After a six-year break, direct and interested parties to the Western Sahara conflict—Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania—held fresh talks in Geneva on December 5-6. While these discussions predictably yielded no specific results, they concluded with the parties’ commitment to further talks that could mature into direct negotiations. Yet such a show of goodwill does not portend any shift, however tenuous, in these parties’ posturing. Instead, the UN-sponsored shuttle diplomacy is better geared toward saving the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) from Washington’s newly found zeal for making UN peacekeeping operations cost-effective and results-based.
In April 2018, having successfully renewed MINURSO’s mandate for only six months as opposed to the usual one year, the United States declared that the mission had failed to achieve its political purpose and gave the parties a six-month deadline to return to the negotiating table. Morocco’s 2007 autonomy plan for Western Sahara, which had for years elicited Washington’s one-sided support, was described as “one potential approach.” This signaled the Trump administration’s willingness to keep unexplored options on the table while distancing itself from the Obama administration’s unequivocal endorsement of the “serious and credible Moroccan efforts” within the autonomy plan. It may also aim to subtly re-assess its approach to both Algeria and Morocco by valuing the former’s contributions to counterterrorism and the latter’s support for regional stabilization through the Group of Five (G5) Sahel.
As expected, Washington credited the resumption of direct talks in Geneva to conditioning the renewal of MINURSO’s mandate on “substantive political” progress, which then helped UN mediator Horst Köhler find fresh momentum and new spirit among the parties. Yet it is difficult to reconcile this connection with the record of previous UN mediators, in particular Ambassador Christopher Ross, who spent eight years mediating the dispute between 2009 and 2017. This included fourteen rounds of regional consultations and shuttle diplomacy, as well as eight rounds of informal talks from 2010 to 2012, during which MINURSO’s mandate was renewed annually even as Ross did not let up pressure on the parties.
In a December 13 question and answer session following remarks to a conservative audience, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton aired impatience at the lack of success of UN peace-keeping missions in Africa, and in particular MINURSO, expressing regret that the self-determination referendum the United Nations envisaged 27 years ago has not been held. He further called for an end to the political paralysis within the UN Security Council that obstructs seeking innovative solutions for a lasting settlement. Although Bolton’s remarks on the self-determination referendum were not part of his official presentation, they reflect the administration’s doubts that there is any benefit to perpetuating the paralyzed process of arranging a self-determination referendum. The administration is also challenging the logic of keeping MINURSO’s mandate artificially tied up with the organization of an increasingly improbable referendum and increasing pressure on UN Security Council members to find new ways to break the permanent logjam.
The U.S. Department of State quickly reacted by restating almost word for word the UN Security Council’s usual language in its resolutions, noting that the United States supports “a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution by Morocco and Polisario that would guarantee the right of self-determination of the Saharawi people.” However, the Department of State dropped the adjective “political” next to “acceptable solution.” This could mean less backing for a U.S.-led process from Morocco, which usually supports references to a political agreement as an alternative to a referendum on self-determination. So far, the United Nations has not changed this seminal sentence used in every past Security Council resolution, but there are subtle indicators that its interpretation no longer hangs on either sustaining Morocco’s autonomy plan or on guaranteeing the right of self-determination through a final referendum.
The recent Geneva talks should thus be seen, not as a fundamental change in parties’ stances, but within the context of U.S. efforts to paint MINURSO as an example of what is wrong with the United Nations and its peacekeeping operations. It is unclear, however, how the Trump administration could alter or reduce MINURSO’s mandate and operational functions without upsetting the equilibrium that makes the current status quo so resilient. Morocco always sought to reduce the UN mission to its military mandate (that is, maintaining a ceasefire) without any reference to self-determination. Meanwhile, Polisario would like to retain the mission as it is, in particular its support for preparing a self-determination referendum and its additional duties reporting on social, political, and economic developments in Western Sahara, most critically human rights. Any change to the existing status quo could easily tilt the balance toward either Morocco or Polisario.
Critically, reducing MINURSO’s capabilities may endanger stability and security in the region. For example, Morocco might decide to increase its defense spending and security presence in Western Sahara, which would lead to dangerous escalation on both sides. Furthermore, reducing funding for the mission also reduces investment in local development. This runs contrary to the Trump administration’s commitment though the New Africa Strategy to using aid money more efficiently and Bolton’s stated interest in using resources currently wasted in prolonging indefinitely frozen conflicts toward economic development.
While MINURSO could be streamlined to reflect changing realities on the ground and to accommodate open-ended mediation, U.S. influence could more effectively apply pressure to other aspects that pose fewer unwarranted risks. This could include asking Morocco to clarify how it intends to implement its autonomy plan for Western Sahara within the context of its tentative decentralization plan (especially as none of its administrative regions align with Western Sahara’s borders) or raising the issue of Sahrawis’ effective representation on both sides of the ceasefire line.
Jacques Roussellier teaches international relations at American Military University and is co-editor of Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2014).