The conflict over Western Sahara has lasted well over 40 years, 25 of those under UN Security Council oversight. The peace process has just suffered the latest of many setbacks. This time, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon undertook an ill-advised visit to North Africa, which did not include Morocco, the key player in the conflict. Instead of energizing the stalled talks over Western Sahara as he intended, the secretary general’s visit likely put them in a deep freeze until his successor takes office.
The new crisis on Western Sahara could have been avoided. The secretary general and those advising him should have taken a closer look at the history of the Security Council’s handling of the conflict since the council first became involved in 1991. I should know. I covered this issue for 12 years while working in the UN, and I continue to follow developments in Western Sahara with increasing alarm. In my final seven years at the UN, I was part of the negotiating team and adviser to former US secretary of state James Baker, who was Kofi Annan’s first personal envoy to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. It was during Baker’s tenure that the UN came the closest to resolving this conflict in 2003. It has been downhill ever since.
This month, Ban decided to visit the region in an effort to resolve the conflict before the end of his term this December. And he made the trip despite Morocco’s repeated claims that it could not receive him due to the absence of King Mohammed VI on any of the different dates proposed by the secretary general. But if, as his spokesman claimed, Morocco blocked his visit to the territory by denying landing clearance for his plane, this is unprecedented and an affront to the office of the secretary general, given that his predecessors Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali had visited the territory. Equally unprecedented was the secretary general’s decision to meet with only the other party to the conflict, the pro-independence Polisario Front, a liberation movement representing the Saharan people in the UN original Settlement Plan to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. He also met with the neighboring states of Mauritania and Algeria, the latter a key supporter of Polisario. While in Algiers, the secretary general described Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an “occupation,” a term that predictably enraged Morocco’s government, press, political parties, and public enough that it provoked a retraction from the secretary general’s office.