posted on Sat 26 Mar 2016 12:59 PM
Council Discussions on Western Sahara

Extensive discussions in the Security Council on Western Sahara over the last week culminated on Thursday evening (24 March) in the President presenting only basic press elements, a reflection of the deep divisions among Council members on how to interpret and respond to recent events. Council members have been deliberating over to how to address the situation arising from Morocco’s reaction to the use of the term “occupation” by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon while he was visiting the region, and its decision to expel almost all the civilian component of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). (For background on the dispute see our 17 March What’s in Blue story, “Consultations on Western Sahara”).

Council discussions on the issue began last Thursday (17 March), when Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman briefed Council members, depicting the situation as one in which Morocco escalated its dispute with the Secretary-General without first attempting diplomatic measures. Feltman reported that staff who were requested to leave the mission perform a wide range of duties including crucial logistical tasks, and that in their absence MINURSO would not be able to operate.

It seems that from that first discussion there were clear divisions about whether the Council should take any action. It appears at this point that several members including Egypt, France, Japan, Senegal and Spain were opposed to any sort of statement. Most of these members felt that the matter was between Morocco and the Secretary-General and did not necessitate the involvement of the Council. Other members argued that the Council ought to show its support for the Secretary-General and that the Council’s credibility was on the line, and that a member state could not be allowed to dismantle a mission mandated by the Council. The idea of a demarche by the Council President to privately address Morocco was discussed as a possibility. Many members were supportive of this type of quiet diplomatic approach, but some of those supporting the Moroccan position saw this as intrusive and maintained their position that no Council action ought to be taken, but that members should engage bilaterally.

After difficult deliberations among Council members, some of whom initially resisted any remarks being made to the media, Council President Ismael Abraáo Gaspar Martins (Angola) addressed the media after the 17 March discussions and provided them with “press elements”. (This is a weaker Council outcome than a press statement, giving rise to no UN written record, but still requires agreement from all members.) He said that the Council had expressed serious concerns and had decided that members should continue their bilateral engagement in order to “make sure the situation is stabilised when it comes to the work of the [MINURSO] mission mandated by the Security Council ”.

On 18 March, Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law and Security Institutions in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, briefed Council members under “any other business” on the implications of a staff pullout. On 20 March it was reported that 73 staff members had left the mission.

On 21 March, at an early morning meeting of Council members at permanent representative level, Angola, which had called for the meeting, proposed a press statement. Later that evening it circulated a draft press statement in which the Council would express deep concern that a large contingent of MINURSO’s staff had departed the territories in response to the 16 March note verbale by Morocco to the Secretary-General; acknowledge that such actions disrupt MINURSO’s ability to effectively carry out its mission as mandated by the Council; underscore that the Council deploys peacekeepers to carry out critical functions and that peacekeeping cannot function if member states unilaterally demand the withdrawal of all civilians from missions established by the Council; urge parties to address the circumstances that led to the situation and urge Morocco to allow MINURSO’s staff to return so that MINURSO’s activities can continue; and reiterate its full support for the Secretary-General, his Personal Envoy Christopher Ross and Special Representative and head of MINURSO Kim Bolduc.

Egypt proposed extensive revisions to the text which altered the tone of the statement, adding that Morocco’s note verbale followed “an unfortunate misrepresentation of the UN’s official position on the question of Western Sahara”. The Egyptian amendments removed the reference to UN peacekeeping being unable to function if member states unilaterally demand their withdrawal, as well as the language urging Morocco to allow MINURSO’s staff to return to the territory, and replaced it with urging all parties to work expeditiously towards resolving the situation. In the final paragraph, they replaced “full” with “continuing” support for Ban, Ross and Bolduc. Apparently Senegal expressed support for Egypt’s proposals and offered its own edits, including a revision to the final paragraph so that it would express support for the Kingdom of Morocco as well.

