The UN warns of the risk to regional stability in Western Sahara

Tags : Western Sahara, Frente Polisario, Morocco, Algeria, ONU, MINURSO,

The two years of rupture of the ceasefire by the Polisario Front fuel the outbreak of tension between Morocco and Algeria derived from Rabat’s historic claim to that territory

Where there are white vehicles with the acronym of the UN there is an international problem. Where there is a headquarters of the organization, the problem is also old. The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) occupies the premises of a former school in the center of El Aaiún, not far from the collective taxi rank. It is an ancient building, with a landscaped interior patio, kept in an apparent state of magazine like many other UN facilities in the world with a barracks-like appearance. Nobody has bothered to change the furniture, most of it from before 1991, when he began his mandate after the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario. The resumption of hostilities between the two contenders for a little over two years now leads the Minurso.

“We are in a situation of low intensity conflict, with incidents on the wall or embankment (which divides the territory of the former Spanish colony, to the west under the control of the Moroccan Army) and drone attacks after the collapse of the ceasefire in November 2020″, says a senior United Nations diplomat, who speaks to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity. “In Western Sahara there are no other UN agencies that can report, no NGOs or international media, like in other places. Only we can see what happens, ”he explains, referring to the latest report by the Secretary General, António Guterres, to the Security Council, published last October.

Can you imagine a situation without the presence of the Minurso in Western Sahara? “The mission is important and very useful. Above all because we represent a political trip wire (detonation or alarm cable) not only between Morocco and the Polisario, but also between Algeria and Morocco. The situation runs the risk of being much worse, and the tension may increase, with real regional implications for stability”, points out the senior diplomat consulted in El Aaiún.

The political mediation of the current envoy of the Secretary General for the Sahara, the veteran Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan de Mistura, seasoned in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria, remains completely silent. He excepted some signs of stagnation, presumably because of diplomatic pressure from Morocco. In July of last year, everything was prepared at the Minurso headquarters for De Mistura’s visit to El Aaiún. But it was canceled at the last moment when he was in Rabat and had already traveled to the rest of the points on his regular tour: Algiers, Nouakchott and Tindouf (Algeria), where the Saharawi refugee camps are located under the control of the Polisario Front independence movement.

According to the verbal report of a UN official in El Ayoun, the situation suggests that it is now not safe to move around Western Sahara, particularly east of the wall or embankment where the Polisario usually operates. Nor is it possible to resupply the international observer teams from both sides, as was the case before. There have been attacks with drones against water tankers, the same ones that are used by the Minurso teams. For UN personnel, freedom of movement is a basic rule, and if you lack it, you are in danger.

“Demining operations have been halted since the collapse of the ceasefire. We hope to be able to restart them soon. We are in one of the areas with the greatest contamination or propagation of mines in the world. Now there are also unexploded projectiles after the resumption of hostilities, » details a senior MINURSO official.

The UN mission for the Sahara does not have a traditional humanitarian mandate. In Tindouf, Minurso worked in the past with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in adopting confidence-building measures, but this activity was suspended about 10 years ago. It has about 500 local and international members – 300 civilians and 200 military – and deals essentially with operational and logistical issues.

“It would be a lot worse if we weren’t here. There is no other way for the international community to have impartial information on the ground. We received reports of 27 drone attacks last year and were able to investigate 18 of them, » added a senior UN official consulted. “The presence of our observation teams to the east of the wall or embankment deters a regional escalation. The MINURSO military observers are not armed and attacking them is a war crime. That is one of its strengths, ”he argues.

—With everything that is happening now in the Ukraine or in the Sahel, don’t you think that the Western Sahara conflict has been relegated?
-I do not think it is like that. A potential worsening of relations between Morocco and Algeria has consequences for the rest of the world. The supply of gas to Europe through the Gibraltar Strait pipeline, for example, is at risk. I don’t see it as a forgotten conflict.

The recent statements by the director of the Moroccan Royal Archives, Bahiya Simu, on the so-called Eastern Sahara, the border part of Algeria that Morocco claimed as its own after French decolonization and for which both countries waged the War of the Sands six decades ago, they have unleashed a political storm on both sides of the deserted border.

Simu spoke in February in Rabat at a forum of the MAP press agency to ensure that « there are historical documents that attest to Morocco’s sovereignty over the so-called Western Sahara, but also over Eastern Sahara. » In his opinion, colonial France handed over Moroccan territory to « French Algeria thinking of continuing to keep the country under its rule. » Tindouf, where the refugee camps controlled by the Polisario Front are located, is the capital of the disputed region.

His words have caused an impact in the neighboring country. The president of the Algerian House of Representatives, Brahim Bughali, has spoken during a public session on the controversial issue of Eastern Sahara. “The Moroccan regime is trying to parasitize our country and sell its expansionist objectives. The National Liberation Army [Algerian Armed Forces] is ready to protect our borders,” warned the third highest-level charge in Algeria, quoted by the Moroccan digital portal Hespress.

From El Ayoun, the senior United Nations diplomat contacted highlights that the world has been involved for decades in East Timor, which is a much more difficult place to find on a map than Western Sahara. “Preconceived ideas about that territory changed. Everything changes. The incidents of November 2020 in the Sahara are a perfect example of this ”, he adds.

―Is the decision of the United States to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara another example?

-Things change. From our perspective, we are in a moment of evolution in a context of political and operational changes. Minurso’s role in promoting regional stability remains important. Our [original] mandate was to organize a referendum [on self-determination]. But I think it would be naive – that is my personal opinion – to think that a referendum could be held tomorrow. The center of gravity seems to be shifting towards other types of political agreements than those foreseen at the beginning of the 1990s.

« But I could be wrong, » concludes the head of the Minurso before saying goodbye in El Aaiún. “If you had asked me in 1998 if there was going to be a referendum in East Timor, I would have said no. The territory voted for self-determination the following year. You never know ».


#Western_Sahara #Morocco #Algeria #UN #MINURSO