Robert M. Holley
February 26, 2018
Shortly after Ban Ki Moon’s ill advised remarks while visiting the Polisario refugee camps a couple of years ago, Morocco took the opportunity to express its profound displeasure with the former Secretary General’s undiplomatic gaffe to disinvite most of MINURSO’s civilian contingent from Moroccan territory in the Sahara. That set in motion much hand wringing in New York and Washington during the Obama Administration over what might be done to persuade Morocco to allow the 150 or so UN civilians back in the country. In the end, most were indeed allowed to return.
But was it really necessary?
With that behind them, last year the newly elected Trump Administration and its new Ambassador to the UN, with a new Secretary General in place in New York, clearly decided to simply let matters rest until it could decide whether it wanted to take another approach to the question of UN peacekeeping in Western Sahara.
It’s that time of year again.
A couple of weeks ago, in obvious preparation for a new American assessment of the MINURSO mission, a team of US military and diplomatic officials visited the UN sites in both Morocco and Algeria. Clearly, this year will likely set a freshly chosen course for how the new Trump Administration in Washington plans to deal with MINURSO for at least the year, if not longer.
I have some advice for them.
There has been no significant adjustment to the size of the civilian component of the UN mission in the Sahara since its primary task largely evaporated in 2003 when the Security Council unambiguously endorsed the need for a “mutually acceptable political solution” to this issue and set aside any further prospect of a general referendum on the future of the territory for which the civilian mission had been previously charged to organize and execute. Given that change of direction in the search for a resolution, it seems to me the time is now long past due for a major adjustment of the civilian presence in MINURSO to accommodate the Security Council’s chosen direction. To put it bluntly, it is time to cut the fat out of this mission and substantially downsize its civilian component and save the American taxpayer a significant amount of now wasted UN funding.
I am not arguing that the civilian component be eliminated altogether. Certainly the independent UNHCR presence still has a major contribution to make, if they will just get around to doing it. They have their role to play in the execution of the remaining confidence building measures, like family visits. And, as I have argued for years, they should also be assisting in the repatriation of those refugees in the Polisario camps who would like nothing better than to simply come home to their families in Morocco if the Polisario can finally be persuaded to allow them to leave.
But beyond that, it is hard to see what role is left for the civilians in MINURSO. We are looking for a political solution to this problem and that is the task of the Secretary General’s new Personal Envoy, not MINURSO. Let MINURSO’s military mission do its peacekeeping job and send the unnecessary civilians home.
Given US Ambassador Haley’s often stated intention to cut costs on UN peacekeeping missions around the world, I suggest this is a place she can make a useful contribution to that goal.