A possible thaw in Western Sahara’s ‘frozen conflict’

As the UN renews its mission in Western Sahara, Frank Elbers reports on the continued tension between local governments, natural resource companies and the Sahrawi people.

By: /
May 4, 2018
Hamuya Khalil, a Polisario fighter, stands in an armoured vehicle at a forward base on the outskirts of Tifariti, Western Sahara, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra

A recent ruling by a top European court determined that a trade agreement between the European Union and Morocco does not apply to Western Sahara, a resource-rich territory occupied by Morocco for the past several decades. 

The court decision, made in February, prompted EU and Moroccan officials to reassure each other that trade relations between the two parties would not be affected and that they would find ways that Morocco could continue to exploit the disputed Western Sahara territory, often called Africa’s last colony.  

But can trade continue in a place where business is made on the back of conflict?  

The ruling highlights the tension between the efforts of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was renewed last week by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and has been operating in Western Sahara since 1991, and the economic interests of Morocco, the EU and its partners, including Canada. 

Western Sahara is a non self-governing territory, in UN parlance, bordered by Morocco proper to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  

After colonial Spain withdrew from the area in 1975, an armed struggle ensued between neighbouring Morocco and the Indigenous Sahrawis, who are led by the Polisario Front. Under the auspices of the UN, an armistice was agreed upon in 1991, which continues to be monitored by MINURSO. 

The largest part of Western Sahara has since been occupied by Morocco — which calls the territory its “southern provinces” — and is separated from the rest of the territory by a 2,700 kilometres-long trench-cum-wall and minefields. The remaining unoccupied part of the territory makes up the Sahrawi Arabic Democratic Republic (SADR), a self-declared entity run by Polisario.

MINURSO is tasked with monitoring an agreed-upon settlement that would determine the fate of the people and status of Western Sahara. The settlement plan provided for a transitional period for the preparation of a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would choose between independence and integration with Morocco. While the organization of the referendum has not been possible to date due to disagreements between Morocco and Polisario about voter registration, MINURSO has pursued other parts of its mandate successfully, including monitoring the ceasefire and deactivating and removing mines left behind during conflict. 

In Tindouf, in the desert of southwestern Algeria, an estimated 130,000 Sahrawis have found refuge since 1976. They fled Western Sahara during the armed conflict and are unable to return to the settlements in the occupied territories where they used to live. Here, in the harsh desert climate, two generations of Sahrawis have grown up dependent on food aid from the World Food Program and humanitarian shipments by international solidarity groups in Spain, Italy and Cuba, among others. They are cut off from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the resource-rich soil, home to many phosphate mines, in Western Sahara proper, which are exploited by Moroccan state companies who sell the phosphate abroad.

On the day the EU Court of Justice issued its trade verdict, hundreds of Sahrawis were gathered in the Smara camp — one of the five refugee camps — to celebrate the anniversary of the proclamation of the Sahrawi republic. While listening to speeches by Polisario leaders, the Algerian ambassador and the diplomatic representative of South Africaa banner was rolled out by attending activists, announcing the decision. The crowd had been anticipating the ruling and cheered.

“This is a huge victory for the Sahrawis,” Beccy Allen, who volunteers as an English teacher in the Boujdour refugee camp, told OpenCanada on the day of the verdict. “EU law now states quite clearly that Western Sahara is excluded from any fisheries deal between Morocco and the EU because Western Sahara is a completely separate territory. Morocco cannot continue to sell fish and fish products from the waters of Western Sahara into the European market.” Allen also volunteers for the Western Sahara Campaign UK, the NGO that brought this case to the EU Court of Justice.

Turning business tides

A growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) solidarity movement with the Sahrawis could change the dynamics in the peace process and undermine the current prevalence of trade over peace. Like in South Africa under apartheid, international boycotts, sanctions and divestment hurt Morocco’s economic interests and make the costs of occupation very high. 

Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) is an example of that growing movement. The international network of organizations lobbies the companies working for Moroccan interests in Western Sahara. For years, WSRW has been trying to convince investors not to buy stocks in companies that buy phosphate from Moroccan state company OCP, because, they say, it belongs to the Sahrawis. More than 70 percent of the worlds known phosphate reserves, indispensable in the production of fertilizer, can be found in Morocco and Western Sahara. 

