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Extension of UN mandate in Western Sahara: the status quo or agreement in sight?

By Daniel Finnan

The UN Security Council has voted to extend the mandate of the UN mission in Western Sahara, one of the world’s longest-standing territorial disputes. Sahrawi refugees have been installed in camps in western Algeria for more than 40 years, while the UN has been trying to broker a settlement between Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front for more than two decades.

Last week saw another extension to the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) which has been in place since a UN brokered ceasefire in 1991 to end fighting that broke out when Morocco sent its forces to the territory in 1975.

The Moroccan government claims the former Spanish territory it as its own, but the Polisario Front, which represents the Saharawi people, wants independence.

For the majority of African governments, the Western Sahara is one of the leftovers from unfinished decolonisation and the African Union regional bloc recognises an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

African countries only supported the most recent extension of the UN mandate if certain conditions were fulfilled.

Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins, Angola’s representative to the UN:

"First: the Security Council is really committed to the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Second: that the Security Council is committed to ending the current impasse and to the achievement of progress towards a political solution. Third: the Security Council recognises that achieving a political solution would contribute to stability and security in the Sahel region. And fourth: the Security Council encourages the parties to demonstrate further political will towards a solution, to continue the process of negotiation and recognises that the consolidation of the status quos is unacceptable."

Progress on resolving the dispute over the Western Sahara has been slow. And France has often been accused of backing Morocco in order to maintain the existing state of affairs, especially since it holds considerable sway as a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council.

Alexis Lamek, France's deputy representative to the UN:

"The resolution that we've just adopted unanimously, gives necessary impetus to the political process. The text indicates clearly that maintaining the status quo is not acceptable and that the parties must be more resolutely involved and show greater political will, realism and spirit of compromise to move towards a fair, lasting, mutually acceptable political solution."

The last real negotiations between the parties in 2007 failed. Morocco submitted a plan for the autonomy of Western Sahara which the Polisario Front rejected. For them, anything less than a referendum for independence was unacceptable.

Omar Hilale, Morocco’s representative to the UN:

"Concerning commitment to the political process – yes, we are committed to go forward in the political negotiations and of course as far as the UN is taking a neutral position, respecting principles, respecting parameters and looking at the political solution - we are in this framework and we will go till the end. As far as the referendum is concerned, for us, the referendum is already in our initiative [on automony]. It means that any agreement, any political agreement will be presented to the population. The population in the Sahara will have the right to accept it or to refuse it. This is the legal and legitimate process of consulting the population about their opinion and about their future also."

Western Sahara’s rich natural resources complicates the dispute – it has phosphate reserves, plentiful fishing and French, British and American firms have all secured licenses from the Moroccan government for oil exploration.

Meanwhile, as the political impasse continues and others benefit from the Western Sahara’s resources, Saharawi refugees continue to languish in the desert. Some of them have never known their homeland and were born in the camps in Tindouf, in western Algeria.

International non-governmental organisation Oxfam has completed a report marking the anniversary, 40 years of exile: Sahrawi refugees abandoned by the international community. It calls the situation an unknown humanitarian disaster.

Liesbeth Goossens, report co-author, Oxfam:

"The situation is very difficult, very precarious. The first thing one should keep in mind is that the refugee camps are situated in very harsh desert and isolated environment where the opportunities for self reliance are very remote. So the refugees are highly dependent on international aid and the conditions have worsened since the beginning of this year because the funds have declined. So we see that diseases like hypertension and diabetes are widespread, anaemia as well. 62 per cent of the people drink water that has risk of carrying diseases and so it’s very difficult from a humanitarian point of view. Added to that is the lack of socio-economic opportunities for the refugees because more and more refugees have studied, to have an education, and of course they want to exercise they talents. But there are no opportunities for that. Then last is the lack of perspective that their situation will change anytime soon. Their new generations were born and have grown up in these camps and they don’t see an end or they don’t see any perspective that their situation will change soon."

The extension of the UN mandate is valid for another year. The Saharawi people will be waiting to see whether next year’s review of the UN resolution maintains the status quo, what the Saharawis call "the April lie", or whether there will be a renewed push to settle the dispute.

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