The UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara
On April 29, 1991, the UN Security Council voted to adopt resolution 690, establishing the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission’s original mandate was to maintain peace between the government of Morocco and the Frente Polisario rebel group, who wish for independence, and to support the implementation of a referendum on the status of the Western Sahara. Though implementation of the referendum has since been delayed due to disagreements, MINURSO has worked tirelessly to facilitate further negotiations between the parties, with significant steps taken in recent years. Additionally, MINURSO’s presence has helped to preserve order and stability in the region for over two decades, maintaining a cessation of hostilities, addressing the risk of landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO), and facilitating humanitarian access to Saharan (Sahrawi) refugees. Resolution 2152, adopted by the Security Council in 2014, authorizes an additional 15 military observers to the mission, and extends MINURSO’s mandate until April 30, 2015.
The Mission’s mandate includes:
Located on the north-west coast of Africa, bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria, territorial jurisdiction of Western Sahara has been disputed for decades. This dispute became open conflict in1975 when Spain began the process of relinquishing its authority over the region to the joint administrative control of Morocco and Mauritania. Asserting its own claims of authority, the Moroccan government organized a mass entry of Moroccan civilians and troops into the region. Known as the “Green March,” the entry of the Moroccan Royal Army into Western Sahara caused over 150,000 local Saharans, called the Sahrawi, to flee to Western Algeria. Soon thereafter, war erupted between three major belligerents: Morocco, Mauritania, and the Frente Polisario, a political and military Sahrawi nationalist movement seeking regional independence. Facing escalating warfare and continued losses, Mauritania withdrew from the region in 1979, recognizing the right of the Sahrawi to self-determination and later the legitimacy of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. On-and-off fighting between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, however, would continue for years to come.
A United Nations-brokered ceasefire ended the war in 1988. Morocco now governs much of the territory as a province, while the exiled Frente Polisario, based in Algeria, claimed control over the Eastern portion of Western Sahara, designated the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The two territories are separated by a series of walls, or berms, and minefields, effectively cutting off the Polisario and Moroccan controlled areas. On April 29, 1991, the Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). At this time both sides agreed to allow MINURSO to monitor the peace until a referendum on self-determination could take place.
The ceasefire established in 1991 remains in place, but, due to unsuccessful negotiations, a referendum has yet to occur. The UN ceasefire agreement calls for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, but both parties interpret self-determination in fundamentally different ways, which impedes progress from being made during negotiations. Frente Polisario demands that Western Sahara’s future be decided through a referendum that offers the people of Western Sahara the option to vote for complete independence, while Morocco believes that Western Saharan should have autonomy within its sovereignty, and thus refuses to allow the option of independence on the ballot.
Despite these differences, talks continue to take place, often facilitated by UN Envoy for Western Sahara, and former U.S. Ambassador to both Syria and Algeria, Christopher Ross. While negotiations have stalled, the efforts of Ambassador Ross, meeting with administrative authorities, human rights, and civil society organizations, as well as the refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria, are nonetheless valuable. Ross’ work, with MINURSO’s sustained security and human rights efforts, have combined to create a lasting stability in a previously conflict-ridden territory.
Initially, the dispute between Morocco and the Frente Polisario largely centered on a disagreement as to whether the Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara and exiled Sahrawis in Algeria should be extended the right to vote in a referendum. The operation attempted to broker an agreement through a voter identification process, but Morocco rejected the result of this project.
With no success, the U.S. in conjunction with the U.N., dispatched former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III in 1997 as a Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara. The Baker Plans of 2000 and 2003 sought compromise. The first proposal, offering autonomy to Western Sahara within Morocco, was rejected by the Frente Polisario. The second plan, which granted Western Sahara an interim period of self-rule, was rejected by Morocco. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Baker resigned in 2004. Peter Van Walsum of the Netherlands succeeded him. In January 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Christopher Ross, former US Ambassador to Algeria and Syria, as his Special Envoy to Western Sahara.
Informal talks between the two parties took place in late April 2012 at the behest of Ambassador Ross. He called for this new round of talks in the hope that leaders could break the deadlock between Morocco’s plan for Western Saharan autonomy and the Frente Polisario’s push for a referendum on self-determination, one that includes independence as an option. However, these informal negotiations failed to yield any progress toward reaching a compromise. Due to the ongoing tensions, Secretary General has asked for an extra 15 military observers to be added to the mission of 228 "to bolster its monitoring capacities."
