posted on Tue 26 Apr 2016 12:15 PM
Western Sahara: Arria-formula Meeting, Consultations and MINURSO Adoption

This afternoon, Council members Angola and Venezuela will be convening an Arria-formula meeting on Western Sahara. The situation in Western Sahara has garnered increased attention recently, following a dispute between the Secretary-General and Morocco that culminated in Morocco’s demanding the withdrawal of most of the civilian staff from the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Today’s Arria is the first of a series of meetings on Western Sahara to be held this week. Also this afternoon, there will be a meeting of troop-contributing countries to MINURSO; tomorrow Council members will meet in consultations on the situation; and on Thursday (28 April), the Council is scheduled to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of MINURSO. It seems Venezuela, supported by New Zealand and Uruguay, suggested a public briefing ahead of the consultations tomorrow, but other members such as Egypt, France and Senegal, wanted to keep to the consultations format.

Arria-formula meeting
This afternoon’s Arria-formula meeting has been organised by Angola and Venezuela to allow the Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the AU Commission to Western Sahara and former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, to brief members of the Council on the efforts he is undertaking in the discharge of his mandate. The meeting will be open to all member states. (Angola had originally planned to invite non-governmental organisations but it seems that a decision was made to invite only member states.)
The Arria-formula meeting aims to promote dialogue and cooperation between the members of the Council and the AU; promote transparency on the discussion of the dispute on the status of Western Sahara; facilitate a discussion on the maintenance of international peace and security in Africa, in particular in that region; and provide member states with an opportunity to interact informally with Chissano.

Chissano is likely to echo some of the concerns raised during the 6 April meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) on the situation in Western Sahara. The AU PSC noted with deep concern the lack of progress in the resolution of this dispute, and reiterated its commitment to continue to work towards the early resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara on the basis of international legality. In addition, it called on the Security Council to fully assume its responsibility in the matter. Some Council members may be interested in the AU’s perspective on how best to resolve the current crisis and the conflict more generally.

It remains to be seen whether Council members who support the Moroccan position, such as Egypt, France and Senegal, will participate in the Arria-formula meeting. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the state proclaimed by the Polisario Front in 1976, became a member state in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the AU, in 1984, prompting Morocco to withdraw from the OAU in protest. On 24 April, Morocco sent a letter to the Secretary-General reiterating its “categorical opposition to any role or involvement of the African Union in the question of the Moroccan Sahara”.

AOBs
In order to allow for discussion on the situation concerning MINURSO, Council members Uruguay and Venezuela requested two briefings under ‘any other business’ (AOB) in the first half of the month. Peacekeeping head Hervé Ladsous briefed at both meetings. There were three meetings expected on Western Sahara in April: consultations on the Secretary-General’s report, a meeting with the troop-contributing countries and the adoption of a resolution on MINURSO. Originally, these meetings were spaced out throughout the month, but early in the month they were all moved to the last week of April. (TCCs did have an informal briefing from Ladsous on 13 April.)

During the first briefing under AOB on 7 April, several members expressed concerns that the scheduling meant that the substance of the crisis would have to be addressed in a very tight timeframe. In his briefing, Ladsous reiterated a message that the Secretariat has repeatedly conveyed — that due to the expulsion of a large component of MINURSO’s civilian staff, the mission was unable to fully function, and that operating under the current conditions was drastically increasing the mission’s operating costs. Ladsous predicted at that time that under the current circumstances the mission would only be operable for a few more weeks. In the discussion that followed, familiar divisions among members emerged, with France and Senegal emphasising that talks aimed at deescalating the situation were ongoing between the Secretariat and Morocco and that appropriate time should be given to this process. Others stressed that the Council must focus on protecting the mission’s mandate and preventing the crisis from setting a dangerous precedent for other peacekeeping operations. Many members maintained that the dispute between the Secretary-General and Morocco was irrelevant and that the Council must act to protect the mission. Countries such as the US, Uruguay and Venezuela called on Morocco to reinstate the civilian component of the mission. The US and UK expressed the view that the expulsion of staff was unacceptable and warned against the broader implications of the action.

