1976. Neither Côte d’Ivoire nor Equatorial Guinea recognise SADR, and so once again there is unlikely to be a unified African position in the Council.  

No other new Council member recognises SADR. However, continuing member Bolivia does, and the parliament of another member, Sweden, voted to recognise Western Sahara in 2012. The Swedish government has not implemented this.

The US is the penholder on Western Sahara, and resolutions on Western Sahara are initially discussed among the Group of Friends (France, Russia, the UK, and the US, joined by Spain, the former colonial power).


Security Council Resolutions
28 April 2017 S/RES/2351 The Council adopted a resolution renewing the mandate of MINURSO for one year.
Security Council Letters
22 November 2017 S/2017/1003 This was a letter from the Secretary-General expressing his intention to appoint Colin Steward (Canada) as his Special Representative for Western Sahara and head of MINURSO.
25 May 2017 S/2017/462 This was a letter from the Secretary-General expressing his intention to appoint Horst Köhler as his new Personal Envoy for Western Sahara.
16 April 2007 S/2007/210 This was a letter from South Africa to the Council transmitting the Polisario plan.
11 April 2007 S/2007/206 This was a letter from Morocco to the Council transmitting the Moroccan plan.