Global perspective Human stories

Western Sahara: UN envoy sees ‘window of opportunity’ to break impasse

Western Sahara: UN envoy sees ‘window of opportunity’ to break impasse

Acknowledging that Morocco and the Polisario Front have “irreconcilable views” on the future of Western Sahara, a senior United Nations envoy today said talks between the parties offer a chance to break through their long-standing dispute.

“The fact that the parties are willing to negotiate, even with the limitations that it entails, is going to be a window of opportunity,” Peter van Walsum, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, told reporters in New York after briefing the Security Council, which is considering the fate of the UN mission there, known by its French acronym MINURSO.

“The window of opportunity is very small. It can easily be closed in the process. It can only become smaller if the parties begin by focusing on their irreconcilable views as to the desired final arrangement, but it can also be made larger if we can encourage the parties to initially focus on the negotiating process,” Mr. van Walsum said.

In his latest report on the issue, now being considered by the Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommends that the 15-member body call upon the parties “to enter into negotiations without preconditions, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

Mr. van Walsum voiced hope that the Council would act on the Secretary-General’s recommendation, and that the parties “will accept that call from the Security Council and will be willing to enter into negotiations.”

Describing the fundamental differences separating the sides, he said: “Morocco wants Western Sahara to be an autonomous region under Moroccan sovereignty and Polisario wants Western Sahara to be an independent State.”

He acknowledged that these positions are at odds. “Those demands are mutually exclusive; they are irreconcilable.”

Reviewing the history of international efforts to address the issue, he said the period from 1991 – when a ceasefire was concluded and a Settlement Plan reached – until 2004 was marked by the search “for a mechanism to make a referendum possible.”

In 2004, “this changed completely when Morocco said they could not under any circumstances accept a referendum with independence as an option,” while Polisario “had and still does insist that a referendum without the option of independence is not a real referendum.”

Both sides have recently put forward proposals on the issue, and Mr. Van Walsum welcomed this development. “I take personally a quite positive view in this matter because even if the proposals are still very far apart – I would say still irreconcilable – the interesting new phenomenon is that both parties are prepared to enter into direct negotiations with each other, under UN auspices.”

The possibility of talks, he said, offers the chance for a breakthrough.

In his report to the Council, Mr. Ban also recommends a six-month extension of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which was established in 1991 to monitor the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front and organize the planned referendum on self-determination. It has been renewed in subsequent resolutions of the Security Council.