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Between the United States and Russia: Why Morocco Is Railing against the United Nations

[Image of the United Nations Security Council. Image from Wikimedia Commons] [Image of the United Nations Security Council. Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Adopted on 29 April 2016, the Security Council's Resolution 2285 on the Western Sahara is the closest thing to an ultimatum: the kingdom has four months to authorize the return of the civilian staff-members of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO. The decision to expel them, no doubt the consequence of an eruption of “royal anger,” has harmed Morocco's relations with broad sectors of the world community, including the country's “American friends.”

No draft resolution on the Western Sahara has ever encountered so much hesitancy, not to say irritation, among the Security Council members. With ten votes in favor, two against (Venezuela and Uruguay), and three abstentions (Russia, New Zealand and Angola), resolution 2285 was adopted on 29 April with difficulty and a sense of uneasiness. The adoption of the resolution differed from the complicity that generally prevails at the meetings of this eminent political body. What happened on 29 April 2016 in the hushed corridors of the United Nations' executive body? 

Every spring, MINURSO the Security Council has extended its mandate. The object has always been to allow more time for bilateral negotiations in the hopes that convergences might appear, ultimately leading to a final settlement. This year, however, a new factor appeared which put this yearly ritual dating from 1991 at risk. During a visit to the Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf (Southern Algeria), the United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon used the word  “occupation” to describe the Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara. Rabat was furious and immediately expelled seventy-five civilians employed by MINURSO. It was this crisis that explains why certain United Nations member states showed annoyance and others, just plain weariness, while the draft project was being discussed, amended, and finally adopted, on 29 April. 

The adoption of resolutions on the Western Sahara follows a procedure that has enjoyed broad approval among the members of the Security Council: the first draft, established by US officials, is then presented to the Friends of Western Sahara, a group composed of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Spain. There, it is discussed and adopted, generally in a spirit of consensus. But just as in 2013, the United States proposed (but later withdrew) a clause adding a role of human rights monitoring to MINURSO's mandate, they again took the lead in urging a firm stand, which could be seen as an attitude hostile to Morocco. Ban Ki-moon and his team came through this trial of strength considerably reinforced, since the fifteen members of the Security Council affirmed their “full support for the commitment of the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy [Christopher Ross] towards a solution to the question of Western Sahara.” Moreover, the resolution “calls upon the parties [Morocco and the Polisario Front] to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions and in good faith.”

The document goes even further, adopting a tone that smacks implicitly of an ultimatum: Morocco is given 120 days[i] to allow the return of the MINURSO personnel. If this were not the case, the Council warns, it intends to “consider how best to facilitate achievement of this goal.”

The Unpredictable "American Friend"

No sooner had the particulars of the US draft project begun to circulate than King Mohammed VI flew to Riyadh on 22 April, where a summit of the Gulf Council of Cooperation (GCC) was being held. Before his Gulf “brothers,” he gave a sharply anti-Western speech, as unexpected as it was vague. While stressing that, “with regards to this artificial dispute over our territorial integrity, Morocco has always liaised with its traditional friends, which includes the United States of America, France and Spain.” But the king added, in a scarcely veiled allusion to the “American friend,” that, “we have a problem because of frequently changing governments in some of these countries.

With every change, significant efforts have to be exerted to introduce new officials to all aspects of the Moroccan Sahara issue and to make them aware of its real implications.” In the same speech, the king was indignant over those who encouraged the “Arab spring” movements and their “hostile plots which seek to undermine our stability [and] are continuing; they will not stop. Several countries in the eastern part of the Arab world have been torn apart and destroyed; today, it is the Western part which is targeted, and the most recent of these conspiracies has been hatched against the territorial integrity of your second home, Morocco.” Just what are these “plots”? And who is now “targeting” the “Western part” of the Arab world. Mohammed VI provided no answers to these questions in his speech to the GCC.

