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Ban Ki-moon and the Sahara – It is Not Just About the Word – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
March 18, 2016

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

I suppose that in the interest of brevity or simplification, most current press reports of the dispute between Morocco and Ban Ki-moon over the Sahara question have focused almost exclusively on Ban’s use of the term “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in what it considers its sovereign territory. This seriously obscures the reality of the problem and leaves largely uninformed readers scratching their heads wondering why such a major dust up over a simple word.

But, egregious as that word is, it is about much more than just Ban’s injudicious and undiplomatic choice of descriptors.

The word was only the simplest, most visible and readily identifiable media hook in a series of comments and actions that, taken together, should lead any reasonable observer, Moroccan or otherwise, to the conclusion that there was nothing haphazard about Ban’s intentions on his trip to Algeria and the Polisario headquarters outside Tindouf.

So what was really going on here?

Ban was invited to Morocco in November and again in January, but found reasons to decline those dates.  Morocco then proposed a visit in the late Spring. Again, Ban declined and insisted on a visit in March.  Morocco declined to accept March. Why?

The UN peacekeeping mission mandate (MINURSO) is up for renewal in April each year. And, wait for it, there is a long history of attempts by Algeria, Polisario and their supporters to provoke a crisis in March in an attempt to muddy the Sahara issue in the Security Council while it considers the mandate renewal.

Ban was warned of this problem, not that he should have needed any warning, given the contentious and disruptive history of March developments that have yearly come to his personal attention.  Morocco cautioned Ban in detail about the likely consequences of a March visit to prospects for calm diplomacy in the Security Council for MINURSO’s renewal. Ban clearly chose to ignore those warnings and proceed, despite what everyone understood would be ample opportunity for Algeria and Polisario to turn the visit into yet another propaganda event designed to provoke yet another March crisis. Already, it began to become clear that Ban had a determined objective in mind when he insisted on a March visit.

What objective? Bear with me, I will get to it in a moment. First, the rest of the supportive evidence.

Aside from using the most undiplomatic of words to refer to the Moroccan position on the Sahara question, a word never before uttered by any senior UN official, Ban also consciously chose to toss yet another wrench in the machine by insisting that the UN was ready to proceed with a referendum to determine the future of the Sahara.

What most media consumers, and apparently producers as well, are unaware of is that the question of such a referendum was swept from the table in the Security Council in 2003. The UN, with the support of the Security Council, and especially the United States, had attempted to arrange a referendum from 1991 to 1999. It was an utter failure and collapsed over fundamental and irresolvable disagreements on who would be allowed to vote.

 The US Government walked away from this idea in 1999, and the rest of the Security Council followed suit a few years later, insisting instead, at US instigation in the Council, that there be a “mutually acceptable political solution” to this question. Meaning there needs to be a political compromise that denies both Morocco and the Polisario their optimal objectives and requires each to settle for some acceptable middle ground.

Ban Ki-moon’s attempt to put the failed referendum idea, still unrelentingly favored by the Polisario and Algeria, back on the table in his very public comments openly defies the clear intent of the Security Council to support a political solution in every renewal of the MINURSO mandate since 2003. This not only exceeds Ban’s mandate from the Security Council as Secretary General, it also calls into serious question his role as an impartial agent by placing him squarely and publicly in support of one side’s position over the other.

 A great deal of difficult and contentious diplomatic effort, most especially US effort, had been put into persuading Morocco to drop support for its preferences on a referendum and instead accept a special status for the Sahara and further agree that some kind of robust autonomy would be required in order to resolve this issue. Ban, with these comments and actions, has singlehandedly attempted to smash years of elaborately constructed international consensus on this problem and has very likely destroyed any prospect for a solution during his remaining tenure — if not by years beyond that.

Can anyone really not understand why Morocco is so upset with Ban’s trip?  It is not just the word. It is the clearly intended effort to undo years of hard work by Morocco and others to build a consensus around the need for a political compromise that will get the Maghreb past this issue and on to more pressing regional problems and opportunities. More people should be upset with Ban Ki-moon than just Moroccans – especially anyone seriously interested in finding the Security Council’s elusive notion of a “mutually acceptable political solution.”

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