Morocco’s Noncompliance With MINURSO

Last week marked 90 days since the UN Security Council demanded that the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) return to full functionality. As the deadline came and went, Japanese UN Ambassador Koro Bessho, Security Council president for July, lamented that “there was agreement by the (U.N.) secretariat as well as the council members that we have not reached that goal….”

Since March 16th, when the Kingdom of Morocco announced the expulsion of the 84 international UN workers, all of MINURSO’s tasks have been drastically slowed if not altogether stopped. Although reports over the past weeks indicate that Morocco has allowed 25 civilian workers back into the disputed territory, this is not enough staff to carry out the mission of the mandate. Expelled to Spain and other surrounding countries following King Mohammed VI’s reaction to the Secretary General’s use of the word “occupation,” the remaining 59 non-military personnel still await reentry to do their jobs. Their absence affects every aspect of the mission’s responsibilities.

Though the organization of a referendum has not been possible, the mission’s civilian and military staff have worked actively over the past 25 years to maintain the ceasefire agreement between Morocco and the Polisario, reduce the threat of mines and unexploded ordinance from the previous conflict, and build rapport with neighboring states, local populations, and international humanitarian organizations working in the refugee camps. A significant amount of MINURSO’s effort and time also revolved around providing logistical support to visiting government officials, diplomatic missions, foreign legislatures, and NGOs. The stark decline in the amount of international civilian personnel on the ground, however, has made it impossible for MINURSO to maintain its outreach to regional partners, provide logistical support for the military observers, and assist in creating a political solution to the conflict.

The military component, currently consisting of 24 soldiers and 191 observers, relied heavily on the administrative and logistical assistance of the non-military personnel. Without their timely delivery of supplies and administrative oversight, the military observers can no longer safely and securely maintain their nine permanent field locations throughout the territory in addition to their roving patrols of the demilitarized zone and Moroccan and Polisario training sites. The remaining MINURSO staff have now ordered all personnel to strictly ration water, fuel, and other supply stocks, further limiting the movement and preparedness of the UN forces.

Furthermore, the mission can no longer conduct demining in the Polisario controlled area due to the departure of key personnel who oversee the Mine Action Service and Coordination Center. With more than 50 cluster strike areas and 40 minefields still to clear, this poses a significant threat to UN personnel and local populations. And once-regular safety and security drills have ceased, also leaving the mission’s situational awareness and contingency procedures considerably weakened.

With frustrations on both sides mounting and the ability of the UN military forces to enforce the ceasefire at an unprecedented low, the risk of returning to conflict is higher than it has been in many years. As the UN Security Council decides how to return MINURSO to full functionality and as the African Union considers Morocco’s request to re-join the organization, however, improving the current situation is possible.

As the deadline set by the Security Council in April by Resolution 2285 passed without MINURSO returning to full functionality, the Security Council must exert pressure on Morocco to comply with the terms of the mandate. The August programme of work contains a footnote to allow for an update on the progress on returning MINURSO to full functionality. Though deep divisions remain in the Security Council on how to approach this issue, many countries including Angola, New Zealand, Uruguay, and Venezuela have indicated their desire to take a more urgent tone. 90 days should have been more than enough time to reach an agreement on getting MINURSO back to where it was before Morocco’s unilateral and unnecessary expulsion of personnel.

The other player in the Western Sahara question is the African Union, which may have an increased role to play moving forward. At the AU summit in Rwanda last month, Morocco requested that it be readmitted into the African Union, saying it was time Morocco “retakes its place.” For 32 years, Morocco has maintained its absence in protest over Western Sahara’s membership, but for the first time it is making this request without the express condition of Western Sahara’s expulsion.

If the AU readmits Morocco, it will have the opportunity to courageously push King Mohammed VI in the right direction. The African Union will be in a unique position to both maintain its support for Western Sahara and work with Morocco – but under certain conditions. If the organization condemns the King’s refusal to grant the Western Sahara its referendum, as it did in April regarding Rabat’s decision to expel MINURSO staff, it can set the tone for the how the international community begins to take more seriously the human rights abuses and political oppression that Morocco inflicts on Western Sahara.