Ambassador Ross visited the region again in October and November of 2012 and 2013. The ambassador visited the Western Saharan territories, meeting with administrative authorities, human rights, and civil society organizations, as well as the refugee camps near Tindouf in Algeria. Following this most recent visit, Ambassador Ross concluded that convening yet another round of informal talks in the immediate future would not advance the negotiating process, but stated that he planned to return to the region in the coming weeks to pursue a new approach to negotiations.
How This Affects American Interests
- Reduces the threat of terrorism. Instability in North Africa presents a major threat to the security of the United States, particularly in regard to terrorism. In the past few years, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as its splinter organization Ansar al-Dine, have seen a resurgence in the area, specifically with their infiltration and rise to prominence in northern Mali (wherein another peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, has been deployed to promote stability). In areas where conflict reigns, terrorist organizations flourish, seizing the opportunity to transport weapons and raise funds. With the recent renewal of violent conflict between government forces and Islamist militias in Libya, it is important, especially now, that all efforts are made to reduce the risk of greater regional instability. With MINURSO’s record of maintaining peace in Western Sahara for over two decades, it stands as a bulwark against instability and resultant terror activity in North Africa.
- Facilitates humanitarian assistance. MINURSO’s efforts, by maintaining the peace and stability necessary for humanitarian work, enable the vital work of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) in the region. Each month, WFP provides 90,000 general food rations and 35,000 supplementary food rations to the most vulnerable refugees, displaced, mostly to Algeria, by the region’s fighting since the mid-70’s. UNHCR, in turn, supplies refugees with potable water, provides education to children, and supports vocational centers for women, youth, and persons with disabilities. Furthermore, UNHCR’s Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), work to facilitate communication and reunite families that were separated by the conflict. This humanitarian assistance is directly in line with such American values as the freedom of opportunity, the inherent worth of persons, and the right to the most basic necessities of life. Additionally, by providing the essential building blocks of development – particularly health and education – the work of MINURSO and other UN agencies directly enables sustainable economic growth in a region long plagued by poverty.
- Implements confidence building measures. In order to promote trust between the divided population of those people living in the Morocco-controlled area and those people living in the Polisario-controlled area, UNHCR, through the support of MINURSO, has instated a number of confidence-building programs. These programs facilitate communication and travel for Western Saharan refugees in the Tindouf camps, Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria, and their families to the west of the Berm, a line of demarcation between Morocco-controlled and Polisario-controlled Western Sahara. MINURSO provides air transport, police protection, and medical staff. From 2004 to 2011, 16,889 people in camps near Tindouf, over a quarter of refugees in the area, have benefited from this program. UNHCR and MINURSO are investigating expanding the program by including road travel and access through internet cafes. UNHCR plans to hold two inter-Saharan cultural seminars, focusing particularly on women. Most recently, UNHCR organized a week-long seminar on Western Saharan culture in Portugal, attended by 42 Saharwi, as well as representatives from the Frente Polisario and the Moroccan government
- Human rights violations. Despite recent steps toward progress, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) continues to find a number of human rights violations on the part of the Moroccan government in regard to the Saharan conflict. Government Security Officers have been found responsible for the arbitrary detainment of pro-independence dissidents, torturing detainees, and using force against protestors. The OHCHR has also expressed concern at the use of a Moroccan military court to try civilians, and the failure to investigate allegations of torture and forced disappearances. Furthermore, the Moroccan press remains restricted in its ability to criticize the regime, or dissent on the issue of the “Southern Provinces.” Though MINURSO’s ability to address these concerns remains limited by a lack of cooperation from the Moroccan government, other UN agencies, the OHCR has steadfastly continued its efforts to ensure the preservation of human rights, having made significant progress as of late.
- Landmines and unexploded ordnance. Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) represent a significant threat to the lives of the civilians of the Western Sahara, as well as to the cattle on which many local and nomadic populations depends. In response to this threat, MINURSO maintains a Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC), dedicated to the protection of civilian lives through the destruction of UXO and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW). According to the Secretary General’s report, last year, “demining teams cleared 3,814,913 m2 of land and destroyed 1,720 items, including cluster bomb units, unexploded ordnance and anti-tank mines.” MINURSO has further supported efforts to establish sustainable mine clearance operations by providing technical training to the Frente Polisario’s own Sahrawi Mine Action Coordination Office.
*Updated August 2014