Some international companies are starting to change their tune. Over the past years, several large Scandinavian pensions funds have relinquished their interests in companies that are involved in exploiting Western Saharas natural resources, primarily phosphate and oil.

The largest importer of phosphate rock, the newly established Canadian corporation Nutrien, announced in January it will stop buying phosphate from Western Sahara (the Saskatoon-based company is the result of a merger between two major Canadian agricultural companies, Agrium and PotashCorp).

According to WSRW, the company still purchases half of the phosphate rock from Western Sahara. During the period from January 1, 2013, when imports began, to December 31, 2017, Agrium and PotashCorp took in 75 of the 186 vessels carrying phosphate rock from the territory. These 75 vessels contained approximately US$276 million worth of phosphate, paid to OCP.

“As a result of a business decision to convert our Canadian Redwater phosphate facility to an ammonia sulphate facility we will no longer need rock from OCP and will end the contract by the end of 2018,” Will Tigley, media and digital communications manager at Nutrien, told OpenCanada.                                              

In addition to announcing the halt of imports directly into Canada, Tigley informed OpenCanada that Nutrien will make a decision by the end of the year on what to do with the imports to the United States from the territory.

WSRW is skeptical. “While we welcome the intention of Nutrien to halt imports from the occupied territory, we are not convinced until we have seen the last vessel sail in to the harbours of Baton Rouge and Vancouver,” said Sylvia Valentin, chair of WSRW.

“The imports of PotashCorp are still massive, and still ongoing. Agrium had made the same promise of diversifying its supply chain to its owners for the last five years, but with effect only now in 2018. At the same time, PotashCorp has been in a state of denial,” she said, referring to Nutrien’s former names. “The people of Western Sahara cannot wait for Nutrien to stop at the same, slow pace to Baton Rouge as it has done to Vancouver.” 

Besides Nutrien, there are only three other companies that purchase phosphate from Western Sahara through OCP: an Indian subsidiary of the Moroccan exporting company and two farmer-owned cooperatives in New Zealand. 

In another development, a ship with 55,000 tonnes of phosphate destined for New Zealand was chained in a South African port last May at the urging of Polisario — the government in exile led by Brahim Gali. The shipment will be auctioned off in the coming months, and the proceeds will go the Sahrawi people. 

Swiss-UK multinational Glencore in January terminated its operations offshore the Western Sahara. Glencore was the largest foreign company present in the territory, and one of very few exploring for oil. The US oil company Kosmos Energy, which held a licence on the Boujdour Maritime offshore block, announced in February that it has also left Western Sahara. This leaves only three minor oil companies still in the territory under Moroccan petroleum exploration contracts: San Leon Energy (UK/Ireland) onshore, New Age (UK/Jersey island) and Teredo Oil (UK) offshore.

Peace process — back on the agenda?

Although shifting trade relations may be undermining the Moroccan occupation, diplomatic and peace talks have stalled for years. The last direct talks between Polisario and Morocco date back to 2012. 

For years, the Moroccan government has advocated for autonomy for the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereigntyPolisario will only agree to a referendum (as yet unorganized by MINURSO) about independence, as agreed in the armistice of 1991.

But after years of deadlock, the peace process itself seems to be moving again. With the verdict of the European court, Morocco rejoining the African Union last year and the growing BDS movementit seems pressure is mounting to resolve the 42-year old conflict. 

Last August, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Horst Köhler, a former president of Germany, as his personal envoy for Western Sahara. “It shows us that the UN still cares about the issue,” Fatma Mehdi, president of the National Union of Sahrawi Women (NUSW), told OpenCanada. Mehdi was eight when she ended up in a refugee camp in Algeria. 

Mehdi has been president of the NUSW since 2002 and is a prominent figure in the Polisario government-in-exile in the refugee camps in Algeria.

Over the past months, Köhler has met with most involved parties: Polisario, Algeria, South Africa, France, the African Union, and, as recently as March, with Bourita, Morocco’s foreign minister.