Angola decided to suspend the negotiations on the draft text as it seemed that consensus was not possible. However, on 23 March, it circulated a revised draft that incorporated some of Egypt’s revisions, but maintained original language underscoring that the Council deploys peacekeepers to carry out critical functions, and that peacekeeping cannot function if member states unilaterally demand the withdrawal of all civilians from missions established by the Council. It also kept the original language that urged Morocco to allow MINURSO’s staff to return so the mission’s activities could continue. This version was put under silence procedure, but several members apparently asked for more time.

On 23 March, Hervé Ladsous, head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, briefed Council members under ‘any other business’. Ladsous apparently delivered a strong message that the military component of MINURSO could not operate without the evacuated civilian staff and that in the UN’s estimation this situation was unacceptable. In subsequent discussions on the draft press statement, Egypt, France and Senegal expressed their concern that a statement may inflame tensions.

Later that evening, New Zealand circulated a shorter version of the press statement which used more neutral language. The draft expressed serious concern at the departure of a large component of MINURSO’s civilian staff from the area of the mission’s operation, without reference to what precipitated these events. It took note of the assessment of the Secretariat that a continuation of the situation could have serious implications for the functioning of the mission. It recalled that peacekeeping operations and other missions are deployed by the Council to carry out critical tasks around the world to maintain international peace and security. Finally, it stated that members of the Council urged all parties to address in a constructive and cooperative manner the circumstances that led to the current situation in order that MINURSO may resume its operations as soon as possible. The draft omitted the paragraph expressing support to Ban, Ross and Bolduc. It seems that Venezuela proposed that this expression of support be added to the draft, but this was unacceptable to Egypt, France, Japan and Senegal who warned that this would be seen in Morocco as implicit agreement with the statements made by the Secretary-General.

Council members met again Thursday morning under ‘any other business’ to discuss New Zealand’s proposed draft. It seemed that the majority of Council members were amenable to this draft, with the exception of Egypt, France and Senegal who argued that the timing was not right. The meeting adjourned with Council members agreeing to meet again later in the day in consultations, by which time Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar would have made a statement in Rabat on the issue. There seemed to be some indication that Mezouar’s statement might include a positive message that could help break the impasse in the Council’s negotiations. However, in his statement Mezouar asserted that Morocco’s decision was “sovereign and irreversible”. He said that military contacts with MINURSO had not been disrupted, that Morocco was committed to cooperation to ensure the continuity of the ceasefire, and that it was ready for serious talks but would not ignore the reasons for the current situation.

When members convened on Thursday afternoon, substantive positions had not changed, but members agreed to narrow the discussion to issues directly relating to MINURSO, and not the precipitating events, in an effort to find common ground. Lengthy discussions ensued, with the idea of a demarche again surfacing. It seems that France was the most resistant to any sort of action or statement, arguing that a public act could negatively impact ongoing bilateral negotiations. Other members continued to contend that the Council had a moral and political obligation to respond to a situation that could set a dangerous precedent for UN peacekeeping. These countries also felt that the Council had remained silent long enough, and that bilateral negotiations had been unfruitful. The idea of a demarche was floated again, but finally it was agreed among all members that the New Zealand statement could be a departure point for negotiations on press elements. Following the three-hour consultations, in which elements were painstakingly drafted, Ambassador Gaspar Martins addressed the media with agreed press elements. The elements stated that members of the Council:

  • had held several meetings on Western Sahara and expressed serious concern about developments;
  • discussed the issue of the departure of 73 personnel from MINURSO civilian staff;
  • have taken due note of the Secretariat briefings on the impact which the continuation of this situation could have on the effective functioning of the mission;
  • recall that peacekeeping operations and other missions are deployed by the Council to carry out critical tasks around the world to maintain international peace and security; and
  • stress the importance of addressing in a constructive and comprehensive manner the situation that led to this situation so that MINURSO may resume its full capacity to carry out its mandate as contained in the elements of several resolutions.

Throughout this process, the Secretary-General and the Secretariat repeatedly expressed their displeasure with the Council for not being able to agree to a statement that strongly expresses support for the Secretary-General and for MINURSO. While they faced insurmountable differences in doing the former, after much deliberation Council members were able to unite in stressing the importance of MINURSO resuming its full capacity.