The UN Security Council is to vote on renewing a 25-year-old mission in Western Sahara, which recently plunged into crisis over remarks made by the Secretary General. Council members are divided.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has made an urgent plea for the retention of the mandate for the UN mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO).
He warned that the danger of an escalation into full-scale war would "grow significantly" if "MINURSO is forced to depart or finds itself unable to execute the mandate."
Ban said the Security Council must "restore and support" the mandate and any weakening of the mission "can be expected to be exploited by terrorist and radical elements."
Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony of which Morocco gained control in the 1970s. It soon encountered resistance from a local independence movement, the Polarisio Front.
While visiting Algeria in March 2016, Ban said there had been 'no real progress' towards a solution for Western Sahara
A ceasefire agreement between Morocco and Polisario was followed by the establishment of MINURSO, formally known as the United Nations Mission the Referendum in Western Sahara, in April 1991.
The MINURSO mandate provides for the preparation of a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara would chose between independence and integration with Morocco. That referendum has never taken place.
A quarter of a century later, MINURSO has been plunged into deep crisis. During a visit to a refugee camp near Tindouf in Algeria, the UN Secretary General referred to the territorial status of Western Sahara as an "occupation" by Morocco.
Protests in Rabat
This brought a sharp rebuke from the Moroccan government and an estimated three million people out onto the streets of the capital Rabat in protest. The government condemned Ban's remarks as "completely unacceptable," expelled more than 80 MINURSO staffers and cancelled military support for the UN blue helmets in Western Sahara as well as threatening to pull out of other UN operations.
According to one of its former military observers, Christos Tsatsoulis, this spells the end of MINURSO. He told Al Jazeera that Morocco's backing for MINURSO was vital for its survival."I don't believe it can exist without this help," he said.
Morocco refers to Western Sahara as "Moroccan Sahara," "southern Morocco" or "the southern provinces." The territorial status of this expanse of land the size of Italy has been in limbo for the last 40 years.
After Spain, the colonial power, abandoned its claim to the territory in 1975, Morocco and Mauritania divided it up amongst themselves. Mauritania relinquished its share in 1979, which Morocco then occupied.
The Western Saharan liberation movement Polisario (Frente Popular para Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y de Rio de Oro) proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976. It waged a guerrilla war against Moroccan armed forces until 1991 when a ceasefire was agreed.
MINURSO has been monitoring the truce ever since. It gives Morocco de facto control over more than two thirds of Western Sahara. The SADR only exerts authority in the desert hinterland near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders and in Tindouf refugee camps in Algeria.
Whereas Morocco, at the very most, would be prepared to offer Western Sahara autonomy within a federation, SADR representatives are insisting on full sovereignty. Hence the plans for a referendum, which never materialized.
Vote on mandate renewal
The UN Security Council is vote on Friday (29.04.2016) on a draft text renewing MINURSO's mandate for a year. There are sharp divisions on the Council on the best way forward. But analysts like Helmut Reifeld, who heads Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Morocco, dismisses any suggestion that the mission has failed.
"It is still legitimate because it addresses an unresolved problem under international law that still requires a solution and consensus for peaceful change," he told DW.
Many members of the Security Council are anxious not to vex Morocco which they view as a key partner.
"Since the outbreak of the refugee crisis, Europe has been sitting up and taking notice of Morocco. The country agreed immediately to take refugees back," Reifeld said.
Huge crowds took to the streets of Rabat to accuse Ban Ki-moon of 'abandoning neutrality, objectivity and impartiality'
Western Sahara borders the Atlantic Ocean and the territory is not excluded from Morocco's fisheries agreement with the European Union. Morocco has integrated Western Saharan territory into its economy and is now exploiting its resources in violation of international law. Those resources include phosphate as well as fish and could in future extend to oil, natural gas, coal, metals and precious stones. International protests against this exploitation have forced some, but not all, western firms to leave the territory.
Western Sahara's final territorial status is likely to remain unresolved. "I cannot imagine Morocco agreeing to anything other than full inclusion of the southern provinces into its territory," Reifeld said. "The mood in the country is such that it would be impossible for the UN to push through a referendum."
Stefan Ehlert contributed to this report