Co-opting the peacekeepers?

September 16, 2011

Is the United Nations suppressing information to support an illegal occupation?

In September 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the two claimants to the disputed Non-Self Governing Territory of Western Sahara. Morocco and the Polisario had been fighting a war for control over the territory since 1975, when Morocco sent troops and civilians into Western Sahara during its “Green March”, the aim of which was to establish the former Spanish colony as part of a greater Morocco.

As part of the ceasefire, the UN established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO), a peacekeeping force mandated with monitoring the ceasefire and overseeing a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. Some 20 years on, the referendum has still not been held, and there seems little prospect that the ongoing political conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the status of Western Sahara will be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Currently, Western Sahara is effectively partitioned, with Morocco controlling the bulk (some three quarters) of Western Sahara, and the Polisario controlling the remainder. The Moroccan and Polisario controlled areas are separated by a series of earthworks (variously referred to as the “wall”, “sand wall” or “berm”), constructed by Morocco to secure the territory it has gained through military means during the course of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, a number of zones or areas were defined, and permitted activities inside each area were specified. And this is the crux of this particular blog post.

The various areas defined under the ceasefire, and the activities permitted in each area, were detailed in Military Agreement No. 1 (MA#1) and on Map No: A4-010 (deployment of MINURSO). The text of MA#1, and Map No: A4-010, used to be available via MINURSO’s mission website and local website, located easily by clicking on the links on the latter site’s side bar.

And so back to that crux.

You may have noted the use of the past tense in the above text – these key ceasefire documents “used to be available” via the MINURSO websites. Since at least as early as December 2010, MA#1 and Map No: A4-010 have disappeared from the MINURSO local website (and are not available via the mission website). Given that MINURSO’s principal task (the long-delayed referendum notwithstanding) is to monitor the ceasefire, it seems somewhat bizarre that their website does not include the information on the different ceasefire zones and the permitted activity in each of these zones. This is obviously not simply due to sloppy website maintenance – the MINURSO website has been given a pretty comprehensive overhaul in the past year or so, and now contains lots of information and links to relevant documentation, mostly UN resolutions and letters from the UN Secretary General and the Security Council.

Back in 2010 I contacted MINURSO by email ( to ask why the detailed information on the ceasefire arrangements had been removed, and where it could be found. This was followed by emails to other public information personnel at the UN who were concerned with Western Sahara. However, I never received a reply to these emails. When I followed this up informally with a UN source, their response was this. “Somehow I doubt, in present circumstances, that you will get a reply from the mission, or at least a reply that will be of any use.” When I asked my source whether they were able to elaborate on why a reply was unlikely “in the present circumstances”, and what these circumstances were, they replied “Not really”. This correspondence took place in early December 2010.

So, why the removal of important information relating to the nature of the ceasefire, and why the lack of response to an inquiry about its removal? And why the secrecy? I’m certainly prepared to speculate – here goes.

There currently seems to be no resolution in sight to the Western Sahara conflict. This has frustrated key players within the UN and internationally. As detailed in Stephen Zunes’ and Jacob Mundy’s recent, and excellent, book, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, key members of the UN security council (France and the United States) have long been enthusiastic (to say the least) in their support of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. In the amoral world of realpolitik, these countries in particular view the integration of Western Sahara into a greater Morocco as a practical solution to the conflict. Accordingly, they support Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, which would make Western Sahara part of Morocco and give it some token limited autonomy under a partially devolved administration rubber stamped or appointed by the Moroccan monarchy. I’ve written elsewhere about why this “solution” is dubious at best (also here).

So what has this got to do with the information on MINURSO’s website? Well, first we need to recognise that the UN and its various agencies are not independent bodies, but are expressions of the will of the UN’s member states. Particular UN agencies will be of particular interest to certain countries (e.g. those that provide their funding), and these countries will have an influence over their behaviour. Powerful voices within the UN lobby for their own interests and those of their friends, making the UN a forum in which key players compete with each other for dominance and advantage according to their own agendas. In short, UN agencies are subject to influence from powerful interests, and there is no reason to believe that MINURSO is any different.

Second, the ready availability of information on the terms of the ceasefire is an embarrassment to Morocco and, by extension, to those countries who support Morocco in its continuing (and illegal) occupation of Western Sahara. Morocco likes to give the impression that it controls all of Western Sahara, and that all that needs to be done to resolve the conflict is for the international community to accept Morocco’s claim to the territory. The Moroccan line is that Morocco has already achieved de facto integration of Western Sahara, making its control over the territory a done deal – if only the international community would accept this “fact on the ground” the problem would go away.

The Moroccan line is disingenuous, and its Autonomy Plan does nothing to address the partition of Western Sahara or the issue of the Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict and living in camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The airing of these issues makes the Autonomy Plan look rather flaky and inadequate, and exposes the Plan as a PR exercise to legitimise the occupation rather than a serious, sincere and workable way of resolving the conflict. Under the Autonomy Plan the territory would remain partitioned (or be subject to further fighting as Morocco sought to control all of Western Sahara), and the refugees would remain in exile (Morocco constantly underplays the number of refugees and is unlikely to welcome them as new subjects). The Plan would also fail to uphold the right of self determination enshrined in so many UN resolutions relating to Western Sahara.

Consequently, it is in Morocco’s interests to manipulate information relating to the conflict in order to marginalise the refugee issue and cloud the issue of partition. Morocco’s propagandists have a habit of telling people that the Polisario does not control any territory in Western Sahara, and that what the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to as the (Polisario controlled) “Free Zone” is in fact a “buffer zone” set up with the tacit approval of the UN to keep the Polisario out of “Moroccan” territory. This is nonsense. There is a “Buffer Strip” under the ceasefire, but this extends only 5 km east and south of the Berm or sand wall into the Polisario controlled areas. On either side of the Berm, a “Restricted Area” extends for 30 km. On both sides of the Berm, the remaining areas are defined as “Areas with Limited Restrictions”. With the exception of the Buffer Strip, which is present only on the Polisario side of the Berm, there is parity in terms of what the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario are permitted to do on their respective sides of the Berm.

The above is all set out in MA#1, a reading of which reveals that Morocco’s claims (i) to control all of Western Sahara, (ii) that the Polisario has no active or legitimate presence in the territory, and (iii) that the areas in which Polisario might operate are in fact a buffer zone set up for Morocco’s benefit, are all nonsense. Unfortunately, now that MINURSO has removed MA#1 and Map No:A4-010, it is much less straightforward to challenge Rabat’s nonsense using authoritative sources. Well, I say unfortunately, but this is, of course, rather fortunate for Morocco and its friends.

And this is what is really suspicious. The most likely explanation for the removal of this basic, vital and (to the Moroccan camp) embarrassing information seems to be that Morocco and its friends have leaned on MINURSO to remove this information, in order to eliminate a counter to a key pillar of Morocco’s propaganda campaign. If there is a more innocent explanation, why has MINURSO been so reluctant to provide it. Unless they can allay fears that they have been co-opted by Morocco’s propaganda machine, perhaps we should be renaming them the MINUPOSO – United Nations Mission for the Perpetuation of the Occupation in Western Sahara.


UN Personnel Vandalise Archaeological Sites

December 18, 2007

In 1991, the United Nations sent a force to Western Sahara to monitor the ceasefire between the occupying Moroccan forces and the Polisario independence movement. The Force, known by its French acronym MINURSO, was also tasked with facilitating a referendum on self-determination within the territory – in fact this was its principal purpose. Some 16 years on, the referendum has failed to materialise, and MINURSO is widely viewed by the indigenous Sahrawi, and by some commentators, as leaning towards Morocco. On a positive note, the ceasefire has been maintained without any serious violations, and MINURSO recently has been arranging family visits for Sahrawi separated from their relatives by the effective partition of Western Sahara.

