MINURSO: bulwark for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in West Africa

(To Weekly)

On January 25, MINURSO (Mission des Nations Unies pour l'Organisation d'un Référendum au Sahara Occidental) was struck by the untimely demise of the deputy force commander Edjenani-Afenu, which took place a few days after the completion of the year of service at the Mission and after his return to his homeland.

First female commander and first female brigadier general of the armed forces of Ghana, she served in the MINURSO mission from 2019 to 2022 focusing her forces on improving the conditions of service of the observers and increasing the number of female personnel within the mission and increase their roles and responsibilities within the mission. In addition to MINURSO, you took part in UN operations in Congo, Liberia and Lebanon.

MINURSO is perhaps one of the least known UN peacekeeping missions

Born in 1991, it is made up of 488 people including 245 United Nations military observers, medical personnel (20) and 7 officers / non-commissioned officers for duties at the HQ.

The observers are unarmed and grouped into multinational teams with a mandate to visit military units and conduct patrols at any time. To this end, MINURSO carries out daily patrols on both sides of the quay to confirm the state of the parties' forces throughout the Territory, verify violations, demonstrate the presence of the United Nations and monitor military exercises conducted by the parties as well as the destruction of mines and unexploded ordnance. Observers come from various states including Egypt, Russia, Honduras, Malaysia and Italy.

The MINURSO headquarters are located in Laayoune, the capital of the Territory and has a liaison office in Tindouf (Algeria). The observers are arrayed in groups of an average of twenty observers for each of the nine Team Site. Four of them are located east of the Moroccan defense line, called berm (Smara, Mahbas, Oum Dreyga, Awsard) and five Team Site are located west of the berm (Bir Lahlou, Tifariti, Mehaires, Mijek, Awsard).

At the end of 2021, Russian Alexander Ivanko was appointed UN special representative in Western Sahara and head of MINURSO, succeeding Canadian Colin Stewart, who went to lead the UN mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP). The Pakistani Major General Zia Ur Rehman is, on the other hand, the current commander of the force.

Historical background

With the Berlin conference (1884-1885) Spain was assigned the colonization of the territory, the boundaries of the conquered territories were delimited, gradually arousing a nationalist sentiment due to progressive discrimination and oppression that saw the birth, in the sixties of the twentieth century, activities anti-colonialists.

In those years, the UN, with the resolutions of the General Assembly 2072 of 16 December 1965 and 2229 of 20 December 1966 confirmed that the Sahrawi population had the right to decide through a referendum whether to become independent with its own state or join one existing. First with the Liberation Movement of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (1967), then with the POLISARIO Front (Frente Popular for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, formed in 1973) the Sahrawis wanted to claim their independence from both Spain and Morocco.

It followed the claims of Morocco and Mauritania, with resolution 3292 of 1974 the General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice (CIG) to clarify two problems: if at the time of the occupation by Spain the Western Sahara (SO) was zero ground and in the event of a negative outcome, what were the links between that territory and the neighboring states. The IGC concluded that that territory was not zero ground but which excluded sovereign ties between the SO, Morocco and Mauritania thus confirming the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people.

Morocco on November 6, 1975 reacted with the so-called "Green March", a parade of volunteers aimed at taking control of the territories in question. The UN, also at the request of Spain, condemned the Moroccan "initiative" and limited itself to soliciting the parties to collaborate to arrive at a solution.

With the "Madrid Accords" (1975) Spain abandoned its sovereignty over the SO leaving Morocco and Mauritania with their respective claims, but ignoring those of the POLISARIO. The treaty also established the establishment of two temporary administrations, a Hispanic-Moroccan for the north of the Territory (equivalent to one third of the surface) and a Hispanic-Mauritanian (the other two thirds), but they never became operational and the SO it was shared between Morocco and Mauritania. This in 1979 defeated militarily by POLISARIO withdrew from the conflict and adopted a rigid neutrality; Morocco after several years of fighting and the progressive construction of the wall came to control 60% of the territory, but without reaching a decisive victory. Since then, the controversy has still not found a solution today.

With the arrival of Moroccan troops in the SO, thousands of Saharawis took refuge in Algeria, in particular in Tindouf and the POLISARIO Front announced in 1976 the birth of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), whose government was established, in exile, in Tindouf (Algeria) and establishes its sovereignty over the remaining territory. Years of guerrillas followed one another until the United Nations and the Organization of the African Union proposed a ceasefire followed by a referendum.

