UN Security Council might change tack, think-tank

Although the UN Security Council has agreed to keep peacekeepers in Western Sahara for another six months, Council members are losing patience with the 15-year status quo, and one member even wants this to be the multi-million dollar mission's last extension, according to an influential think-tank.

UN peacekeepers first landed in the contested North African region in 1991 to monitor a UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and Mauritania on one side, and an armed pro-independence group, the Frente Polisario.

But after several failed UN attempts at mediating agreement on the terms of a referendum on independence, Council members are close to reaching a consensus that "the status quo is not a viable or wise option," the Security Council Report analysis group said in a briefing this week.

"It seems that a majority of Council members have edged cautiously towards the Secretary-General's view that it is time for direct negotiations between the parties and that the UN should step back," the New York-based think-tank said.

In a report on the Western Sahara in mid-April, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded the two sides are "at an impasse" over the question of a vote on self determination for the former Spanish colony. Morocco this year offered more autonomy but stopped short of independence.

"The UN cannot endorse a plan that does not include a genuine self-determination process," Security Council Report said. "However, any new United Nations proposal would be rejected by Morocco unless it excludes independence as an option."

And Annan warned the Security Council "cannot wait for the question of Western Sahara to deteriorate from being a source of potential instability in the region to becoming a threat to international peace and security."

He recommended that the UN should "step back" to allow direct negotiations between the parties, with the goal of working out a compromise themselves.

The default position of "simply tolerating the status quo could re-emerge," but "there seemed to be a signal from the United States that, if there were no progress, they may be willing to consider going to the next logical step," the Security Council Report group noted.

"It is entirely possible, therefore, that this could lead to Council members being willing to discuss the future of (the UN mission) MINURSO in October," Security Council Report said.

The group said that Argentina, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, "suggested that another technical rollover would be unacceptable".

As the dispute lingers on, the UN refugee agency estimates that 160,000 people remain in camps in Algeria, which supports the Polisario movement.