"Ten Senators, Democrats and Republicans, recently wrote Secretary of State Blinken to urge that human rights monitoring be added to the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). PassBlue, an online journalism site, recently highlighted their letter, but also quoted a former head of MINURSO to the effect that taking this action would merely add “another un-implementable element” to its work. This prompted me to pen the following comment.
I served as the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. My mission, as defined by the Security Council, was to facilitate negotiations to achieve “a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” The proposals that Morocco and the Polisario had put forward in 2007 were mutually exclusive, and their rigidity ensured enduring stalemate at every face-to-face negotiating session I convened and in all the shuttle diplomacy I undertook in a quixotic search for flexibility.
In the absence of substantive progress on the future of Western Sahara, the issue of human rights became a substitute battle front, with each party accusing the other of serious human rights violations. To address these concerns, the Secretary-General’s reports to the Security Council have consistently called for sustained independent monitoring of human rights. The Polisario has been prepared to accept such monitoring, but, by Royal directive, Morocco has not.
In PassBlue’s article, Wolfgang Weisbrod-Weber, a former Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Western Sahara, addressed a hypothetical situation in which the Security Council added human rights to the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). He lamented that doing so would add yet another un-implementable element to MINURSO’s work. This does not tell the whole story. Why would adding human rights be un-implementable? Because Morocco would find a way to block it on the ground, as it did in 2000 with MINURSO's preparations for a referendum. Why would Morocco refuse to have a referendum? Because if feared that the result would be independence. And why would Morocco block a human rights mandate? Because such a mandate would give resident Western Saharan opponents of the Moroccan presence a transparent way to inform the outside world of their views, which Morocco has done everything possible to prevent lest its claim to the territory be weakened.
This and other aspects of Morocco’s posture on the Western Sahara conflict make perfect sense in Rabat, but they make light not only of the recommendations of two successive UN Secretaries-General for human rights monitoring, but also of the Security Council's repeated calls for negotiations without preconditions. Rabat has short-circuited these negotiations by trying to impose its autonomy proposal as the only item on the agenda to the exclusion of the Polisario's proposal for a referendum. It has suffered no consequences for this comportment because France’s attachment to Moroccan stability impels it to prevent any serious effort to call Morocco to task for its failure to follow the guidance of the Security Council. Unless the Council takes corrective action, possibly by enlarging the mandate of the new Personal Envoy beyond simply convening meetings and engaging in shuttles in search of flexibility, he will face the same stalemated situation as his three predecessors."