Around the world there are a number of conflicts and disputes that have essentially been frozen in place for many years  — and in some cases many decades. These include territorial disputes in places like Cyprus and Kashmir; and of course the final status of the Palestinians. But one issue that has been consistently under-the-radar and far from headlines is the status of of Western Sahara as either an independent state or as a territory of Morocco.

Now, with a new UN Secretary General in office, it appears that there might actually be some progress toward a resolution.  Limited progress, for sure. But progress nonetheless.

What just happened?

Last Sunday, Morocco announced the withdraw of its forces from a UN-monitored buffer zone in Western Sahara. The announcement came a few days after a phone conversation between King Mohammed VI and the new United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. During the phone call, according to reports, the Secretary General requested the withdraw.

Tensions have been elevated for about a year, since Morocco allegedly violated the terms of the UN-backed ceasefire agreement by entering the buffer zone, which is monitored by a UN peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Moroccan authorities said it was not a ceasefire violation but a road-clearing operation, but it was seen as an offensive move by the Polisario independence movement.

On Sunday, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry announced a unilateral withdraw from the buffer zone in accordance with the Secretary General’s request. This may be a solid move in the direction of peace, if a small one, but it belies the shaky ground of the current conflict situation.

western sahara

By Universalis – This file was derived from  Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (orthographic projection) highlighted.svg: , CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Two steps back, one step forward

Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, when Morocco claimed it despite the Sahrawi people’s desire for self-determination. The independence movement, the Polisario Front, was founded in 1973 in opposition to Spanish rule and then turned its attentions to independence from Morocco.

The Western Sahara war came to an uneasy end in 1991 with a UN-brokered ceasefire, which included a promise to hold a referendum on independence. To date, there has been no referendum.

In 2016, Morocco entered the UN-monitored buffer zone and just this past weekend agreed to retreat at the request of the Secretary General.

Is the new Secretary General making his mark?

Yes, perhaps, but that’s only part of what’s going on here. It’s an encouraging sign that the Secretary General discussed the situation with King Mohammed VI and was able to convince him to take the step to withdraw from the buffer zone. It is a small step forward that essentially just corrects a step backward, and Polisario called the move “window dressing,” according to the BBC. At the same time, diplomacy is often slow and sometimes those small steps are really important. So it says something about Secretary General Guterres that he took time to deal with an under-publicized and low-intensity conflict situation, and that he has enough diplomatic finesse to encourage such a move from Morocco.

However, it is also indicative of increased willingness on the part of King Mohammed to cooperate with the UN. James Copnall, BBC Africa Editor, explains:

Morocco’s decision to withdraw its troops does not signify a major change in the kingdom’s policy – it will still work towards ensuring international recognition of its claim over Western Sahara. The announcement does, however, indicate a willingness to work with the United Nations, and in particular the new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. Mr Guterres’ predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, infuriated Rabat by describing Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara as an “occupation” – a remark he later apologised for.

Indeed, it seems Morocco is in the process of styling itself as an increasingly important regional player as several Moroccan companies have signed deals in many west African countries in a variety of sectors in recent years. King Mohammed just visited five countries on the continent to strengthen South-South partnerships, and earlier this month Morocco re-joined the African Union. Morocco left the AU in 1984 because of the AU’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the self-declared government of Western Sahara, which was given AU membership at the time. The AU has managed to skirt around the issue for now, but it means that Morocco now has a seat at the same table as SADR.

A new independence movement?

Most of this suggests the time is ripe for a political solution to the conflict. But as Copnall points out, the Polisario Front and its supporters have been waiting for the referendum on Sahrawi self-determination for 25 years now and there is still no indication that it will be held any time soon.

In the meantime, over 40 years worth of refugee movements have resulted in tens of thousands of refugees, mostly in neighboring Algeria. According to a video report by the BBC, many older refugees are war-weary and reluctant to support a resurgence of armed resistance. They would prefer a political solution. But a younger generation longs for independence and is willing to do what it takes to achieve it. With the Syrian refugee crisis capturing most international attention and aid, the humanitarian aid Western Saharan refugees rely on has been reduced by donors in recent years, which means their situation is likely to become more desperate.

This 25-year-long stalemate can’t last forever, so if Secretary General Guterres can keep up the momentum and stay engaged in the situation through his diplomatic offices, perhaps a political solution can be reached and the referendum held. Having Morocco and SADR sitting together at the same table in the AU should help by providing a venue for dialogue, as Western Saharan officials have suggested. But if the situation is left to fester much longer, Polisario may mobilize its supporters for a renewed armed campaign for independence.

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