The rise of instability and insecurity in and around the Sahel region in West Africa requires an urgent settlement of the decades-old dispute over the Western Sahara, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said in a report.
The UN chief said the failure to resolve the conflict is hindering greater integration in the Maghreb "which is needed now more than ever". He cited serious concern in the region over the possible spillover of the conflict in Mali.
Morocco has proposed wide-ranging autonomy for mineral-rich Western Sahara, which it took over in 1979 when Mauritania pulled out. But the Polisario Front, the pro-independence nationalist movement, insists on the "inalienable right" of the people of the former Spanish colony to self-determination through a referendum on the territory's future.
Neither side has budged from its position, and sporadic talks have ended in stalemate. Mr Ban urged both sides to engage in "genuine negotiations", which means recognising that they will not obtain all their demands.
The secretary-general said his personal envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, intends to hold separate discussions with Morocco and the Polisario Front "with the goal of helping them design the contours of an acceptable compromise". He said this could lead to a period of shuttle diplomacy and a face-to-face meeting between the two sides, depending on the results.
He said Mr Ross also will continue to encourage further improvements in the relations between Morocco and Algeria, which backs the Polisario Front's demand for the people of Western Sahara to decide for themselves whether to be independent or be subject to Morocco's rule.
The exchange of ministerial visits between the two countries has led to greater communication, Mr Ban said, "but much more remains to be done" to improve relations and obtain the benefits from an opening of their border. "The Western Sahara conflict has long been a matter of disunity within the international community, but the rise of instability and insecurity in and around the Sahel requires an urgent settlement of this long-standing dispute." Mr Ban stressed "the critical importance of addressing the Western Sahara conflict as part of a broader strategy for the Sahel".
The secretary-general said the issue of human rights remains important for resolving the conflict. He cited continuing reports of rights violations affecting Western Sahara both in refugee camps for Saharans in Tindouf and Morocco's alleged violations of the right to a fair trial as well as allegations of torture and denial of freedom of expression.
"Given ongoing reports of human rights violations, the need for independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human rights situations in both Western Sahara and the camps becomes ever more pressing," he said.
The UN observer mission in the Western Sahara currently has 183 military observers, 26 troops, and six civilian police. Mr Ban recommended an increase of 15 military observers and six police and recommended that the mission be extended until April 30 2014. The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold closed consultations on Western Sahara on April 22 and to vote on an extension on April 25.