Brazilian Air Force Observers Monitor Ceasefire in Western Sahara
By Kaiser Konrad/Diálogo November 17, 2017The Western Sahara conflict dates back to the 1950s, when the Kingdom of Morocco gained independence. Soon after, Morocco claimed sovereignty over an area south of its border under a Spanish protectorate. The indigenous Sahrawi (from the Arabic for “people of the Sahara”) population, who acclaimed their independence from Spain, rejected Morocco’s claim—a lengthy conflict ensued. In 1991, the United Nations (UN) established the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to bring an end to the conflict between Moroccans and Sahrawis.
To fulfill the mission’s mandate, military observers monitor compliance of military agreements established between both parties and MINURSO, which guarantees the ceasefire. Those agreements define the following areas: the berm (a 1,600-kilometer-long wall of sand that separates parties to the conflict), the buffer strip (a 5-kilometer-wide area east of the berm that runs along its entire length), the restricted area (a 30-kilometer-long area on each side of the berm), and the area of limited restrictions (the rest of the territory administered by both parties to the conflict). The UN agreements also define authorizations and prohibitions for both parties involved.
In 2008, the Brazilian Air Force (FAB, per its Portuguese acronym) sent its first officer to act as a military observer in MINURSO. As of 2017, the Brazilian contingent in MINURSO consists of 10 officers—seven from the Army, two from the Air Force, and one from the Navy.
Military observers conduct daily ground patrols consisting of two vehicles with two observers of different nationalities in each. They cross the desert to visit military units or inspect routes, areas, and checkpoints. Eventually, patrols monitor the destruction of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), or escort UN logistics convoys. In addition, they carry out flyover reconnaissance missions aboard helicopters and monitor compliance to the status quo.
FAB Major Júlio Cesar do Amaral, Jr. is in Western Sahara as one of the FAB’s military observers in MINURSO. According to him, the operation has nine team sites (TS) on both sides of the conflict. “Each TS is a small isolated garrison with 15 to 20 service members of various nationalities with an area of responsibility and operations,” Maj. Júlio Cesar said.
Brazilian service members deployed as follows: two at TS Smara, two at TS Awsard, two at TS Mehaires, one at TS Mahbas, and three at the mission’s headquarters (HQ) in Laayoune. “This is not a fixed distribution. As a service member approaches six months on the mission, he is sent to another TS or to HQ,” he said.
In MINURSO, English is the official language and is used in all documents exchanged between the TS and HQ. “With that said, the official language of the warring parties is not English—Moroccans speak Arabic and French, and Sahrawis speak Arabic and Spanish. Despite communication differences, all TS have military observers who speak at least one of these languages to act as translators in more specific activities or process official documents between the warring parties and the TS,” Maj. Júlio Cesar said.
“The increased news coverage on rising extremism on the African continent makes security for the mission’s members our greatest challenge,” Maj. Júlio Cesar added. “As such, MINURSO has invested and taken all necessary measures to mitigate risks and protect its members.”
Brazil began its collaboration with the UN in 1957, when it sent Brazilian Army personnel to join Blue Helmets in the Suez Canal. “It’s an honor and a great responsibility for FAB to contribute to the work of UN in support of world peace by providing our officers to act as military observers. The professional growth the service member gains through this mission is evident and reflects directly in the growth of this force. This mission involves participating in a real-world conflict situation—stabilized conflict but risks still exist—and planning is necessary for operations and logistic support because Team Sites are mostly isolated in the middle of the desert,” Maj. Júlio Cesar said.
In MINURSO, military observers have the opportunity to work with officers from every continent—some of whom have been in other combat (UN/NATO) missions. The experience allows service members to share and learn from one another. In all, 35 nations provide from one to 20 officers as military observers for MINURSO. Countries with the largest contingents are Egypt, Pakistan, Honduras, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, and Croatia.