Making Sense of Security Council Resolution 2440 on Western Sahara

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Washington D.C. – The resolution reflected recent developments and welcomed the non-occurrence of any incident that would destabilize the region. It also stressed, for the second time in a row, the need “to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.” This emphasis means that the referendum is no longer viewed as a viable option that is likely to help the parties reach a realistic political solution.

It is very telling that no member of the Security Council mentioned the referendum during member states’ statements after voting for the adoption of the resolution. In addition, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and China emphasized that any political solution to the conflict should be a mutually agreed upon and reached through negotiation.

Inclusion of Algeria for the first time

Regardless of the duration of the MINURSO mandate, the new resolution includes substantial modifications that will prove significant for the political process. Mentioning Algeria three times in the resolution is noteworthy. The resolution’s preamble included an additional paragraph that welcomed Algeria’s decision to participate in the negotiations without conditions and in good faith. In operative paragraph three, the Security Council welcomed the acceptance by Morocco, Algeria, Polisario, and Mauritania to participate in the Geneva round-table to take palace in Geneva on December 4 and 5.

This is the first time the Security Council resolution has mentioned Algeria in a resolution since at least 2002 and since the start of the political process in 2007. As penholder of the resolution, the U.S. had to reconcile two diametrically opposed positions. Morocco has emphasized on many occasions that it will not participate in direct negotiations so long as Algeria is not regarded as a party to the conflict. Conversely, Algeria has insisted on participating only as a neighboring state.

To overcome this situation, the U.S. delegation has proposed a compromise in which Algeria is mentioned in the resolution on semi-equal footing with Morocco and Polisario. In return, Morocco and member states supporting the mandate extension for 12 months had to accept a six-month duration of MINURSO’s mandate.

To be sure, the resolution has still not made Algeria a party to the negotiations. However, the very fact that Algeria is mentioned in the resolution suggests that the Security Council seems geared towards gradually involving Algeria in the upcoming negotiations. This language might open the door to new developments if Morocco plays its hands deftly. It is meaningful that there is no distinction between Morocco and Algeria in the two paragraphs where Algeria is mentioned. Had the Security Council wanted to make such distinction, it could have flagged Algeria’s participation as a “neighboring state” in that paragraph. This distinction was not added for a purpose. This, combined with the reduction of the traditional language regarding self-determination, was a point of contention in the debate that preceded the adoption of the resolution and the main reasons why Russia, Ethiopia and Bolivia abstained.

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The U.S. is aware that any negotiations without Algeria’s participation will not lead to any progress. Therefore, including Algeria for the first time in the resolution and inviting it to participate in all stages of the political process is a first step to make it a part of the solution.

The practice of gradually amending the language of resolutions is a common practice for issues on the UN agenda. Amendments are often adopted in pieces; sometimes words, sentences, and paragraphs are added or removed, and the restructuring of paragraphs paves the way for later amendments.

This does not necessarily suggest that this resolution will lead to a solution that favors Morocco’s position. Nevertheless, one would be remiss to dismiss this detail or downplay the political weight it carries for the future of the political process.

In addition, a paragraph in which the Security Council calls on Morocco and the Polisario to respect their obligations concerning the ceasefire agreement—particularly for the Polisario to refrain from taking any step that would change the status quo in the buffer zone in Guerguerat and Bir Lahlou—was added to the resolution. What is striking about this paragraph is that the final version of the resolution included Tifariti as well, which was not mentioned in earlier draft versions of the resolution. This is a strong setback to the Polisario, which has long claimed that the area east of the Moroccan defense wall is a “liberated territory.”

This sort of emphasis on the obligations of the Polisario was a sticking point among some members of the Security Council, who felt that the language was too strong against the Polisario. However, other members such as the United States and France seem bent on avoiding a remake of the same scenario in the region during the past two years as a result of Polisario’s attempts to change the status quo and impose a fait accompli in the buffer zone. Thus, the Polisario is unlikely to take provocative steps like those it has taken in the past two years.

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Room for progress

Aside from the new language mentioned, the resolution has not brought anything new for Morocco with regards to its repeated calls for the need to conduct a census in the Tindouf camps. It should be emphasized that Morocco has still not succeed in changing the language of the resolution regarding the registration of refugees in the Tindouf camps. The same language of 2011 has been repeated without any change. One could say Morocco will have achieved something in this regard when the Security adds an operative paragraph clearly calling on Algeria to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct a census in the camps.

The same can be said about the Moroccan autonomy plan. While it is true that Resolution 2440 gives preeminence in the preamble of the resolution to Morocco’s autonomy plan and welcomes “serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution,” this language should not be regarded as a breakthrough in favor of Morocco.

With the exception of Resolution 2285 of 2016,  since 2007 the Security Council has always welcomed the Moroccan proposal while just taking note of the Polisario’s counter-proposal. Therefore, the language adopted in Resolution 2440 should not be viewed be as a new victory for Morocco. One can only talk about a real breakthrough when and if the Security Council adopts an operative paragraph expressing, in unambiguous terms, that the Moroccan autonomy plan is the only way forward.

Morocco and the U.S. after Nikki Haley’s resignation

An important factor to consider in the next phase is the resignation of the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who played an important role in the Security Council’s adoption of two resolutions in favor of Morocco, especially resolution 2351 in April 2017. Nikki Haley had a great margin of autonomy in the decision-making process whether in top priority issues for the U.S. such as the Palestinian issue, the nuclear agreement with Iran, North Korea, and Russia, or on issues of lesser importance for the U.S. Her closeness to the president, his daughter, and his son-in-law enabled her to have direct access to him.

Whereas the U.S. president himself is known for rough, undiplomatic language against both adversaries and allies, Ambassador Haley, known for her charisma and diplomatic skills, was a welcomed addition to the Trump Administration. She is also considered a moderate representative of the Republican Party, which has often responded positively to Morocco’s position on the Western Sahara issue. Moroccan diplomacy has taken advantage of Haley’s independence and her responsiveness to Morocco to reach two council resolutions in favor of Morocco.

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Moroccan Ambassador to the United Nations, Omar Hilal, said of Haley’s resignation: “We will miss her. I worked with her two years and from the beginning it was a warm, personal relationship and Morocco will never forget her.”

That Morocco’s ambassador to the UN was among the few foreign diplomats who bid farewell to Haley on such friendly terms shows her responsiveness to Morocco’s proposals and her willingness to sympathize with Morocco.

With Haley’s resignation, the role of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is close to President Trump, will be more consequential in U.S. policy-making concerning the Western Sahara issue. Not only is he a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, he is also familiar with the ins and outs of the conflict, as in the 1990s he served as an assistant to the UN’s previous envoy for the Western Sahara conflict, James Baker.

After Bolton became the national security adviser in April, he became an influential figure for various U.S. foreign policy issues, including the Western Sahara issue. His influence was demonstrated through Resolution 2414, which extended the MINURSO mandate for only six months for the first time since 2008.

Many analysts attributed Haley’s resignation to the narrow margin of her independence in influencing U.S. foreign policy since the appointment of Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Given the character of Bolton and his closeness to the U.S. president, he will play a major role in the decision-making process in the U.S. administration in the coming period.

The next United States ambassador to the United Nations, is therefore, unlikely to have the same margin of independence as Haley. Consequently, Morocco must make more efforts than ever before to convince the U.S. administration of the Moroccan position and avoid any development that would put it under unprecedented pressure.

Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis

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