Beyond reforms: Considering a UN exit in Western Sahara

Stimson Spotlight

Beyond reforms: Considering a UN exit in Western Sahara

By Josh Dyer: 

Last week at the opening of UNGA in New York, President Obama's Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping spurred nearly 50 countries and regional organizations to make new commitments to supply current and future peace operations with more troops, equipment, and funding. These pledged contributions come as the U.N. continues to focus on reforming how peace operations are planned and executed. In response to recommendations offered in the High-Level Panel on Peace Operations report, the Secretary-General has recently highlighted thematic priorities and tackled the question ofimplementation. But as the U.N. looks toward the future, it would benefit from reassessing its role in older missions outside the public eye. Western Sahara, home to a failed peacekeeping mission nearly 25 years in the making, would be a good place to start.

In 1975, Spain vacated Western Sahara, Morocco laid claim to most of the territory and armed conflict quickly developed between it and the Polisario-the liberation front representing the native Sahrawi. In 1991, the United Nations Security Council created the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to achieve two primary tasks: uphold a ceasefire and provide the Sahrawi people with a medium to exercise their postcolonial right to self-determination. Decades later, no such referendum has taken place, and one likely never will.

From the outset, conditions did not portend success for MINURSO. Years before the 1991 U.N. peace plan, Spain and the Organization of African Unity put forth similar proposals calling for a ceasefire and subsequent referendum. Consistent throughout, Morocco opposed the possibility of Western Sahara's independence, while the Polisario rejected any plan offering anything less. With each side refusing to budge after the establishment of MINURSO, international negotiators and a series of high-level U.N. Special Envoys recognized the futility of a win/lose scenario and pushed for a mutually acceptable political solution. Two middle-road proposals envisioning a trial period of self-government leading to a popular referendum were introduced in the late 1990s, but support from the parties and their regional partners was minimal, and the Security Council, while passing resolutions supporting the plans, failed to act definitively in moments of impasse.

More than refusing to make concessions, Morocco and the Polisario have repeatedly corrupted the peace process through political manipulations. In the mid-1990s, both sides frustrated U.N. efforts to identify eligible voters for the planned referendum, withholding their consent and participation when advantageous. More recently, a leaked report by the U.N.'s Department of Peacekeeping Operations claimed Morocco used "unethical tactics" to intercept U.N. communications, lobby against growing support for a human rights monitoring mandate and discourage the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) from planning common-place fact-finding missions. (Since 2008, Morocco has made larger donations to OHCHR than all other African states combined).

On the other hand, the Polisario and Algeria have been accused of siphoning humanitarian monies meant to support refugees (international donors have funded the network of camps in Tindouf, Algeria since the conflict first began). The European Union has estimated that 75,000 fewer refugees live in the camps than the 165,000 claimed by Algeria, but neither Algeria nor the Polisario have permitted a complete census to resolve the discrepancy. The international support, while much needed for humanitarian reasons, has also allowed the Polisario to keep its independence goals alive for almost four decades.

Adding injury to the indeterminacy of their limbo, Sahrawis have been subjected to human rights abuses from both parties. MINURSO, however, remains the only contemporary peace operation devoid of any human rights responsibilities. In the long absence of a resolution to the conflict, the Security Council has never adequately pressured for the inclusion of human rights monitoring to the short list of the mission's mandated tasks.

MINURSO, despite its weaknesses, has been renewed on more than 40 occasions-most recently this pastApril. Originally purposed to fulfill a transformative function, it has largely transitioned to a facilitativerole, working to address the needs of displaced families. Its usefulness to the people of Western Sahara remains small.

Under these unchanging circumstances, the U.N. might be better served to instead begin planning an exit strategy for the mission, mapping out the anticipated logistical and humanitarian consequences.

Voices within the U.N. have infrequently suggested this option, albeit with little support. For example, a 2010 audit report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services recommended that the mission develop a formal exit strategy for the sake of strategic planning, but MINURSO rejected the proposal, claiming it was "difficult, if not impossible" under current political conditions. No such recommendation appears in the 2014 audit report.

Indeed, a U.N. exit would surely generate logistical headaches, risk, and dissatisfaction. At the same time, a multitude of reasons suggest that a disassembly of the mission may provide the most direct road toward a semblance of resolution for the people of Western Sahara.

If nothing else, planning an exit strategy might recontextualize negotiations long-stalled. In creating a series of progressive pre-exit benchmarks, as proposed for the failed U.N.-African Union mission in Darfur, the U.N. could bring fresh attention to key issues surrounding post-MINURSO human rights monitoring, population resettlements, reductions of Moroccan forces, and natural resource revenue sharing. In planning, it would be important to gauge and include the voices of civil society and in particular desperately frustrated Sahrawi youth some of whom periodically threaten the resumption of armed conflict.

For an aging Polisario leadership and generations of Sahrawis who have only known life under occupation, a dismantling of MINURSO may seem like a step further from an act of self-determination to which they are legally entitled. And a U.N. exit, at least in the short term, would likely preclude any movement toward independence. But there is no ideal outcome in a conflict this messy, and a U.N. withdrawal could provide the Polisario with a new sense of leverage largely lost in the face of Moroccan attempts to incrementally improve its human rights record and increasing threats posed by regional extremist groups and the Sahel drug trade.

Above all else, one thing remains clear: the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, unable to provide for its namesake, has not proven capable of producing anything other than negative peace. Its greatest gift to the people of Western Sahara might be its withdrawal. A conflict not likely to be resolved by more troops, equipment, or funding, MINURSO might be beyond a new wave of U.N. peace operation reforms.

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Josh Dyer served as an intern for Stimson's Future of Peace Operations program. 

Photo credit: United Nations via flickr