1. The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2440 (2018), by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 30 April 2019 and requested me to submit a report on the situation in Western Sahara before the end of the mandate period. It covers developments that have occurred since the issuance of my previous report, of 3 October 2018 (S/2018/889), and describes the situation on the ground, the status and progress of the political negotiations on Western Sahara, the implementation of resolution 2440 (2018) and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.
II. Recent developments
2. In the period since my last report, my Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, has continued to accelerate efforts to advance the negotiation process. On 5 and 6 December 2018 and on 21 and 22 March 2019, he convened round-table meetings between Morocco, the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO), Algeria and Mauritania in Switzerland. The round-table meetings marked the first face-to-face encounters in the context of the political process since 2012 and were characterized by a positive spirit and respectful and constructive atmosphere. In accordance with resolution 2440 (2018), my Personal Envoy briefed the Council on 29 January on the status of discussions in the round-table process and informed the Council about the commitment of the parties and neighbouring States to continue their engagement in the political process. My Personal Envoy continues to undertake consultations on the matter with relevant interlocutors, including Security Council members, members of the Group of Friends on Western Sahara and regional organizations.
3. The situation in Western Sahara has remained relatively calm. The ceasefire, despite some significant violations, continues to hold, with both parties on the whole continuing to respect the MINURSO mandate in safeguarding the rules enshrined in military agreement No. 1 and other related agreements. Where violations were identified by the Mission, the parties did not, however, always show willingness to resolve them or find mitigating solutions. Both Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO attempted to justify some of their violations of military agreement No. 1 as being necessary to prevent drug trafficking and other criminal activities, despite the agreement not making allowances for intervention by military forces or the use of military infrastructure in such cases.
4. No further presence of Frente POLISARIO “police” has been observed in the buffer strip in Guerguerat. MINURSO conducts frequent ground and air patrols in the area, adjusting the intensity of its monitoring to the prevailing situation. There was relative calm in the area until the latter part of December, despite periodic roadblocks by civilians in the buffer strip protesting the lack of job opportunities in Western Sahara and increases in the fees levied by Morocco on commercial traffic. From late December, obstructions on the road increased, causing heavy traffic jams. The Moroccan coordinator wrote twice to my Special Representative to advise that Morocco may decide to intervene with force if the road blockages became unresolvable. My Special Representative urged that no intervention take place, mindful of the political sensitivity of the area. The Secretary-General of Frente POLISARIO wrote to me to warn against any Moroccan intervention across the berm. As at the time of writing, the roadblocks continue periodically, but there has been no intervention.
5. Between 4 and 7 January, the Africa Eco Race, an annual automobile rally, crossed Western Sahara, amid media speculation and Frente POLISARIO denials of plans to re-establish an armed presence inside the buffer strip at Guerguerat to obstruct the race. On 7 January, MINURSO military observers observed the uninterrupted passage of the race convoy through Guerguerat. On the same day, MINURSO military observers reported the presence of four individuals in civilian clothing inside the buffer strip, travelling in an unmarked vehicle, who, after restoring a painted Frente POLISARIO/“Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” flag on stones alongside the road (present since 2016), left the area. Morocco officially denounced this presence as a violation by Frente POLISARIO. After interviewing the individuals, MINURSO was unable, on the basis of the information gathered, to establish that there had been a violation of military agreement No. 1 or of relevant Security Council resolutions.
6. On 2 February, a serious incident took place. After MINURSO military observers had left Guerguerat for the day, a young Sahrawi man lit himself on fire inside the Moroccan gate, reportedly in protest against the Moroccan “border” authorities. He suffered injuries that led to his death on 6 February. This prompted an emotional outcry on social media from many in the Sahrawi community, with some of the anger directed at the United Nations and MINURSO, largely inspired by incorrect reports that MINURSO military observers had witnessed the incident first-hand and had not intervened. MINURSO reached out through Frente POLISARIO to correct these impressions and calm the situation.
7. On 17 October, three Sahrawi illicit gold miners working east of the berm gained entry to the Mission’s team site in Mijek by falsely claiming a snake bite and requesting urgent medical attention. Once inside, they revealed their engagement in clandestine gold mining in a nearby area and claimed that they were fleeing arrest by Frente POLISARIO. After mediation by MINURSO, and with the full cooperation of Frente POLISARIO, the three peacefully departed the team site on 18 October, but threatened retaliation against Frente POLISARIO and MINURSO unless they were allowed to resume their gold mining activities. Frente POLISARIO informed MINURSO that it considered gold mining illicit everywhere in the Territory east of the berm and that the three men were criminals making false representations.
8. A number of demonstrations took place in the refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, including one on 7 February, when approximately one hundred protesters gathered in front of the compound of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rabouni, Algeria, located close to the building of the “Presidency” of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic”. Protesters were demanding information on the fate of a former adviser to the late Mohammed Abdelaziz, Khalil Ahmed, who has been missing in Algeria since 2009. Another protest took place at the same site on 10 February, against limitations on the import of vehicles from Europe.
9. On 6 November, King Mohammed VI delivered an address commemorating the forty-third anniversary of the Green March, reiterating the commitment of Morocco to cooperate in good faith with my efforts and those of my Personal Envoy to establish a serious and credible political process, while taking into account the lessons of the past. He also highlighted the return of Morocco to the African Union and called for an end to “division and lack of unity in the Maghreb”, proposing a joint political mechanism for dialogue and consultation between Morocco and Algeria “using an open-ended agenda, without conditions or exceptions”.
10. In an official statement the same day, Frente POLISARIO, while reiterating its commitment to the peace process led by my Personal Envoy, denounced the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara as “an illegal military occupation” and described the address of Mohammed VI as an attempt to “ignore one of the parties to the conflict”, “obstruct the efforts of the United Nations” and “determine the framework and conditions of the conflict resolution process”.
11. On 16 January, the European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution amending protocols 1 and 4 to the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement between the European Union and Morocco, extending the application of those protocols to goods from Western Sahara. The Representative of Frente POLISARIO in New York wrote to the President of the Security Council on 18 January (S/2019/63), complaining that the outcome of the vote “represents a direct blow to human rights defenders and international law. It also represents a major obstacle to the United Nations-led peace process”. On 24 January, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations wrote to inform me of the Agreement, noting that it marked the culmination of a long process of technical negotiations and political consultations with the legitimate representatives of local populations and legal validations initiated between Morocco and the European Union. On 12 February, the European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution concluding the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Morocco and similarly included Western Sahara in the scope of application of that Agreement.
12. Moroccan investments west of the berm continued as previously reported. Morocco maintains that such investments directly benefit the people of Western Sahara and are implemented in consultation with them. Frente POLISARIO continues to protest that they are in violation of international law and of the status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory. Frente POLISARIO also continues to claim that all public expressions of dissent, especially pro-referendum or pro-independence demonstrations, west of the berm are violently repressed by Moroccan security forces.