By J Nastranis
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) – Nearly 26 years after a ceasefire was signed between Morocco and the Polisario Front on Western Sahara, the United Nations is hoping that Horst Köhler, former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, can help achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict. France and the Polisario Front share Secretary-General António Guterres’ expectation.
Guterres announced on August 16 Köhler’s appointment as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara – located on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria – which has been disputed since 1976, when fighting broke out between Morocco and the Polisario Front after the Spanish colonial administration of the territory ended.
A ceasefire was signed in September 1991. The Security Council established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to monitor a ceasefire between the Government of Morocco and the Polisario Front and organizing, if the parties agree, a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara.
Guterres’ new Personal Envoy brings more than 35 years of experience in government and international organizations. He also worked for the UN in development programmes and on a panel for the African Development Bank.
Before serving as President of the Federal Republic of Germany (2004-2010), he was Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. (2000-2004) and President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London (1998-2000). Köhler also served as State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Finance (1990-1993) before being appointed President of the German Savings Bank Association (1993).
Köhler replaces U.S. diplomat, Christopher Ross, who submitted his resignation to the Secretary-General in March 2017. Ross had held the post since January 2009, when he was appointed by the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told reporters on March 6 that Ross had “worked for eight years to try to come up with a framework by which the parties … would be able to renew negotiations, on an unconditional basis, about the permanent settlement of this dispute.” Feltman added: “He has been unable to bring the parties back to negotiations.”
France welcomed the appointment of the former German President in a statement published on the website of its Foreign Affairs Ministry on August 16. Paris said it wished Köhler “every success” and expressed gratitude to his predecessor “for his positive contribution to the search for a peaceful solution to the situation.”
Ross was appointed as replacement to Peter Van Walsum from the Netherlands, who had held this position between 2005 and August 2008. According to Moroco World News (MWN), Van Walsum was forced to submit his resignation after he told the Security Council in 2008 that the establishment of an independent state in the Western Sahara was “unrealistic.”
The Dutch diplomat’s statement was made a year after Morocco presented to the Security Council an Autonomy Plan, which was described as “serious and credible” by influential members of the Security Council. The plan, which was submitted in April 2007, proposes significant autonomy for the Sahara with a local government and a parliament, within the Moroccan sovereignty.
According to Morocco World News (MWN), the role of Ross as Western Sahara Envoy was contested by Morocco, which accused him of bias towards the Polisario Front and Algeria. Ross had been the United States’ ambassador to Algeria between 1988 and 1991. Morocco had announced as early as 2012 that it no longer had confidence in him.
“France remains a key international player in the Western Sahara issue, as both a major diplomatic ally of Morocco and one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council,” MWN reported.
Welcoming Köhler’s appointment, the Polisario Front said in a statement that “it is ready to work with the new Personal Envoy” and help him “in his noble efforts in order to achieve decolonization in Western Sahara on the basis of Sahrawi people’ right to self-determination.”
Polisario Front called on “the international community and the Security Council to facilitate the mission of the Personal Envoy and put an end to the deadlock that the peace process in Western Sahara has been witnessing for years” and also “put an end to the anguish of Sahrawi people.”
MWN said: “When Ross resigned from office in March, Polisario accused Morocco of being behind the deadlock that led to his resignation. Former UN Secretary-General Ban also came under fire from Morocco when he showed bias towards Polisario.
During his visit to the Polisario-run Tindouf Camps in March 2016, Ban referred to Morocco as ‘occupying force’ in Western Sahara. Rabat slammed Ban for acting in contrast with his mandate in the conflict. Morocco said Ban’s statement was “an insult to Morocco and Moroccans.”
The election of Guterres, former head of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, as Ban’s successor came as a relief for Morocco. As UNHCR head, Guterres had since 2004 been facilitating family flights between Sahrawi refugees living in camps near Tindouf, Algeria, and their relatives in the territory of Western Sahara. Nearly 20,000 people have taken part in family visits by 2014.
In April 2017, Morocco announced the withdrawal of its forces from a UN buffer zone in the disputed Western Sahara territory, where for months they had been in a standoff with troops from the Polisario independence movement.
The move took place days after a phone call between Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and Secretary-General Guterres, reducing military tensions in Guerguerat, a remote area in Western Sahara near Mauritania.
The United Nations on April 28 welcomed the withdrawal of all Polisario Front elements from the Guerguerat area, between the berm and the border with Mauritania, as confirmed by observers of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, on April 27-28.
According to a statement issued by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, together with the earlier withdrawal of Moroccan elements from the area, in response to the urging of the Secretary-General, this action should improve the prospects of creating an environment that will facilitate early implementation of Guterres’s determination to relaunch the negotiating process.
The process would be relaunched with a new dynamic and a new spirit that reflects the Security Council’s guidance and resolutions, with the aim of reaching a “mutually acceptable political solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”
“We continue to call on the parties to adhere to their obligations under the ceasefire agreement and to respect both its letter and spirit, and to cooperate fully with MINURSO,” said the Spokesman, adding that the need to ensure that tensions do not erupt anew in the Guerguerat area remains vital.
To this end, MINURSO intends to maintain the position it has held in the Buffer Strip since August 2016 and further discuss the Mission’s future monitoring of the area and the full range of issues related to the Buffer Strip with the parties, the statement added.
The statement came as the Security Council unanimously extended MINURSO’s mandate until April 30, 2018. Through a resolution, the Council reaffirmed the need for full respect of the military agreements reached with MINUSRSO with regard to the ceasefire and called on all the parties to adhere fully to those agreements. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 August 2017]
Photo: Horst Köhler, newly-appointed Personal Envoy for Western Sahara (file). UN Photo/Mark Garten
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate