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Statement by Ambassador Christoph Heusgen in the Security Council VTC consultations on Western Sahara, December 21, 2020

22.12.2020 - Speech

Check Against Delivery

We asked for this briefing for reasons of conflict prevention on the one hand. We have heard how the situation on the ground is like and how difficult it continues to be. We heard about the collapse of the ceasefire, which has been installed since 1991, and the tension that still remains. On the other hand, we want to reiterate the point that we have been making throughout the last two years: for us, to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way is to go by the rules and to implement Security Council resolutions and international law.

To understand the present situation, we have to go back in history. We have to go back where it all started. We have to go back briefly to decolonization: the Western Sahara, or the Spanish Sahara, as it was called at the time, was a leftover from the decolonization after Morocco and Mauritania became independent. The Sahrawi were living in this area and when, in 1975, Spain, for several reasons, withdrew from the area, a conflict broke out. Against a court ruling that there should be self-determination for the Sahrawi, the territory was divided. Two thirds went to Morocco, and one third went to Mauritania in the south. After Polisario was founded, the representatives of the militants of the Sahrawi fought Mauritania, which then bowed out of the territory. A peace agreement was made with the Polisario – for the Polisario to take over the territory. But Morocco moved in and claimed part of what was the Mauritanian part of the Western Sahara.

In 1988, the UN made a proposal to have a referendum on the question whether this territory should go to Morocco or the independent Western Sahara. This UN proposal was accepted by the parties, and it led to the establishment of MINURSO and the 1991 ceasefire. The UN moved in to basically prepare and conduct the referendum.

Then, Morocco moved 10,000 settlers into the area that it had occupied and a quarrel started on who was eligible to vote in the referendum. These quarrels have never been overcome. Morocco expanded its physical infrastructure in Western Sahara. The support for the Polisario got weaker and weaker. They settled more and more in Algeria, wherenow a lot of Sahrawi are living in semi-permanent refugee camps. King Mohammed VI was quoted here before. In his letter, he said there is no longer a referendum in the books, but the only solution is autonomy.

In 2018/2019, there was combined pressure by the US when they said, we will only prolong MINURSO if there is some progress on the political process. At the same time, former German President Köhler, who was the Secretary General’s Personal Envoy, got the parties around the table in 2019. Unfortunately, due to his illness, he had to step down and since then, nothing has happened. I think that this was a very brief, abbreviated version of history, but I think it is important to understand this history, if we want to judge the situation as it is today. 

Polisario is frustrated. They are weak militarily. They are no match for Morocco and thus try to get attention by obstructing a key route. Morocco launched the military operation and in return, Polisario no longer observes the 1991 ceasefire. So that is where we stand. We heard all the details now of the present situation.

So we are witnessing a stagnation of the political process and we urgently need a new personal envoy. We know how hard this person is to find because such a person needs to be acceptable to both parties. If we do not achieve this, the political process will go down the drain. We need a revitalization of the political process. We need a realistic and practical, lasting, negotiated settlement. Since 1991, MINURSO has done a very good job of trying to de-escalate and building confidence, and I congratulate you and your team, [SRSG] Colin [Stewart] for the job you are doing on the ground. We fully support you. We insist also that unimpeded access is a prerequisite for proper implementation of your mandate. What is happening right now, impeding your work, is not the right way forward.

Coming back again to what I mentioned earlier: further frustration of the Polisario may lead to radicalisation. It may lead to terrorism. It may lead to migration. There is a whole generation of Sahrawi that have been brought up in refugee camps and they do not have hope.  We must not lose a this young generation.

We remain deeply committed to a political solution, which really is in everyone’s interest. The whole region would benefit from this. The borders between Algeria and Morocco are closed. The whole region could also benefit economically from a political solution, which would unleash the region’s enormous potential for growth.

Let me address our American friends. You are the penholder. We as E10 know that it is very difficult to get a penholdership. Penholdership comes with responsibility. It has to come with a strong commitment to resolve an issue, it has to be equitable, it has to be evenhanded, it has to have a legitimate interest of all parties in mind and it has to act within the framework of international law.

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