Morocco throws diplomatic fit with UN over Western Sahara

Fadel Senna, AFP | Moroccan protesters hold placards and shout slogans in the capital Rabat, on March 13, 2016.

Morocco on Thursday ordered 84 international staffers of the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara to leave following a spiraling diplomatic spat over UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s comments on the disputed territory.


UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Morocco's order was "in clear contradiction" of its international obligations and a challenge to the UN Security Council, which authorised the mission. The mission is meant to monitor a ceasefire and help organise a long-delayed referendum on the Western Sahara's future.

The council was meeting behind closed doors Thursday to discuss Morocco's actions. Dujarric said UN peacekeeping officials are planning for a number of possible contingencies, including terminating the mission.

The expulsion order was the latest development in a diplomatic spat between Morocco and the UN that has been intensifying this week following Ban's recent visit to refugee camps for displaced Sahrawis in Algeria.

Ban’s use of the term “occupation” sparked outrage in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, with Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar blasting the UN for abandoning its “neutral” stance on the territory.

It was followed by a demonstration Sunday that drew tens of thousands of people protesting Ban’s comments and pledging allegiance to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI in the heart of the kingdom’s capital.

Ban’s press office responded by conveying his “astonishment at the recent statement of the government of Morocco and expressed his deep disappointment and anger regarding the demonstration that was mobilised on Sunday, which targeted him in person”.

It was the start of a diplomatic war of words that has shown no sign of abating. Foreign Minister Mezouar has threatened further measures and has told reporters that “decisions will be announced” depending on the outcome of Thursday’s meeting.

A prickly position

Morocco has long had a prickly position on Western Sahara, a region it annexed in 1975 following the withdrawal of colonial power Spain.

Last month, Morocco suspended contact with the EU after a European court invalidated an EU farm trade accord with Rabat, saying it should exclude the disputed Western Sahara. In September, the Moroccan government boycotted Swedish companies over accusation of a change in Sweden’s stance on the issue, baffling firms such as IKEA.

The latest spat though is the biggest dispute between the North African kingdom and the UN.

Earlier this week, Morocco threatened to pull out its soldiers from UN peacekeeping missions. A statement from the foreign ministry said it was "examining the ways and means of withdrawing Moroccan contingents engaged in peacekeeping operations".

Morocco currently contributes more than 2,300 soldiers and police to UN peacekeeping missions, mainly in African countries such as Mali, Ivory Coast, the Central African Republic and Burundi.

The UN mission based in Western Sahara, MINURSO, was set up to organise a referendum on the future of the territory, but that never materialised.

The UN chief wants to achieve progress in resolving the 40-year conflict over Western Sahara before he steps down at the end of the year.

Following Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara, the North African kingdom fought a local independence movement called the Polisario Front until the UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991.

Morocco considers the vast, mineral-rich Western Sahara as its "southern provinces" and has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for the region, but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population. That hasn't occurred because of disputes over voter lists.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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