Autonomy plan

Western Sahara: How Morocco Secured a Resolution Fitting Its Agenda

Samir Bennis

New York - The Security Council adopted on Friday its annual resolution by which it extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, until April 2017.

Although the text of the resolution this year was largely similar to that of previous resolutions, this year’s resolution was devoid of the monotonous pattern of repetitions that have been commonplace in previous years. This is not only because of the ramifications of the crisis between Morocco and the Secretary General, but also because the consensus among the members of the Security Council was broken for the first time in the history of the conflict, since 1991.

Let us first have a look at the content of the US-drafted resolution and then move to the vote on it. As far as content is concerned, we find that positive terminology towards Morocco, as was the case with previous resolutions, has been considerably reduced. One of the most notable changes in the resolution this year is the absence of any “welcoming” expressions for Morocco’s autonomy initiative presented in 2007 as a framework for a political solution; rather, there is instead only a hint at it. Equally important is the Security Council’s emphasis on the return of MINURSO to work with full functionality in the region.

However, it’s crucial to read the content of the resolution in light of the recent events and developments on the issue of the Sahara. Morocco’s decision to request MINURSO’s civilian component leave the territory following the flagrant bias of the United Nations Secretary General in favor of the Algeria-backed Polisario Front was not an easy one. Morocco was aware that the decision would have serious ramifications.

From the United Nations’ point of view, the decision of a member state to request the departure of elements of a UN peacekeeping mission is a very serious matter. It would not be a surprise if, in such a case, the Security Council immediately convened to issue a decision condemning, in the harshest terms, such “a peace-thwarting move” and demanding, with strict language, the immediate return of the mission to its work. This was the exact scenario that some UN member states, such as Angola, Venezuela, and Uruguay wanted to see happen.

However, thanks to the considerable support of Morocco’s friends, particularly France, Spain, Egypt, and Senegal, the Security Council did not take any hostile measures against Morocco, except for a weakly-worded press release last month. Neither did the Council resolution, condemn Morocco or blame it for requesting the departure of MINURSO’s civilian component. Additionally, the language used in the resolution to demand the return of MINURSO to full functionality was soft if compared to the language used by the Security Council in similar cases.

The resolution also does not take into account the language used in the UN chief’s report, in which he clearly stated that the departure of the civilian component has prevented MINURSO from properly doing its job. In addition, there is no reference in the resolution to the “expulsion” of MINURSO’s civilian staff.

The resolution only expresses regret for the fact that the mission is unable to fully meet its mandate because the majority of members of the civilian staff are unable to perform their duties within the mission's area of operations. The absence of the term "expulsion" and the lack of any condemnation of this decision by the Council is what explains the votes of Uruguay and Venezuela against the decision.

Morocco Succeeds in Maintaining the Status Quo

Despite the United States’ attempts to put pressure on Morocco and impose a strong, binding resolution under which Morocco would be obliged to accept the return of MINURSO’s civilian component, Morocco has succeeded – thanks to the instrumental role of France – in thwarting the project and substituting its language for more consensual terms.

The resolution clearly shows that the language utilized is not binding for Morocco. It does not obligate it to accept the return of MINURSO to its state prior to the crisis between Morocco and Ban Ki-moon. Rather, the language emphasized that MINURSO operates with full functionality.

One of the most important changes made to the resolution was the removal of the term “immediate”, which was used in the first draft. This shows that Morocco is not obligated to ensure the return of the civilian component of MINURSO and neither is it bound by a specific timeframe. Instead, the door was left open for negotiations between Morocco and the United Nations without putting any pressure on Rabat.

A second key point was the call in the resolution for the UN chief to brief the Security Council on whether Morocco has abided by the resolution in three months, noting that in the first draft the Secretary General was required to do so within two months.

In addition, this paragraph no longer contains the expression “taking immediate measures” to facilitate the return of MINURSO’s civilian component. Rather, it was substituted with the expression “considering how to facilitate the achievement of this goal.” The latter expression can be considered softer than the first one and does not put Rabat under pressure or threat since the resolution does not provide for any coercive action compelling Morocco to accept the return of MINURSO to its full functionality

With this language, the resolution leaves the door open with regard to the steps that should be taken to ensure its implementation and again suggests that this goal will only be achieved through negotiations with Morocco.

Ban Ki-moon and Christopher Ross Failed to Impose Their Agenda

Another point that should be highlighted, which clearly shows how Polisario and Algeria’s allies failed to impose a strong resolution against Morocco, is that the final resolution rejected several requests made by Ban Ki-moon’s Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross, to put pressure on Morocco.

