EU needs to rethink its policy in Western Sahara

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Europe and the United States should worry that the conflict in the Western Sahara is souring relations between Morocco and Algeria, preventing them from working against Islamist violence and extremism, write Dustin Dehez, Alex MacKenzie and Daniel Novotny.

Dustin Dehez is a senior anaylyst at the Global Governance Institute in Brussels; Alex MacKenzie is a researcher at the University of Salford in Manchester; and Daniel Novotny is director of the Global Europe think tank in Prague.

“As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently warned, the ongoing conflict in Mali threatens to spill over into the Western Sahara, whereby there is a possibility of infiltration by foreign militant groups in this region.

In late April 2013, the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), a not much noticed UN peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory of the Western Sahara, was extended by the Security Council for another year after Washington practically abandoned its highly controversial proposal that called for an expansion of the UN mission’s mandate to include human rights monitoring. The original US draft resolution came as a surprise to Morocco, a moderate Muslim country, which has traditionally been considered a strategic ally of the United States in the region. The temporary suspension of the regular African Lion military exercises between the United States and Morocco by the government in Rabat on 16 April was an unprecedented diplomatic snub at the United States.

For decades, Morocco has insisted that the Western Sahara should come under its sovereignty, but the Algeria-backed Polisario Front independence movement, which claims to represent the indigenous Sahrawi population, contends that it is a sovereign state. Moroccan and Polisario forces fought intermittently from 1975 until a 1991 cease-fire put an end to the fighting and provided for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping contingent that was supposed to monitor the armistice and prepare a referendum on the country's final international status. Morocco and the Polisario agreed in 1988 to settle the sovereignty dispute by a referendum that never took place mainly owing to their disagreements over voter eligibility and which options for self-determination (integration, independence, or something in between) should be on the ballot.

Since 2007, several attempts to broker a solution in face-to-face negotiations between representatives of the two sides under UN auspices have failed to yield any progress toward a permanent solution. The UN mission in Western Sahara was originally supposed to monitor the armistice, build confidence among the actors and prepare the eventual referendum. But since the actors failed to agree on a general framework for conducting the referendum, MINURSO is currently restricted to confidence-building measures and cease-fire monitoring. In 2004, the United Nations withdrew its commission for identification of voters and ever since all efforts to resolve the conflict have reached a dead end.

In light of this protracted impasse over Western Sahara, it is hard to see what tangible and long-term benefits the aforementioned proposal put forward by Washington would have brought to the United States, Morocco, and the Maghreb region in general, had the US been successful in their effort to get its draft resolution through. Most importantly, we could question whether a new, amended mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) would have thawed this protracted conflict or fostered its resolution.

In the context of the deep-rooted mistrust between Morocco on the one hand and Algeria and the Polisario Front on the other, the expansion of the UN mandate to include a monitoring and reporting mechanism concerning real or alleged human rights violations would ultimately run against the main underlying objective of the U.N. mission – to design and implement confidence building measures. Had the US proposal found its way into the UN resolution, it is easy to envision an endless chain of mutual accusations of human rights abuses by both Morocco and the Polisario Front, backed by Algeria – a scenario that would hardly serve as a good example of an effective confidence-building strategy.

The US proposal was all the more surprising as the terrorist threat is endangering the region more than ever. The Malian crisis is but an instance of what extremists and terrorists can do, when central power is weakened and the army is disorganised. Mali also provides additional evidence, if need be, that a weak state can easily descend into civil war and become a breeding ground for terrorism.

Moreover, the fall of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and the ensuing instability in this other North African country has clearly demonstrated how a political vacuum can engender dangerous processes that can in turn destabilise a wider region. A case in point are Gaddafi-hired mercenaries who fled across the porous border from Libya to Mali literally within hours of the dictator’s death, bringing with them sophisticated weaponry and forming the most powerful Tuareg-led rebel group, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA).

The prospects for progress on the Western Sahara – one of the longest, most divisive and hotly contested issues on the geopolitical landscape of North Africa – look grimmer than ever. Since 1994, the border between Morocco and Algeria remains closed, hampering all efforts to foster economic and security cooperation between the two countries and in the region in general. With the negotiations in a stalemate, this situation generates an overall atmosphere of instability with dire effects on the economic prospects for the whole Maghreb.

Some other worrying tendencies have been the political decline and break-up of the Polisario Front which have – in combination with Western Sahara’s proximity to Mauritania – created an ungoverned area that has been exploited by members of this organisation to generate money from arms smuggling. The threat of radical Islam and modern transnational terrorism in the region is also increasingly apparent: Western intelligence services and international security pundits warned of the growing ambitions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – designated by the EU and US as a terrorist organisation – which announced plans to attack European and American targets.

To that end, Ban Ki-moon recently warned that the ongoing conflict in Mali, where France deployed troops and air power to oust Islamist rebels, threatens to spill over into the Western Sahara, whereby there is a possibility of infiltration by foreign militant groups in this region. The protracted conflict in the Western Sahara should draw renewed attention from both Washington and Brussels as the disaffected Sahrawi population may be losing patience and radical elements could further destabilise North Africa.

The United States and Europe should also especially worry that the conflict over the Western Sahara is souring relations between Morocco and Algeria and preventing them from working together against Islamist violence and extremism.”

This article is an excerpt of the United States’ UN Proposal and Policy on Western Sahara: A Dead-End?, published by Global Europe.

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