- The present report is submitted pursuant to Security Council resolution 2494 (2019), by which the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) until 31 October 2020 and requested me to submit a report on the situation in Western Sahara before the end of the mandate period. The report covers developments until 31 August 2020 that have occurred since the issuance of my previous report of 2 October 2019 (S/2019/787) and describes the situation on the ground, the status of political negotiations on Western Sahara, the implementation of resolution 2494 (2019) and the existing challenges to the Mission’s operations and steps taken to address them.
II. Recent developments
Overall calm prevailed in Western Sahara on both sides of the berm. While respect for the ceasefire agreement by both parties generally continued, there was a notable decline in compliance with the terms of military agreement No. 1, particularly east of the berm.
The impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on Western Sahara was moderate west of the berm. Following early and thorough preventive and containment measures by Morocco, this part of the Territory witnessed only a handful of cases until 30 May. At that point, a significant outbreak was detected in the area of Laayoune. As at 31 August, the number of active cases in Laayoune was 41. The Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguía el-Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO) reported taking strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus east of the berm, where no cases were officially reported. In the Sahrawi refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, three active cases had officially been identified as at 31 August. In the town of Tindouf, where a number of United Nations and international humanitarian operators have offices, cases were detected in August and, as at 31 August, 43 cases remained active.
From the third week of March, when the number of cases in Western Sahara and the rest of United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) area of operation was still very limited, the Mission drastically reduced its footprint at headquarters in Laayoune, adopting telecommuting for all staff and implementing a thorough set of preventative measures and protocols. As a result of these and measures adopted by the Moroccan authorities in Morocco and in the Territory west of the berm, no cases were reported among MINURSO personnel.
MINURSO was able to ensure mandate implementation by continuing its ceasefire observation activities at reduced but adequate levels. This was facilitated by the fact that both parties reduced their military activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On 5 November 2019, during his annual address on the anniversary of the Green March, King Mohammed VI of Morocco stated that Morocco “will continue to work honestly and in good faith to achieve a political, realistic, practical and consensual solution based exclusively on the political approach adopted by the United Nations Organization and the relevant Security Council resolutions”. He further said that the 2007 autonomy proposal of Morocco was “the only way forward towards a settlement guaranteeing full respect for the Kingdom’s national unity and territorial integrity”.
In a statement on 7 November 2019, Frente POLISARIO stated that “the Sahrawi people will continue their struggle for freedom and independence”.
Between 18 December 2019 and 12 March 2020, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, the Gambia, Guinea, Liberia and São Tomé and Príncipe inaugurated “Consulates General” in Laayoune or Dakhla. In letters addressed to me on 3 July 2019, 20 November 2019, 7 January 2020, 17 January 2020 and 18 February 2020, Brahim Ghali, Secretary-General of Frente POLISARIO, defined these diplomatic representations as a “violation of international law and [...] breach of the international legal status of Western Sahara as a Non-SelfGoverning Territory”.
On 22 January, the House of Representatives of Morocco adopted two laws updating the limits of its territorial waters and of its exclusive economic zone, which included the waters off the coast of Western Sahara. On 22 January, Mr. Ghali wrote to me that Frente POLISARIO considered that the two laws represented “breaches of the international legal status of Western Sahara as a Non-Self-Governing Territory”.
Morocco continued its infrastructure investment west of the berm. It announced, for example, the construction of a new port approximately 70 kilometres north of Dakhla. In a letter dated 19 September 2019 to my Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations and my Special Representative for Western Sahara, the Representative of Frente POLISARIO in New York stated that this initiative intended “to consolidate and normalize [the] military occupation and the illegal annexation of parts of Western Sahara”.
From 19 to 25 December 2019, Frente POLISARIO held its fifteenth Congress in Tifariti, east of the berm, with more than 2,000 Sahrawi delegates and approximately 300 foreign guests reportedly participating. According to the final statement, the decision to hold the Congress in Tifariti was taken to consecrate “exercise of its sovereignty over its national territory”. The incumbent, Brahim Ghali, was the sole candidate for the position of Secretary-General of Frente POLISARIO and was re-elected for another term. Mr. Ghali wrote to me on 28 December 2019 to inform me that the Congress had expressed “firm and strong support for the decision taken by Frente POLISARIO regarding [reconsidering] its engagement in the United Nations peace process” and concern at the “failure to fulfil the mandate of MINURSO”.
Before the start of the Congress, on 9 December 2019, the Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations wrote to me to condemn the holding of the event in the Territory, calling it a “destabilizing act”, “a blatant violation of military agreement No. 1” and an “act of defiance” against Security Council resolutions 2414 (2018), 2440 (2018), 2468 (2019) and 2494 (2019).
On 2 February, Mr. Ghali assured the Frente POLISARIO military in a speech that Frente POLISARIO would be strict in applying the laws of “exercising its sovereignty over the liberated territories”. On 9 May, the representative of Frente POLISARIO to Algiers, Abdel Qader Al Talib Omar, indicated that it would continue relocating its institutions east of the berm.
The situation in Guerguerat remained calm overall, with only sporadic demonstrations between October 2019 and March 2020 that did not affect the flow of commercial and civilian traffic. On 15 May, during the COVID-19 lockdown period, civilian truck drivers and workers stranded in the buffer strip demonstrated to demand entry into Western Sahara. As in previous years, however, tensions rose considerably in early January around the passage of the annual Africa Eco Race auto rally competition through Western Sahara and Guerguerat from 11 to 13 January. Frente POLISARIO indicated its intention to block the race, and Morocco indicated its intention to intervene across the ceasefire line to keep the race path clear. MINURSO deployed a civil-military conflict prevention team to monitor the situation and prevent escalation, and on 13 January the team successfully mediated between a group of approximately 30 pro-Frente POLISARIO men and women who had set up a camp in the buffer strip and were threatening to block the race’s passage and a group of pro-Moroccan individuals who had entered the buffer strip to confront them. As a result, the race convoy was able to pass through the buffer strip without significant incident. On 15 January, Mr. Ghali wrote to me condemning the “unlawful passing” of the race through the “illegal breach” which, he stated, “represents a persistent violation of Military Agreement No. 1 and the spirit of the peace plan”. On 31 August and 1 September, approximately 20 Sahrawi protesters again gathered inside the buffer strip, briefly putting up roadblocks. MINURSO deployed a civil-military team to the area and successfully negotiated the removal of the roadblocks and the protesters’ departure from the area. Frente POLISARIO issued a statement on 1 September expressing solidarity with the protests. Morocco expressed concern to my Special Representative about this “deliberate and unlawful provocation”.
On 1 April, Mhamed Khadad, Frente POLISARIO Coordinator with MINURSO since 1997 and a member of the national secretariat of Frente POLISARIO, passed away. He was a key MINURSO interlocutor for most of the existence of the Mission. His passing has left a void in the relations between Frente POLISARIO and MINURSO on the ground. Sidi Omar, the Frente POLISARIO representative in New York, is temporarily acting as Coordinator with MINURSO.