Misión de las Naciones Unidas para el referéndum del Sàhara Occidental - PYTHON

International Information

International Operation Name: Misión de las Naciones Unidas para el referéndum del Sàhara Occidental

International Mission Name: Misión de las Naciones Unidas para el referéndum del Sàhara Occidental (MINURSO)

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name: Africa

Location: Western Sahara

Mission Date: 29 April 1991 - Present

Mission Mandate: Security Council Resolution 690 of 29 April 1991 established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The mission supported "the settlement proposals", accepted on 30 August 1988 by Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO). MINURSO was mandated to:

  • Monitor the ceasefire;
  • Verify the reduction of Moroccan troops in the Territory;
  • Monitor the confinement of Moroccan and Frente POLISARIO troops to designated locations;
  • Take steps with the parties to ensure the release of all Western Saharan political prisoners or detainees;
  • Oversee the exchange of prisoners of war (International Committee of the Red Cross);
  • Implement the repatriation programme (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees);
  • Identify and register qualified voters;
  • Organize and ensure a free and fair referendum and proclaim the results.

Mission/Operation Notes: The nominal state of Western Sahara is situated on the Atlantic coast of Africa, between Morocco and Mauritania. Until 1975, Spain administered the territory despite United Nations General Assembly declarations of the right of its people to self-determination. In 1975, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania reached an agreement allowing Spain to withdraw from Western Sahara, a withdrawal that was completed by 26 February 1976. A temporary government would be created with the participation of the Jema’a, a local assembly created by Spain in 1967. In April 1976, Morocco and Mauritania reached an agreement, with Jema’a approval, that would cede the northern two-thirds of the territory to Morocco and the southern third to Mauritania. This agreement was not universally acclaimed.

The Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Polisario Front) had been created in May 1973 as a voice for the people of Western Sahara, although it did not represent them all. The Polisario Front objected to the April 1976 agreement and began guerrilla operations to support their claim that, not being democratically elected, the Jema’a could not and did not speak for the people of Western Sahara. From secure bases in Algeria, the Polisario Front raided Mauritanian and Moroccan installations before retreating to the safety of Algerian territory. By 1979, the Polisario Front had reached an agreement with Mauritania that saw the latter renounce all claims to Western Sahara. Moroccan troops meanwhile moved into the southern third of the territory, where they increasingly came into conflict with the Polisario Front.

At its 1979 summit, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) called for a referendum in Western Sahara to allow the people of the territory the right to self determination. The King of Morocco agreed to the proposal in 1981; however, it was not until 1988 that Morocco and the Polisario Front reached any form of agreement. On 30 August, both parties agreed in principle to “the settlement proposals” that stipulated a cease-fire and a referendum to allow the people of Western Sahara the right to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. In September 1988 the Security Council approved the creation of a special representative; however it was not until June 1990 that an agreement on the implementation of the “settlement proposals” was reached.

The proposals called for the UN Special Representative to have full control over the referendum and to be assisted by UN civilian, military and civilian police personnel. The civilian component would comprise between 800 to 1000 personnel, the military 1,700 and the civilian police 300 officers. The transition period would start with a cease-fire and end with the declaration of the referendum results. For the cease-fire, Morocco would reduce its military forces to 65,000 in Western Sahara, while troops of both forces would be confined to designated areas. Political prisoners would then be released, prisoners of war exchanged and a repatriation program initiated. Eligible voters would be identified prior to the referendum, which would be organized and run by the UN. The Security Council approved this plan through resolution 690 on 21 April 1991, thus creating the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). The whole mission was expected to last no more than 26 weeks, of which 20 would be of the transitional period.

The first force commander was Major-General Armand Roy, from Canada, who remained in that post until April 1992. His mission began under a cloud when fighting broke out before the formal cease-fire was to come into effect, but in the end it was in effect on 6 September. MINURSO military forces were in place, and by 20 September six observation posts had been manned. Given less than perfect compliance with the cease-fire - and continuing difficulties in brokering an agreement regarding the exchange of prisoners of war, four other posts were subsequently established and the number of UNMOs was increased from 100 to 228. However, the infantry battalion meant to escort refugees back into the Western Sahara never deployed.

With a cease-fire restored, the next stumbling block was the eligibility of voters. The Polisario Front contended that only individuals registered in the 1974 had the right to vote. Morocco, which had resettled citizens into Western Sahara, held a more liberal interpretation of who could vote, although they accepted the criteria enunciated by the UN Secretary-General in December 1991. Not until November 1993 was an agreement reached, although the Polisario Front’s agreement was tentative at best. The voter identification and registration process did not begin until 28 August 1994.

With UN civilian personnel registering voters, it appeared on the surface that MINURSO was finally making progress with the two sides. This was not to be. Both Morocco and the Polisario Front attempted to make the registration process more favourable to themselves. By November 1995, over 233,000 persons had been processed; however another 157,000 applicants remained when the two sides reached an impasse that MINURSO could not break.

The Security Council accordingly reduced the size of all three of MINURSO’s components, but it continues to extend MINURSO’s mandate, likely in the hope that an agreement will be reached.

Canadian Forces (CF) Information (PYTHON)


Date: 29 April 1991 - 29 June 1994

CF Mission/Operation Notes: On 12 July 1991, the UN Secretary-General formally requested that Canada provide an infantry battalion, a movement control unit of twenty personnel and five officers to fill various key positions in the headquarters. According to the original MINURSO plans, their expected length of deployment was six months. A warning order for Operation PYTHON was issued that day.

Due to changes in the situation in the Western Sahara, Canada added twenty-two military police, eight headquarters orderly room staff, and one colonel (as a liaison officer to Algeria) to its contingent, and substituted eleven UNMOs for the five staff officers originally committed. The infantry battalion selected for Op PYTHON was the Canadian Airborne Regiment, who were scheduled to deploy and be operationally ready by 1 November and then remain in theatre for four months. Their tasks were to include monitoring and patrolling in support of the UNMOs, manning three entry points along the border with Algeria, and providing security for the repatriation of refugees and at MINURSO headquarters and refugee reception centres. However, because of delays in implementing the agreement proposals they never deployed and instead remained on standby until February 1992.

Fourteen Canadians were deployed in early September, arriving in Western Sahara on the 5th. These included the headquarters staff and UNMOs. They were soon joined by two Canadian military engineers employed by UN headquarters in New York. By 6 September, two of the Canadian UNMOs had deployed on observer teams. Other personnel for the headquarters, movement control unit and UNMOs followed rapidly, and by the end of December 1991, the Canadian Contingent MINURSO reached its maximum deployed strength of thirty four. Eleven were UNMOs, nine served in movement control, thirteen in MINURSO headquarters as staff and one liaison officer in Tindouf, Algeria.

The first rotation of personnel, which saw the UNMO tour length increase to one year, began in April 1992. Five of the Canadians already in Western Sahara indicated that they would be happy to extend their tour, and their offer was accepted. Another three personnel were extended due to their positions within MINURSO. Further rotations occurred in September 1992, March 1993, and October 1993, but lack of progress and commitment by the interested parties led Canada to withdraw its military personnel from MINURSO at the end of June 1994.

Overall, about 120 CF personnel served in MINURSO.

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