The African Union (AU) has called on the United Nations Security Council to set a date for the self-determination referendum for the Western Sahara while deploring a decision by Morocco to expel dozens of civilian personnel from the UN Mission there.

The AU Special Envoy for the region, former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano, made the call Wednesday when briefing an informal gathering of the Council ahead of formal meetings later this week as the Council deliberates on the renewal of the mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) before it expires this week.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month warned that the conflict in Western Sahara was in danger of resuming and called for the Council to renew the Mission’s mandate for a year.

Chissano was last year blocked from presenting the AU’s position at a formal meeting of the Security Council, a moment not lost on Council members Angola and Venezuela which called for the ARRIA-formula (named after Ambassador Diego Arria of Venezuela) meeting which allows for an informal exchange of views outside of the Council chamber.

Venezuala’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Rafael Ramirez, said: “We have had to convene this meeting under this format because it was not possible that the Security Council listens and receives the Special Envoy of the AU, President Chissano, in formal meeting on this issue; that’s grave, even more when the AU that is comprised of more than half of the UN, it’s a fundamental part in solving this issue as established in the resolutions of the council.”

President Chissano told a room packed with diplomats that the AU was dismayed with Morocco’s action in the region and urged countries to desist from entering into agreements with the Kingdom which violated the Saharawi people’s sovereignty over their natural resources.

“The AU deplores the decision of Morocco. The decision (is a show of) disrespect to the UN and the UN Secretary-General as well as to the UN Security Council, constitutes a very dangerous precedent in that it challenges and undermines the mandate of the UN Security Council in maintaining international peace and security. If Morocco does so, this cannot prevent other countries to unilaterally decide on the UN Security Council-related missions.”

Morocco expelled the UN staff, calling the decision irreversible, after Ban referred to Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara as an “occupation”.

Chissano believes Africa must be given a greater role to play in resolving the decades-long dispute over the Western Sahara, a territory previously ruled by Spain.

“Africa — and that’s why I’m here — has a moral and political responsibility to find a solution to conflicts in the continent. As the conflict is in Africa and involving Africans, our continent must play a critical role in those efforts as it has been the case in every other conflict in the continent. Yes, this issue is in the hands of the Security Council but all the other cases have been in the hands of the SC, but Africa never was impeded of interacting with the Security Council exchanging views, even advancing proposals.”

The United States Permanent Mission’s Political Co-ordinator, Christopher Klein, said Washington supported de-escalation of the situation between Morocco and the UN and repeated concerns that the UN Mission was unable to fulfill its mandate without a full staff complement.

“The Security Council should not accept a situation where a country expels staff from a UN peacekeeping mission, Western Sahara is no exception.”

The Security Council was expected to meet behind closed doors on MINURSO’s mandate renewal later on Wednesday; a vote which must take place before the end of the month.