The African Union’s envoy for Western Sahara warned at the United Nations on Tuesday that the conflict in the disputed north African territory could re-ignite again unless steps are taken to find a settlement.
Mozambique’s former president Joaquim Chissano spoke at a special Security Council meeting just days before the 15-member council is to vote on renewing the mandate of the UN peace mission in Western Sahara.
The council has been divided over how to salvage the MINURSO mission after Morocco expelled 84 staffers in retaliation for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s use of the term “occupation” to describe Western Sahara.
“Western Sahara may be seen as a small problem, but let us not forget that a spark can put a forest on fire,” Chissano told the gathering.
The former president said he was “dismayed” by the crisis that erupted over Ban’s visit to the region and criticized Morocco’s decision to cut staff from the UN peace mission.
MINURSO was established in 1991 after a ceasefire ended a war that broke out when Morocco sent troops to the former Spanish territory in 1975.
Chissano pushed for a greater role for the African Union in the search for a settlement, a proposal steadfastly rejected by Morocco which views the AU as partial because of its recognition of Western Sahara.
Morocco maintains that Western Sahara is an integral part of its kingdom despite a UN resolution that tasks MINURSO with organizing a referendum on the future of the territory.
Sahrawis have long campaigned for the right to self-determination and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a full member of the African Union.
“We must give the people of Western Sahara the opportunity of choosing freely their destiny. The solution to the conflict is the holding a of referendum on the self-determination for the Sahrawi people,” said Chissano.
The ex-president, who has been AU envoy for Western Sahara since 2014, also warned UN member-states against signing trade agreements with Morocco that include resources in Western Sahara.
The European Court of Justice in December struck down a European Union farm deal with Morocco because it included the Western Sahara territory.
The Security Council meeting was organized by Angola and Venezuela, which have backed calls for a settlement.
Morocco has received support from France, Spain, Egypt and Senegal in its dispute over the fate of the mission.