By Radhi S. Bachir
In January this year, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Western Sahara and former Germany President, Horst Kohler, held talks with President Paul Kagame to discuss about the Western Sahara situation.
President Paul Kagame, who is the current Chairperson of the African Union, admitted that the Sahel problem is really complex, but can be solved if players are coordinated for the better use of resources that are required to deal with it.
The AU is increasingly trying to address such problems by building efficient institutions to try to meet the needs of peoples this global wider challenge so that we can all contribute to the stability of the continent.
Kagame added that the problem is complex but he believes it is not insurmountable if we can do the right things in the right way in the right time.
Since 1991, Morocco benefitted from a temporarily lull and pursued against all odds a typically colonial policy, silencing the people, exploration and plundering the highly rich colony. From day one of the occupation, Morocco sealed long term profitable agreements with several European and Asian countries on joint exploitation of the resources of the area, securing hundreds of millions of dollars and political neutrality.
In the United Nations, Western Sahara’s legal status remained crystal clear. In 1963, it was listed as a Non-Self-Governing Territory by the United Nations General Assembly under the UN Charter – a status, which characterizes what, is known, in short, as the last colony in Africa. In 1975, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found no ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara and affirmed the Saharawi people’s right to self-determination and to a free and fair referendum to define the ultimate legal status of the territory.
While the diplomatic process sustained in many international forums, Morocco persisted with its illegal occupation of Western Sahara for over four decades. And, as is often the case with colonial occupations, Morocco has exerted its muscles against the peaceful inhabitants through cruel repression, the systematic denial of basic human rights, all while plundering Western Sahara’s natural resources.
In the African Union, the territory is recognized as an independent state, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (the SADR). It has after many years of patient diplomatic action secured its admission while Morocco rejected the OAU mediations and then left the African Organization in 1984.
On January 30, 2017 the Kingdom of Morocco, following years of diplomatic isolation, departed from its traditional “empty chair” policy and engaged intense lobbying to be re-admitted to the African Union. The African Heads of States pledged not to let this question divide the continent once more. The AU Peace and Security Commission took up the issue and invited both the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Republic to a meeting. Morocco decided not to participate, but the PSC adopted a resolution and reaffirmed the responsibility of the African Union in the management of a crisis, which opposes two member states of the Union.
Now that Moroccan diplomats are seated side-by-side with Sahrawi delegations in Addis Ababa, the African Union decided since its July Summit to assist in the mediation efforts undertaken by the United Nations. The continental organization cannot be sidestepped anymore; its contribution to the UN effort arises from the fact that the UN ongoing mediation has been initiated both by the President of the African Union’s precursor, the OAU and the UN Secretary-General in 1985.
Morocco has also repeatedly obstructed progress toward further serious and meaningful negotiations. It has done so in defiance of the UN Security Council, even going so far as to bar the UN’s special envoy from travelling to the mission area to set the stage for talks. At the same time, Morocco’s behavior on the ground – including its repression of the Saharawi people and its illegal exploitation of natural resources – has made reaching a political solution increasingly difficult.
President Köhler is aware that he is dealing with “the longest-standing” decolonization issue on the Security Council agenda, and that he is dealing with “a really diplomacy for peace in action” requiring the page to be turned on this conflict.
The new mediator has twofold tasks. First to try to bring the situation of relative tension and mistrust under control. The mistreatment of his predecessor by Morocco, the expulsion of the political component of the MINURSO (UN mission in Western Sahara) and the precarious atmosphere created as a result of the mini-crisis of Guergarate are not a welcome sign. Mr. Kohler peacemaking and peace building mission will attempt to create a new set of mind of negotiations by inducing Morocco to a new opportunity. The return of the civilian component of the Minurso and the respect of human rights in the territory are a first block in the way to new atmosphere.
The mission as it stands is not an easy one. The problem of Western Sahara remains a political liability for Morocco and a settlement is badly needed for the stability of the Kingdom and for the young inexperienced King who would lose considerable prestige if he mismanages an honorable exit from this quagmire. Growing domestic and international opposition to the war could seriously further weaken Morocco’s negotiating position. The Guergarate crisis has proven that in the absence of negotiations, the conflict could escalate into an open conventional war.
Members of the Security Council warned against the lack of political willingness to revive the UN political efforts for a peaceful resolution, with several UN Envoys already running into a barrage of impediments and criticism when attempting to bring in any idea related to the starting of new negotiations.
In its latest resolution on Western Sahara (2351/2017) this year, the UN Security Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) until 30 April 2018.
UN Security Council Resolution 2351 calls on the parties to cooperate fully for the functionality of the Minurso, which has been affected by the expulsion of its staff and take the necessary steps to ensure unhindered movement for the UN and associated personnel to carry out their mandate. This is a direct injunction on Morocco to allow the Minurso personnel to resume their duty in the Western Sahara.
Will Former German President Horst Köhler enjoy an unequivocal support by the UN Secretary-General without being defeated by dissidence among the Permanent Members of the Security Council, namely France when it comes to bringing Morocco to serious accountability?
Over the last four decades, the UN Security Council has repeatedly proved reluctant to bring Morocco seriously to engage in the negotiating table. Will this time things be handled differently?
**Bachir is the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s Ambassador to South Africa.