Following the publication of the Security Council resolution, Morocco made more explicit its rejection of the US administration's positions: “The Kingdom of Morocco regrets that the member of the Security Council that is responsible for the drafting and presentation of the first draft resolution has introduced elements of pressure, constraints, and weakness, which acts against the spirit of the partnership that ties it with the Kingdom of Morocco,” according to the statement made on 1 May by the Morocco's foreign minister.

The United States' attitude, the statement further asserts, is “inspired” by “the efforts of certain circles hostile to our territorial integrity acting to promote regional instability.” To which “circles” does this statement allude? Again, Morocco's ministry of foreign affairs provided no answer.

The Russian Abstention

But while the intransigence of the US administration when the resolution was put to a vote on 29 April was not particularly new, the Russian position was far more disturbing.

Annoyed by the increasingly hostile US attitude toward the Arab monarchies, King Mohammed VI paid an official visit to Moscow, throughout the course of which focused considerably on the Western Sahara issue. “A matter of balance,” specified a member of the royal entourage. “We can always count on France, but the Americans are unpredictable.” This trip to Moscow was no doubt intended to offset Uncle Sam's “unpredictable side” and diversify alliances among the members of the Security Council. The king also began an official visit to China on 10 May.

On 12 April, ten days before the release of the first draft of the United Nations resolution, the king again spoke on the phone with the Russian president Vladimir Putin. According to the Moroccan press, they discussed the expulsion of the civilian employees of MINURSO, and the future of the mission. But none of these conversations yielded the expected result: in the end, Russia abstained along with New Zealand and Angola.

Russia's decision, “as a permanent member of the Security Council, should tell us something,” says young Brahim Fassi-Fihri, son of one of the king's advisor and head of an organization that openly defends the official theses of the kingdom. “It is all the more surprising as the joint declaration issued at the end of the king's official visit to Moscow last March, stating Russia's attachment to the present parameters of the negotiations over the Sahara question, appeared to reflect Russia's support for the Moroccan position,” he said.

The King's Exclusive Reserve

The Western Sahara issue is the sole reserve of Mohammed VI and his entourage. Two royal advisors in particular, Foaud Ali El-Himma and Taïb Fassi Fihri, have a considerable say in this matter, which is treated by the official propaganda machine as a sacred cause. The king's increasingly frequent and extended absences, due no doubt to ill health, have strengthened the hold of these two advisors on this issue, even though the final decisions are often taken by the monarch himself. Was the recent expulsion of the MINURSO civilian personnel one of these? Has this decision led the international community to distrust the way Morocco is handling the Western Sahara question? The answers to these questions are many and closely intertwined.

The decision to unilaterally denounce decisions the Moroccan state has made by expelling the United Nations' civilian officials was a blunder that has weakened the Moroccan case and the credibility of the country's juridical and political arguments. We must remember that the decision was preceded by a series of prefabricated “popular demonstrations” during which the General Secretary was copiously insulted, including by Moroccan dignitaries.

There is another aspect of the problem, and this involves the plan for a form of enlarged autonomy which the kingdom claims to be ready to grant the Sahrawi people within a “state” framework, but under Moroccan sovereignty. This plan, tabled by Morocco in 2007, has received little support among international bodies on account of the ambivalence of the official rhetoric surrounding it. For awhile, it has been presented as an alternative to the Polisario's demand for independence. In his speeches, the king keeps returning to the theme of his kingdom's “advanced regionalism,” which is meant to include all of his “dear southern provinces.” Moreover, granting autonomy to the Western Sahara territory would first require the establishment of genuinely democratic institutions, which for the moment is definitely not a priority for the Moroccan regime.

Today, the plan for autonomy the kingdom proposes is practically absent from Security Council resolutions, whereas the referendum option, so dreaded by Morocco, is still very present in global bodies and UN documents.

This article is published in partnership with Orient XXI. It was originally written in French and translated into English by Noël Burch. In case of any inconsistency between the texts, the French version shall prevail. 


[i] The original resolution as drafted by the US administration set a delay of only ninety days for the return of the MINURSO officials. It was France, Morocco's chief diplomatic ally, that obtained the thirty day extension.

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