So, MINURSO has overseen a period of relative peace and stability (or helped to maintain the status quo as Morocco consolidates its occupation, depending on your opinion), and has (belatedly) helped Sahrawi exiles in the refugee camps in Algeria maintain contact with family members on the other side of the Moroccan Berm that cuts divides the territory into two zones. However, it has singularly failed in its main task, which is to organise a referendum on self-determination. Perhaps MINURSO cannot be blamed entirely for the continuing stalemate, given the wrangling over voter eligibility and lack of will of the international community to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara in an equitable fashion, if at all. What is clear is that MINURSO is increasingly irrelevant when it comes to determining the future of Western Sahara. It is the view of at least some Sahrawi that MINURSO no longer has any business being in Western Sahara at all.

A recent visit (Nov-Dec 2007) to Western Sahara by this blogger revealed a more unsavoury legacy of MINURSO’s presence in Western Sahara – the deliberate vandalism of archaeological sites. The most dramatic example of this is at Lajuad in the Southern Sector of the Polisario-controlled zone, where MINURSO recently installed some communications hardware on the inaccessible (except by helicopter) summit of a smooth granite hill. It appears that the MINURSO personnel responsible for the installation amused themselves by spray-painting their names on the wall of a rockshelter that is also an important archaeological site (see photos). Although the paintings and engravings in this shelter are somewhat faint, it is difficult not to notice that the wall defaced by the MINURSO personnel houses ancient paintings and engravings, as does the floor of the shelter. Note the engraved and painted wavy lines in the second photograph below, under graffiti from what appear to be Egyptian and Russion MINURSO personnel (see this Flickr album for more photos of the defacement of the Lajuad rockshelter). Perhaps the visiting UN staff were encouraged by the apparently earlier Arabic graffiti – they have certainly left a much greater impression at this site.

Reviewing MINURSO vandalism, Lajuad

MINURSO graffiti over ancient rock art

This isn’t the first example of the deliberate vandalism of an archaeological site by MINURSO personnel. Similar defacement of decorated rockshelters by UN staff can be seen at the more accessible site of Rekeiz in the Northern Sector of the Polisario zone. Here MINURSO staff again have seen fit to write their names over ancient rock art.

It is a tragedy that UN personnel tasked with resolving one of the world’s longest running military and political conflicts are engaging in the willful destruction of important archaeological sites that have much to teach us about the prehistory of a part of the world that is virtually unknown to the international research community. It is also a tragedy for the cultural heritage of Western Sahara, and is indicative of a contempt for the Sahrawi people on whose land these crimes have been committed. The Polisario, who control the region in which this vandalism has occurred, have apparently complained to MINURSO about these actions, but as of late November 2007 had received no formal response.

It is clear that the destruction and defacement of archaeological sites is unacceptable. The only way for MINURSO to redeem itself in this matter, and by extension the reputation of the United Nations in this region, is to pay for the professional restoration of the sites that its staff have willfully vandalised. MINURSO must also make clear to all its staff that such actions will not be tolerated in the future. Any UN staff found vandalising archaeological sites should be disciplined, and preferably sent home. The funds for restoring damage sites might come from the relevant UN agency (in this case the Department of Peacekeeping Operations), or perhaps from the nations contributing to the MINURSO mission whose military personnel have taken part in these wanton acts of destruction. The guilty parties have, after all, been good enough to leave details of their home countries, their own identities, and the dates on which they committed their misdemeanours.

There is a further irony here, in that the personnel under the jurisdiction of one UN department are busy destroying archaeological sites as another UN agency (UNESCO) is about to embark on developing an inventory of rock art sites in Western Sahara with the aim of recording and preserving the territory’s cultural heritage. As long as UN staff on the ground in Western Sahara delight in defacing rock art, perhaps it is best not to advertise its location.