Western Sahara: Not on the Agenda – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
September 23 , 2019

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

In case you missed the news earlier, Western Sahara is not a topic for consideration in the Security Council this month. Presumably, the Secretary General will still provide the Security Council some kind of report before MINURSO’s current mandate expires at the end of October, even though it will be missing those elements normally provided by his previous Personal Envoy, Horst Kohler, who resigned citing health concerns last Spring.

It seems a bit surprising that the Secretary General has yet to identify a replacement for the former German President, nearly six months after his resignation, but it is understandable that few high profile candidates are likely volunteering for a task that has proved thankless, at best, to every previous incumbent of the position.

If you count yourself among those who believed that a combination of Horst Kohler as Personal Envoy and John Bolton as US National Security Advisor had somehow brought a new sense of urgency to resolving this problem, you are likely discouraged by the departure of both from their positions.  Kohler’s signal achievement in the job was his success in bringing together all the Parties for two new rounds of face-to-face negotiations in Geneva. And that is an achievement of note. Some might argue that John Bolton contributed to that achievement by successfully reducing the duration of the MINURSO mandate from a yearly affair to one of only six months at a time. Personally, I do not share that view, but am content to let those who do make a positive case for it.

So, with Kohler and Bolton no longer working the dossier, what will become of the much touted and alleged new sense of “urgency” about finding a solution to the problem in Western Sahara? That the issue is “not on the agenda” for September makes it seem a fair question.

We will learn something, though likely not something really decisive, next month when we will know whether the United States still believes that shorter mandates for MINURSO give the Parties a better incentive to negotiate. I don’t buy this argument, but do not oppose another six-month renewal. However, as a practical matter, what seems more important to sustaining any “urgency” is the need to appoint a new Personal Envoy and get him or her to work.  At the moment, the UN political process on Western Sahara seems pretty much dead in the water, and without a new Personal Envoy on board it is hard to imagine or expect any real progress.

There is, of course, also the danger that without a new Personal Envoy to drive the process, important Security Council members, especially the United States, will revert to their previous default positions on this question, which favored sustaining the status quo.  That would be regrettable, but given the lack of legitimate decision makers in Algeria, the continued recalcitrance of the Polisario, and the still evident unwillingness of the Security Council to table at least a framework consensus view of what a political compromise solution should entail, maybe the status quo is the best that we can hope for in the short term.

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