Q&A: Western Sahara on verge of war, says Polisario spokesman
It was a statement that reignited the war of words over the future of Western Sahara.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon last month referred to Morocco's "occupation" of the region - a statement that led to mass protests in Morocco and Rabat ordering the removal of civilian members of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and the closure of its military liaison office.
This represents the worst blow in years to the peace process in the region between the Algeria-backed, Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario Front and Morocco, which annexed Western Sahara in 1975.
As Reuters leaked parts of a letter from the Polisario president to Ban warning of the real risk of armed conflict if the UN doesn’t uphold MINURSO’s mandate, Middle East Eye spoke to Ahmed Boukhari, the Front's representative at the UN in New York.
MEE: You recently described Morocco’s actions on MINURSO as a “question of peace or war”. If Morocco does not step back, how likely is the return of an armed confrontation in Western Sahara?
Boukhari: Morocco’s machinations have crippled MINURSO - without its civilian component, the mission becomes dysfunctional and along with it, the peace process.
UN missions are under the exclusive authority of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Rabat, with its latest manoeuvres, is actually challenging the council prerogatives.
If the UNSC doesn’t guarantee MINURSO’s integrity, the council may be seen as giving in to Morocco’s provocations. If that happens, we will have no choice but to take up arms again.
In fact, our army has already adopted defensive positions - US satellites can easily see it. Needless to say, it would be the last resort, but we have to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
MEE: On 24 March, the Security Council called for the dispute to be addressed "in a constructive, comprehensive and cooperative manner" so that MINURSO can operate at full capacity. Are you satisfied with the council's reaction?
Boukhari: The use by Ban of the word "occupation" has been exploited by Morocco as a pretext to justify its well-known, decades-old obstruction to the UN peace process.
The real issue faced by the UNSC isn’t this bogus, politically motivated controversy, but the future of the peacekeeping operation in Western Sahara.
I understand the horse-trading taking place in the UNSC, with Morocco manoeuvring behind the scenes to make sure that France, Senegal and Egypt pushed for a watered-down reaction. Yet the Security Council’s response contains decisive elements, like the importance that MINURSO returns to its full capacity.
MEE: Morocco is a key partner with the West in combating militancy in North Africa. Do you think that this has influenced the Security Council response?
Boukhari: It is an easy excuse for some powers to turn their backs to the situation on Western Sahara. Whoever believes that Morocco is a guarantor of regional security is profoundly misinformed and ill-advised.
Thanks to the close coordination among our forces and the Mauritanian and Algerian armies, no security threats from Mali and the Sahel have ever advanced into Morocco.
I can say that Morocco is safer because of the work of others. Yet Rabat has been able to sell it as its own achievement.
The reality is that an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, able to manage its own resources and in close cooperation with our neighbours, would be a much stronger ally in the global efforts to tackle regional security threats.
MEE: On 20 March, a UN spokesman said Ban regretted his use of the word "occupation". Morocco rejects the apology and says it was a "premeditated act to alter the nature of the dispute". What would it take for Rabat to soften its stance?
Boukhari: Morocco’s reaction to Ban’s regrets didn’t surprise me at all. The secretary general's use of the word "occupation" could have been tackled through confidential diplomatic channels. However, Morocco chose the noisy path.
As a matter of fact, Ban Ki-moon didn’t say anything new. There are two UN General Assembly resolutions – 34/37 (1979) and 35/19 (1980) - that explicitly define Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as, and I quote, "occupation".
Since this situation erupted, Rabat has not stopped churning out pretexts. Their objective is to paralyse and block the peace process leading to the UN-backed referendum on the future of the territory.
Now Morocco is disguising it as anger against the secretary general, but their purpose is the same.
MEE: Would you have preferred this rift not to have taken place, or are you happy Western Sahara is back on the international radar?
Boukhari: Let me be sarcastic and say that we are thankful to Morocco for having raised the issue.
MEE: What would you say to the 150,000 Sahrawi refugees waiting in Algeria and Mauritania for more than 40 years for a resolution?
Boukhari: The Sahrawi people know that their right to decide the future of their homeland is inalienable. It is international law.
East Timor as well as many African and Latin American states are examples of great struggles for freedom. The Sahrawi people have been striving for theirs during the last 40 years and they are prepared to carry on.
Over the decades, they have grown used to Rabat’s deception tactics. The self-determination option is and will always be immune to Morocco’s tricks. If it is taken from us, we have the right to defend it at any cost.