UN Council Backs New Effort to End Western Sahara Conflict
By Edith M. Lederer
The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday evening backing the secretary-general's new effort to resolve the 40-year conflict over the Western Sahara, which has pitted Morocco against the Polisario Front independence movement.
The resolution was adopted shortly after Secretary-General Antonio Guterres confirmed that Polisario Front fighters had withdrawn from the town of Guerguerat in the buffer zone on the Morocco-Mauritanian border, which had become the latest flashpoint in the conflict.
Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought the Polisario Front. The U.N. brokered a cease-fire in 1991 and established a peacekeeping mission to monitor it and to help prepare a referendum on the territory's future that has never taken place.
Morocco considers the mineral-rich Western Sahara its ``southern provinces'' and has proposed giving the territory wide-ranging autonomy. The Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population, which it estimates at between 350,000 and 500,000.
The U.S.-drafted resolution affirms the Security Council's ``full support'' for the secretary-general's commitment to relaunch negotiations ``with a new dynamic and a new spirit,'' aimed at reaching ``a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara...''
It calls on the parties to hold a fifth round of negotiations ``without preconditions and in good faith.''
U.S. deputy ambassador Michele Sison said the United States was ``pleased'' with the resolution because it helps put the council's attention ``back where it belongs: supporting a political process to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara.''
The Security Council has to look ``at the big picture on Western Sahara,'' she said. ``The big picture is that we have not seen significant political progress for years. That is the fundamental problem we need to address in the months to come.''
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre, whose country was the colonial ruler of Morocco, called Guterres' aim of reaching a political solution ``an attainable goal.''
He said France considers Morocco's autonomy plan ``a creduble and serious basis for a negotiated solution.''
The resolution extends the mandate of the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, until April 30, 2018.
The Guerguerat crisis began in August, when Morocco started work on a road in the area which Rabat said was needed to stop contraband. The Polisario Front protested and deployed armed forces, saying the road work violated the cease-fire accord. Morocco denied breaking the accord. At Guterres' request, Morocco pulled out of Guerguerat in February but the Polisario Front didn't heed his appeal until late this week.
The Security Council had been set to echo Guterres' appeal and express concern at the Polisario Front's refusal to leave in the resolution, but that language was dropped at the last minute after the statement on the pullout.
Guterres' spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the Polisario Front's pullout ``should improve the prospects of creating an environment that will facilitate early implementation of the secretary-general's determination to relaunch the negotiating process.''
Morocco's U.N. Ambassador Omar Hilale told reporters that ``if Polisario has returned to its original place, the political process can be discussed with the secretary-general.''
``But for us the solution in the autonomy,'' he said.
The Polisario Front's U.N. representative Ahmed Boukhari said that based on discussions with several friends on the Security Council, the leadership decided to redeploy its forces in Guerguerat ``in a way that will help to fix the problems created by Morocco there and relaunch the negotiation with a prospect of success.''
The final draft also dropped language that would have had the council welcome Morocco's 2007 autonomy proposal while only taking note of the Polisario Front's proposal for self-determination in a referendum. The resolution now takes note of both proposals.
In March 2016, Morocco expelled over 70 U.N. civilians carrying out political activities, de-mining operations and other activities for MINURSO after the secretary-general Ban Ki-moon used the word ``occupation'' in talking about Western Sahara following a visit to a camp for refugees from the region who have been in Algeria for over 40 years.
The Canadian Press and the Associated Press. All rights are reserved.