UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Security Council endorsed on Thursday a change of approach by the U.N. mediator in the decades-old Western Sahara dispute, focusing on small, informal meetings between Morocco and the Polisario Front.
The mediator, former U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, believes that will be more effective as a next step, after four rounds of full-scale negotiations in the past two years led to no accord on the future of the territory, U.N. officials said.
Rabat, which annexed the resource-rich former Spanish colony after Madrid left in 1975, has proposed that it become an autonomous region of Morocco. The Polisario movement, which fought a guerrilla war in Sahara until a U.N.-brokered truce in 1991, wants a referendum with independence as one option.
A resolution approved on Thursday by all 15 Security Council members welcomed the parties’ agreement to Ross’ idea of informal talks and extended the mandate of a 200-strong U.N. military observer force in Western Sahara for a further year.
U.N. officials say the talks, for which no time or venue has been set, might include as few as two officials from each side and would aim to get them talking out of the public eye to prepare for an eventual further round of full negotiations.
One theme could be the expansion of confidence-building measures beyond current arrangements for visits and phone calls between divided Sahara families. Tens of thousands of Sahrawis live in camps in neighboring Algeria, which backs Polisario.
U.N. officials have said past rounds of negotiations, held in the Long Island town of Manhasset near New York, have led to “grandstanding,” with both sides repeating their positions and refusing to negotiate seriously.
The Security Council has long been divided on the issue of Sahara, which is rich in phosphates, offshore fisheries and potentially oil. France and the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush backed Morocco’s position, while several developing nations favored Polisario.
The previous U.N. mediator, Dutch diplomat Peter van Walsum, angered Polisario with a statement appearing to rule out independence. Ross took over the mediating job in January.
Speaking on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice made clear she shared long-standing U.S. concerns the dispute was hampering the fight against terrorism in North Africa, where al Qaeda is active.
“This conflict has gone on for too long,” Rice told the council. “These ongoing strains, as well as poor relations between Morocco and Algeria, have prevented regional cooperation on urgent and emerging issues facing North Africa.”
She also called on both sides to “come to the table without preconditions” and did not specifically endorse Morocco’s autonomy plan, leaving France the only country on the council to do so.
Polisario, which accuses Morocco of human rights violations in Western Sahara, has been pushing for rights monitoring to be included in the mandate of the U.N. mission, known as MINURSO. Morocco says that is unnecessary.
Thursday’s resolution made no changes to MINURSO’s mandate, but Polisario scored a small victory when the resolution referred to “the importance of making progress on the human dimension of the conflict.”
Diplomats said France initially resisted the word “human,” preferring “humanitarian.”
But Polisario’s U.N. representative, Ahmed Boukhari, expressed disappointment with the resolution. “We were waiting for more engagement of the Security Council on the question of human rights,” he told Reuters.
Editing by Peter Cooney