By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
Proponents of Western Saharan independence are losing patience with the decades-old UN peacekeeping mission in the Moroccan-occupied territory as tensions have mounted over the past year.
The Polisario Front, the armed branch of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), withdrew from a UN buffer zone near the border with Mauritania in April. The move paved the way for the United Nations to renew its peacekeeping mission in the disputed area for another year, but SADR’s envoy to Washington told Al-Monitor that the group is losing confidence in the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO.
“We’re just worried that the international community is spending so much money on MINURSO and not implementing the mandate for which it was established in 1990, which is to carry out a referendum of self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara,” Mouloud Said told Al-Monitor in an interview at his office. “One day we have to put an end to this situation where the United Nations is there just to protect the Moroccan occupation.”
The envoy’s downbeat tone comes as Sahrawi activists have suffered a string of setbacks in recent months.
The group’s longtime leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, died in May 2016 just two months after Morocco temporarily expelled UN peacekeepers after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the Western Sahara as “occupied territory.” Most of the 245 MINURSO peacekeepers have since returned, but not all.
In March of this year, US diplomat Christopher Ross stepped down after serving as the UN envoy to the disputed territory for the past eight years. Morocco barred Ross from entering the Western Sahara in 2012 after a UN report accused Morocco of spying on MINURSO, and again in 2015.
According to Said, Morocco is still not allowing Ross’ replacement, former German President Horst Koehler, to enter the disputed territory.
And on Capitol Hill, the SADR lost two of its few outspoken champions within one year of each other. Longtime Western Sahara Caucus co-chairman Joe Pitts, R-Penn., retired at the end of last year. And in early December, former caucus co-chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Then in July, Rabat included the Western Sahara while delineating Morocco’s coastal waters, with hardly a peep from the international community.
US silence on the issue comes as the Donald Trump administration is still reviewing the US commitment to UN peacekeeping missions around the world, including MINURSO. Last year, the State Department requested $17.5 million in MINURSO funding.
Said told Al-Monitor that Morocco has been using the UN mission as a delay tactic to avoid a referendum, adding that the UN “is not in a position to take the responsibility of implementing its mandate.” Still, he welcomed the extension of the mission for another year.
“We are very happy with the [Trump] administration position at the UN Security Council last April,” he said.
Trump’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Michele Sison, however made no reference to the long-awaited referendum in remarks following the renewal vote at the Security Council. Instead, she relied on the standard international rhetoric emphasizing the need for a “mutually acceptable political solution.”
The UN first authorized MINURSO in 1991 to facilitate an independence referendum for Sahrawis after 16 years of armed conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front. The parties, however, have since failed to agree on who would be eligible to vote, leading to a perpetual delay.
To push its interests at the United Nations and in Washington, the SADR hired the nonprofit advisory firm Independent Diplomat in 2008. The firm, which was paid $10,000 in 2016, had contact with the US mission to the UN and with Ross in the last months of the Barack Obama administration but not with the Trump team in the first months of this year, according to its most recent lobbying disclosure filings.
The SADR, however, can also reliably count on assistance from Algeria, a longtime Polisario Front ally that supports the Western Sahara’s independence from regional rival Morocco. Algeria spent $420,000 lobbying Congress and the Obama administration last year, much of it related to the Sahara issue.
Those sums pale in comparison with the Moroccan lobbying juggernaut, which spends millions on lobbying and public relations in Washington every year. Publicly, Said takes a dim view of Rabat’s influence.
“This will never change the situation on the ground,” Said told Al-Monitor.
Nevertheless, Morocco’s lobbying efforts have achieved tangible results in Congress that bolster the kingdom’s administrative control over the phosphate-rich Western Sahara. Pro-Morocco provisions are regularly introduced in House spending bills by Appropriations member Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., whose brother Lincoln is a lobbyist for Morocco, but face sharp scrutiny in the Senate.
This year’s pending House foreign aid spending bill, for example, once again calls for US assistance to Morocco to be made available in the Western Sahara. The new bill, however, does not include last year’s language instructing the secretary of state to pressure Algeria to consent to a UN census in Sahrawi refugee camps on its territory, a pro-Moroccan provision that did not survive in the final package after reconciliation with the Senate version.
However, the Senate foreign aid bill includes language requiring the US to consult with MINURSO before distributing aid to the Western Sahara after Foley Hoag lobbied the Senate Appropriations Committee on behalf of Algeria.
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