During the second briefing under AOB on 13 April, Ladsous reiterated the message that the situation was unsustainable for the mission. He reported that the Secretariat was continuing to attempt to deescalate the crisis and talks were ongoing between Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Moroccan Permanent Representative Omar Hiliale. Ladsous conveyed Morocco’s position that MINURSO should only be conducting three main functions: monitoring the ceasefire, supporting demining and UNHCR’s confidence-building measures. (However, demining activities have been suspended since 20 March, when the international staff overseeing the UN Mine Action Service-managed demining project were among those required to leave, and confidence-building measures have been suspended since June 2014.) Concerning the mandate renewal, Ladsous said there were three options available to the Council. The first would be to renew the mandate without changes, but with the full return of the mission’s civilian component; the second option would be to adjust the mandate to a pared-down version that would be acceptable to Morocco; and the third option would be to withdraw the entire mission.

SG Report
The annual report of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara, which has often been contentious, was again this year mired in controversy. It appears that in an effort to assuage tensions, the Secretariat consulted with Morocco on an early draft of the report. This draft was circulated to Council members on 18 April. A revised version was circulated the next day, apparently due to further concerns from Morocco (S/2016/355).

In the draft that was first circulated to Council members, the Secretary-General recalled that the Council established MINURSO to monitor the ceasefire, to maintain the military status quo, and, subject to the agreement of the parties, to organise a self-determination referendum. He added that “the Security Council confirmed the Mission’s political functions in resolution 1056 (1996) and subsequent resolutions extending the mandate”; however, in the final version of the report the reference to these resolutions was omitted. Concerning the political process, the report first circulated stated that the time had come for serious negotiations without preconditions and in good faith to reach “a mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara” and that this political solution must include resolution of the dispute over the status of Western Sahara, including through agreement on the nature and form of the exercise of self-determination. In its subsequent version, ‘must’ was replaced by ‘should’.

The report echoed the message that without a suitable and fully staffed international civilian component, the mission cannot fulfil a core component of its functions and will thus fail to meet the Council’s expectations. It stated that the expulsion of most of MINURSO’s international civilian component has essentially resulted in the “de facto alteration of the mandate of MINURSO”; and that such a development can be expected to be exploited by terrorist and radical elements; and that with a limited presence of support personnel, military activities will not be sustainable in the medium to long-term. It warned that the inability of the mission to execute its mandated tasks would entail, in the short to middle-term, significant implications for the stability of the region as well as for the credibility of the Council and peacekeeping operations and political missions globally.

In his recommendations, the Secretary-General calls on the Council to restore and support the mandated role of MINURSO, and avoid setting a precedent for peacekeeping operations around the world. He expresses the hope that the “remaining limitations on MINURSO’s ‘free interaction with all interlocutors’, as cited in every Security Council resolution since 2012, will be removed”. While in the report the Secretary-General stresses that the mission cannot function under the current circumstances, his only recommendation to the Council concerning the renewal is to extend the mandate of MINURSO for a further 12 months, until 30 April 2017.

Mandate Renewal
The Group of Friends on Western Sahara (France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US) met for the first time to discuss the resolution to renew MINURSO’s mandate yesterday morning (25 April). It seems that France and the US have taken a leading role among members of the Group in drafting the text. At press time the text had not been circulated to the Council as a whole for discussion, leaving very little time for substantive inputs from all members before Thursday morning’s adoption. In past years it has been the case that once the resolution is agreed among the Group of Friends there is very little room for input from other members, and given the heightened sensitivity surrounding this year’s renewal, that is likely to be the case. Council members with dissenting perspectives on the text may not be afforded any opportunity to engage in real negotiations, but may consider expressing their views by either abstaining or voting against the resolution.

While it is still unclear what the text discussed by the Group of Friends will call for, members seem to expect it to heed the Secretary-General’s recommendation to renew the mandate for another 12 months. Some Council members have expressed concern with the approach of simply renewing the mandate as it is, given that the Secretary-General’s report notes that expulsion of the civilian component constitutes a “de facto alteration of the mandate”, and that currently the mission cannot undertake core functions. Another option for the Council would be to renew the mandate for a shorter period, perhaps three months, and reassess the mission’s status at that time.

On 17 March, Council members expressed in elements read out to the press that followed painstaking negotiations among a deeply divided Council the importance of addressing the crisis so that MINURSO “may resume its full capacity to carry out its mandate as contained in the elements of several resolutions”. It remains to be seen if the Council will call for a reinstatement of the civilian staff to facilitate this in the resolution renewing MINURSO’s mandate.