Morocco's government and the Polisario Front liberation movement have been locked in a territorial dispute over Western Sahara for decades. Progress toward a solution has stagnated in recent years as the international community attempts to balance between the two sides, but controversial comments from the United Nations' top official have sparked an unusually tense diplomatic spat.
The controversy kicked off last week when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited refugee camps in Algeria where more than 100,000 indigenous Sahrawi people reside, many of whom fled Western Sahara decades ago. These camps are the base for the Polisario and the wider independence movement for Western Sahara, which has long pushed for Morocco to give up control of the territory that lies along Africa's northwestern Atlantic coast and abuts Mauritania and Algeria.
Ban, however, did not meet with Moroccan authorities during the visit, as is typically expected by diplomats in order to appease both sides. Following the visit, Ban said the UN would work toward achieving a solution in the conflict. The UN chief referred to the Moroccan presence in Western Sahara, which Morocco took control of after Western Sahara gained independence from Spain in 1975, as an "occupation."
This set off a series of condemnations by Morocco, with the government taking a strong stance as a result of the comments. Morocco said Ban's statement's indicated that he had abandoned his neutral position in the dispute and sided with the Polisario. While the UN confirmed that Ban did use the word occupation, they said the meaning was misinterpreted and that it was said in the context of the UN chief's reaction to the situation in the camps.
A demonstration in the Moroccan capital Rabat on Sunday saw thousands gather in the streets to protest the secretary general. As the situation escalated this week, the country initially said it would cut down on staff at the UN mission in Western Sahara (formally called the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO), while also threatening recall its troops participating in peacekeeping operations around the world.
"Following the unacceptable declarations and inadmissible actions from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during his recent visit to the region, the royal government of Morocco has decided on immediate measures," the statement from the government said.
As the situation deteriorated, Ban cancelled a planned trip to Morocco. Eventually officials in Rabat backed down on Thursday, saying they would no longer move to withdraw its troops from global UN missions. But on Thursday, Morocco gave a three-day warning to 84 international UN civilian staff members to get out of Western Sahara, including three from the African Union. According to a UN secretariat spokesman, these actions "would seriously impede the functioning of MINURSO and negatively impact on its ability to deliver its mandate."
After 16 years of fighting between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which has continuously sought to gain independence, the situation peaked in 1991 when the two sides finally signed a UN-brokered ceasefire and the peacekeeping mission known as MINURSO was established.
The most optimistic point in the conflict came in the early 2000s when former US Secretary of State James Baker, the UN's personal envoy to Western Sahara at the time, attempted to push through a peace plan that included the option for self-determination by the Sahrawi people. Morocco ultimately rejected this plan in 2004, largely due to the option for independence. Just months later Baker resigned.
Since then the situation has been stuck in a stalemate. Popular uprisings took hold in 2011 as the Arab Spring protest movements spread through North Africa and the Middle East, but failed to incite any major changes. Moroccan authorities are routinely accused of human rights abuses against the Sahrawi in Western Sahara, including arbitrary arrest, torture, and restrictions on freedom of speech. Tensions heightened during the past two years after Morocco refused to accept the appointment of a new UN personal envoy to Western Sahara.
For the secretary-general, these tensions appear to have helped fuel continued frustration towards Morocco and the visit may have been an attempt to show Western Sahara that the international body has not forgotten about the issue, according to Jacob Mundy, a political science professor and North Africa expert at Colgate University. As Mundy noted, the visit was unusual in the fact that Ban only met with one side.
"It's kind of unprecedented, just on its face, only going to meet with one side of the conflict," he said. "The secretariat has never visibly shown this much frustration before and if it was… it never would have made its frustration public."
As Mundy noted, even when the Baker plan was rejected, the secretary general did not express this kind of outward displeasure or frustration. While it's difficult to say what the threats from Morocco mean, Mundy said he expects efforts to be made to try to repair the relationship before the annual referendum vote at the end of April to reaffirm the UN mission's mandate.
Anna Theofilopoulou, a political analyst and former UN staffer who assisted Baker during the peace plan proposal process, questioned the decision to not sit down with Moroccan authorities during the visit. Theofilopoulou wondered why the UN chief felt the need to travel to Western Sahara given the relative impasse in recent years.
"In my whole career in the United Nations I just never witnessed such an ill-advised movement, quite bluntly," she said. "I don't know what [they] advised him and what were they thinking… did anybody look to the background of this conflict?"
While addressing the issue of the refugees living in Algeria is important, Theofilopoulou said that by making the visit the the secretary general was essentially walking into a pit of vipers — referring to Moroccan officials. As she explained, the situation in general is a tense one for the country, but furthermore Morocco is known for having the ability to overreact to these kind of diplomatic developments or when something doesn't go their way.
Earlier this year, Morocco pushed back against the European Union after a court for the governing body blocked a farm trade deal with Morocco, ruling that goods from the occupied territories of Western Sahara should not be included in the agriculture trade agreement. Morocco subsequently cut communications with the EU, which later pushed the court to reverse its decision. Just this week, Morocco decided to warm up to Europe again after a visit from the bloc's foreign policy chief helped to smooth things over.
"Morocco does respond to pressure if they realize there's no way out," she said. "It's gone from bad to worse and I don't know what on earth they're thinking in the UN. How do they think this is going to end?"
Theofilopoulou speculated that Morocco will not work effectively with the UN until Ban's term is up this year. Both she and Mundy also said that the kingdom is likely waiting for the results in the US presidential election this fall to make any significant moves. The US is one of Morocco's key allies — along with France — with ties to former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
Regardless, with the peacekeeping mission in the spotlight, Mundy said it will be important to watch whether the UN seriously considers rethinking MINURSO's role in the Western Sahara dispute and the peace process as a whole."Since Baker resigned in 2004. It's really been negotiations for the sake of negotiations [with] very little momentum [and] backwards progress from the kind of advancements made in late 1990s and early 2000s," he explained. "One of the few tools the international community has left is the silent treatment really.
"Since Baker resigned in 2004. It's really been negotiations for the sake of negotiations [with] very little momentum [and] backwards progress from the kind of advancements made in late 1990s and early 2000s," he explained. "One of the few tools the international community has left is the silent treatment really.