Canadian Colin Stewart was appointed as head of MINURSO late last year, succeeding Kim Bolduc, also of Canada, who completed her assignment in November. 

Stuart, who arrived in Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, where the MINURSO headquarters are based, started his mandate by dealing with skirmishes between Morocco and Polisario fighters near the buffer zone of Guerguerat, a small village in the far southwest of Western Sahara — an indication of the high tensions that still exist. 

"With the verdict of the European court, Morocco rejoining the African Union last year and the growing BDS movement, it seems pressure is mounting to resolve the 42-year old conflict."

Last month, in a closed-door meeting, members of the UNSC expressed their “full support” for Köhler’s diplomatic efforts to “relaunch the negotiating process with a new dynamic and a new spirit,” said the UNSC president, Dutch ambassador Karel van Oosterom. No date was announced for the resumption of formal talks on ending the dispute, AFP reported.

Morocco has meanwhile initiated a major diplomatic offensive to improve relations with states on the African continent (over the past 10 years or so, Morocco’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa has increased at an average annual rate of 9.1 percent). In 2016 and 2017, Moroccan King Mohamed VI visited a dozen countries to explain Moroccos foreign and economic policies. He even met with South Africas then-president Jacob Zuma — South Africa and the ANC having been Polisarios main African ally since the end of apartheid in 2004. As a result, Morocco rejoined the African Union in January 2017 (which it had left after SADR was accepted as a member by the union’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, in 1984.)

“Morocco seems to have accepted that in the short-term it cannot get the SADR expelled from the African Union,” Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa who has been following the AU for 20 years, told OpenCanada. 

Morocco continues to insist that the Western Sahara issue has to be resolved through the UN — where it has, in France and the United States, powerful allies on the UNSC — and not the AU. 

Yet AU chairperson Moussa Faki led a delegation to Algeria in March and announced afterwards that the AU is ready to propose a settlement to the decades-long Western Sahara dispute.

Once again trade and peace are at odds. Morocco’s drive to rejoin the African Union — “the African family,” in King Mohamed’s words — was mainly motivated by its ambition to politically reflect its bigger economic role on the African continent, alongside economic powerhouses like South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia, and its eternal foe Algeria. Yet, with the exception of Ethiopia, all those countries are fierce defenders of the Sahrawi call for independence. 

But according to Louw-Vaudran, Africa’s political leaders are moving away from pro-independence ideology, and the disastrous independence of South Sudan has not helped to support the case of independence movements. She expects the ANC government under the newly elected president Cyril Ramaphosa to be more pragmatic, too. Trade relations between Morocco and South Africa are important for both countries; bilateral trade amounted to four billion South African rand (CAN$435 million) in 2015. 

Moving forward, with a renewed mandate

On April 27, the UNSC extended the mandate of MINURSO for six months and called for direct talks between Morocco and Polisario concerning the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. 

The trigger for the decision to force the parties back to the negotiating table, however, may have been the US government’s proposal to drastically reduce the UN budget for peacekeeping missions — it currently pays almost 30 percent of the total bill.

“It is time to see progress toward a political solution, and after 27 years, to stop perpetuating the status quo,” Amy Tachco, political coordinator of the Permanent Mission of the United States to the UN, told the UNSC last week. She called Western Sahara “a textbook example of a frozen conflict and ... a textbook example of a peacekeeping mission that no longer serves a political purpose.”

Reducing the usual one-year mandate to six months means that Köhler, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, has to report more regularly to the UNSC and keep pressure on the parties involved to make progress.

Christopher Ross, a former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, was also the UN Secretary-Generals special envoy for Western Sahara from 2009 to 2016. During his tenure, Ross told journalists that on some level — national, regional, international — something must change to break the deadlock and solve the conflict.

The diplomatic, political and economic changes in the past two years or so seem to hint that the current deadlock can be broken. At a minimum, Morocco and Polisario will be forced to enter into direct talks again. What the outcomes of these talks will be is hard to predict. “I don’t think total independence for Western Sahara is still in the cards, although some may disagree,” said Louw-Vaudran. 

Mehdi disagrees. She is convinced the Sahrawi people will gain self-determination for Western Sahara. “All the liberation movements have won,” said Mehdi. “We will win.”