During a closed-door informal meeting of the Security Council on April 27 to hear a briefing by Ross and Herve Ladsous, Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, Ross called on the Council to hold a meeting every two months to hear briefings about developments in the UN-led political process. Ross also requested that the Council include a paragraph in the resolution urging the parties to hold at least one round of direct talks. However, the final draft of the resolution does not reflect any of Ross’s requests.

The resolution also does not include any reference to achieving a political solution by means of a referendum. Like previous resolutions, it includes a reference to "self-determination," by calling for “a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations.” However, self-determination does not necessarily mean independence.

In addition, like last year, the resolution welcomes the steps and initiatives taken by Morocco and the role played by the National Council for Human Rights and its working committees in Dakhla and Laayoune, as well as Morocco’s interaction with the special procedures of the United Nations Council for Human Rights.

Finally, we must remember that this crisis was an opportunity for the countries that were seeking to include the issue of human rights in the mandate of MINURSO. The United States previously made similar attempts in 2013, which did not succeed then or now.

As for the positions of countries, while Venezuela and Uruguay's vote against the resolution was expected, Russia's abstention came as a surprise, especially since it was viewed among the countries Morocco could rely on to win this year’s diplomatic battle and maintain the political process initiated by Resolution 1754 of 2007.

Interim Victory for Morocco Pending Election of New Secretary General and New US President

Regardless of the political significance of the Russian vote, which Moroccan officials should take very seriously, this resolution can be viewed as an interim victory for Morocco or a lesser of two evils, since it gives Morocco more time to strengthen its position pending the changes that will take place in the US administration and at the helm of the United Nations in eight months.

Most observers point out that the resolution is the lesser of two evils and that things could had been worse if Morocco did not deal firmly with the statements made by Ban Ki-moon during his recent visit to the region. When Ban Ki-moon made his remarks, his intention was to call on the Security Council to reconsider the political process set by Resolution 1754. In his report to the Security Council in 2014, he called on the Security Council to conduct a comprehensive review of the political process that began in 2007, if no progress had been made by April 2015.

Ban’s remarks in Algeria were a clear indication of his intent to attempt to introduce a radical change to the political process and weaken Morocco’s position. However, Rabat’s decision to condemn his bias for the Polisario Front and its decision to request the departure of MINURSO’s civilian component took the Secretary General by surprise and took the debate on another level, thwarting attempts by the United Nations to call for the establishment of a mechanism to monitor the human rights situation in the Western Sahara.

By requesting MINURSO leave the territory, Morocco has succeeded in refocusing the debate according to its own agenda. Regardless of the resolution, Morocco has another year to prepare a new plan to deal with coming developments pending the election of a new Secretary General of the United Nations and a new US President. Moroccan officials have long realized that they could not expect any progress from the current Secretary General or the current US administration, hence the need to buy time and wait for new leadership.

France's Role in Thwarting the Attempts of Morocco’s Adversaries

Here one must emphasize the major role that France, as well as Spain, played in defending Morocco. The two countries have played an important role in the negotiations conducted within the Group of Friends of the Sahara following the circulation of the first version of the draft resolution. In this regard, during the closed-door meeting of the Security Council with Christopher Ross and Herve Ladsous on April 27, France expressed its clear support for Morocco. France was the only country to mention the autonomy plan presented by Morocco in 2007, presenting it as a credible basis for achieving a political settlement.

On the other hand, Morocco should work with all influential countries. It would be foolish to think that a country would lend unconditional support to Morocco under all circumstances or that a country has unfriendly positions that cannot be softened or changed. Morocco should diversify its strategic partnerships while striving to maintain its relations with its long-standing allies like the United States, despite their current rift, and immunize these relations from future changes in administration.

One should keep in mind that Moroccans have a long-lasting tradition of privileged relations with the United States. This tradition cannot be undone because of the current disagreement between Rabat and Washington. It is important to remember that a lack of understanding between the two countries over the Western Sahara can be overcome with the advent of a new US administration. Morocco cannot quickly replace this privileged partnership with another.

 In the same vein, Morocco should not be lured into thinking that it has garnered the support of Russia. Its abstention from the resolution should push Moroccan officials to rethink their strategies and not be fooled by grandiloquent statements that do not translate into real action. The same caution should apply in Morocco’s relations with China.

In the next three months, Morocco will have to deal firmly but diplomatically with the United Nations. The coming diplomatic battle makes it imperative for Morocco to assemble all of its strength and use all of its cards in order to maintain its gains and thwart its adversaries’ maneuvers to prevent it from achieving a breakthrough in its efforts to maintain sovereignty over the Sahara.

A shorter version of this article was published on the New Arab

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

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