MINURSO was born in 1991 with resolution 690 of Security Council of 29 April 1991 in accordance with the motions for resolution accepted on 30 August 1988 by Morocco and the POLISARIO Front. The operation, which should have been concluded in the summer of 1992, had the purpose, according to the conciliation plan, to monitor the ceasefire, the non-encroachment of the Moroccan troops and the POLISARIO Front from the predetermined places, to supervise the exchange of prisoners of war, to reduce the threat of unexploded mines but above all to organize and manage the referendum that would have led the Sahrawi people to choose between independence supported by the POLISARIO Front and annexation to Morocco.

The operation stalled as a result of constant conflicts between the two parties that did not allow the completion of the identification of the population eligible to vote. In 2000, therefore, political talks began between Morocco and the POLISARIO Front as an alternative to the referendum but one of the cardinal principles, namely the self-determination of peoples, was missing.

In 2001 and 2003 two agreements were produced which were rejected by the parties, channeling the negotiation into a persistent stalemate. The Security Council, therefore, no longer started talking about agreements but with Resolution 1349 of 3 April 2001 "the parties [...] will continue to try to resolve the multiple problems relating to the implementation of the Settlement Plan and try to agree upon a mutually acceptable political solution to their dispute over Western Sahara "or invited the parties to cooperate in order to reach a political solution.

Arriving in 2007 without progress, the Security Council with Resolution 1754 invited the parties to "start negotiations without preconditions, good faith, taking into account the developments of recent months, in order to reach a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, providing to the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara ”.

More recently, 2019, the EU, which in the meantime had taken the side of Morocco, confirmed its support for the UN Secretary General in order to progress with cooperation to reach a just and lasting political solution and with resolution 2468 of 2019 on Security Council Stresses the importance of a renewed commitment by the parties to move the political process forward with a view to subsequent negotiations and in mind of the recommendation contained in the report of 14 April 2008, recalls that the spirit of compromise between the parties is essential for making progress in the negotiations and encourages neighboring countries to make an active contribution.

Tensions and guerrillas never subsided

In November 2020 Morocco launched a military operation in the El Guerguerat buffer zone by reactivating the movement of goods and people blocked by the closure of the Moroccan crossing between the SO and Mauritania by armed groups of the POLISARIO Front on the previous 21 October, constituting a de facto violation of the agreements. In the following December, the Trump administration recognized Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, disagreeing with the EU, which considered the decision not useful for an easier action to consolidate relations between the parties.

On January 23, 2021, the POLISARIO Front attacked again in the El Guerguerat area in Western Sahara as if to remind the international community that the dispute between the two suitors has not yet found a square which certainly does not benefit from the critical conditions in which the Sahrawi refugee camps increased by Covid-19 and the difficulty of receiving humanitarian aid.

The Sahrawi people are increasingly annoyed by the little or nothing achieved so far by the various international organizations, losing hope even in the much desired referendum. Morocco for its part, supported by other states, remains firm in its desire not to change the current state of things by insinuating (without confirmation) jihadist infiltrations among the Sahrawis, while tensions in the area continue even with the use of drones by Moroccan and as we have already narrated in previously.

A new diplomat to resume the treaties

Last October, the UN appoints the Italian-Swedish diplomat Staffan De Mistura as personal envoy of the Secretary General of Western Sahara in order to reactivate a dialogue between the parties.

The diplomat who succeeds the former German president Horst Köhler who finished his office on May 22, 2019, has more than 40 years of diplomatic activity behind him, holding important positions including that of special envoy of the general secretary for Syria and of Representative and staff of the Secretary General for Iraq, Afghanistan Lebanon as well as various posts in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam. He also received positions in Italian politics as Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs and later Deputy Foreign Minister in Italy.

De Mistura will have as interlocutors all the countries involved in the pacification process in Western Sahara mentioned in resolution 2548 of 2000 and in all the others concerning the areas of interest.

A few weeks ago (February 3) the US Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, met Staffan de Mistura in Washington, underlining the commitment of the United States to support the efforts of the new UN envoy to lead the peace process by discussing, in addition, on constant diplomatic talks with international partners in order to strengthen a credible political process that will lead to a lasting and dignified resolution of the conflict.

Although the organization of the referendum has not been possible so far, MINURSO has achieved other results by continuing to carry out the activities related to the monitoring of the ceasefire, the reduction of the threat of unexploded mines, has provided support to the CBM (Confidence Building Measures) aimed at 'meeting of members of family groups divided by the conflict, led by UNHCR with personnel and air and land vehicles and remains ready to continue to support the UNHCR program pending the agreement of the two parties on a resumption of activities, suspended in June 2014, she was involved in assisting irregular migrants and humanitarian aid in the event of natural disasters.

MINURSO represents the symbolic presence of the international community in that region by carrying out a silent and little publicized indirect stabilization activity.