Six months after Rabat withdrew its confidence from the UN envoy, he is back in the kingdom in force. Following are scenes of a journey that could redraw the region’s geopolitical map.
“A blow to Morocco,” “a diplomacy of kneeling,” “amateurism”... The last visit to the Kingdom of Morocco by the UN secretary-general’s personal envoy for the Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, continues to generate controversy. Six months after withdrawing its confidence in him and accusing him of bias and hostility toward the supreme interests of the nation, Rabat has in effect reversed itself and rolled out the red carpet to the UN envoy.
Ross was given a formal royal reception and was received with great fanfare by the country’s main institutions (CORCAS [The Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs], parliament, and others). As an employee in the Moroccan foreign affairs ministry put it, “Christopher Ross was retained at his post after the telephone conversation held between the king and the UN secretary-general. During the call, both men stressed the importance of the UN envoy’s neutrality and the need to take the Moroccan autonomy plan into account.”
Both sides seemed determined to turn the page and start over. In Rabat, the UN diplomat wanted to meet with civil society representatives, academics and the leaders of major political parties, such as the Secretary General of the Labor Party Abdelkrim Benatiq, who said, “We found him to be an expert on Morocco and the region. He has an excellent command of the Arabic language and thus no intermediaries were needed to communicate with him. He is also mentally strong. He shows no emotions even when he is personally criticized.”
At the meeting, Ross mentioned the withdrawal of confidence issue. “I am not the only one responsible for the final report. There is the high commissioner for refugees, the high commissioner for human rights, MINURSO [The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara], etc. But I will certainly be more careful next time,” he promised.
The meeting with the heads of political parties lasted more than six hours, and was marked with quality discussions. “No one was briefed beforehand. The discussions were from the heart with an international law expert and I am not sure if this the best method,” said Reda Taoujni, a community activist specializing in the Sahara. Ross and his hosts kept talking till 2 a.m.
So what came out of this marathon session? According to Benatiq, “The Moroccan political parties told the UN envoy that autonomy was the last resort to resolve the conflict. He will have to take that into account when he drafts his next report, even if it narrows his margin of maneuver.” Ross also revealed what he thought of the Moroccan autonomy plan. He said, “Great powers are supporting the plan and have publicly said so, but they are doing nothing to pressure the other side of the conflict. I believe that in the region there are factors that are maintaining the status quo.”
“Meet whoever you want”
During the discussion, Ross revealed a few secrets regarding his meeting — which happened in the presence of the ministers of interior and foreign affairs — with King Mohammed VI. Ross said, “The king said to me: ‘Meet whoever you want, whenever you want,’ ” and he took the king at his word.
At Laayoune, which Ross had never visited in his capacity as a special envoy of the UN secretary-general, he used a lot of symbolism. He set his own schedule with the people he wanted to meet. Almost all his meetings were held at MINURSO’s headquarters and he traveled in a UN vehicle.
After holding routine meetings with officials in Rabat, Ross held his first Sahara meeting with CODESA (Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders), which is led by Aminatou Haidar, the Sahara independence activist. The meeting lasted more than two hours. Ross then responded to the invitation of Hamdi Ould Errachid, the town’s mayor, to have lunch at Ould Errachid’s private residence at Laayoune. Also on the program were several meeting with activists, tribal sheikhs and others. According to a local activist, “at Laayoune, it was made clear to Ross that the Sahara people have several legitimate representatives, among them are the elected Sahara representatives and the sheikhs’ institution, which has been in existence since before the Spanish occupation.”
On Thursday, Ross helped resolve skirmishes that took place in front of Aminatou Haidar’s house between independence activists and government forces. Haidar was injured during the events. A pro-unity activist said, “It is not very serious. According to the National Human Rights Council, Morocco has seen a lot of these violent incidents. One should not make too much of them.”
A visit that’s under control.
At Tindouf, the American diplomat had to forget everything he had heard at Rabat and Laayoune, and hear the case of the pro-independence current. Before that, Ross visited MINURSO’s office at Tifariti. But the area is very sensitive. For the Polisario, it is the liberated territories’ capital. For Morocco, it is Moroccan territory and acts as a buffer between the two conflicting parties.
“The Polisario jumped at the chance and organized Ross an official reception on site while Morocco didn’t lift a finger. That’s unacceptable. Anyway, Morocco had no choice but to suffer that visit,” said Taoujni. Ross then held protocol visits and met none of the Polisario’s dissidents. Polisario officials, militants, women... were all complimented by Ross.
When asked to write a comment in the Polisario’s golden book, the American official wrote in classical Arabic a few words that are loaded with meaning, “[I wish you] all the success in these difficult circumstances.” From his residence in Tindouf, Ross made sure to call Aminatou Haidar and ask about her injuries. Taoujni revealed that “several pro-independence militants maintain direct contact with Ross and called him by phone when he was in Tindouf.”
In all that ruckus, a Moroccan official who preferred to stay “reasonably optimistic” said, “It is the first time that Ross meets with a diverse panel that holds extremely diverse opinions. Today, it is up to him to reflect this diversity in his report.” Ross said that it was time to “find a new negotiating approach between Morocco and the Polisario,” no doubt alluding to “the necessity of involving politicians and representatives from civil society.”