The author of a key legal ruling on Western Sahara mineral exploitation, Hans Corell, has condemned ongoing oil exploration in the disputed territory as illegal, and urged action from the UN Security Council.

Speaking to MEED, the former UN legal counsel said the contracts signed between Morocco and the US oil company Kosmos Energy, as part of the current drilling programme, have violated the principles of international law that apply to countries yet to complete the decolonialisation process.

The current exploration programme, which saw drilling start on 19 December, has ramped up tensions between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Saharawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front.

Polisario leaders have warned they may restart hostilities, ending a 23-year-old ceasefire, if the UN does not put more pressure on Morocco over the drilling.

Action from the UN is unlikely. Over recent years, the UN has shown increasing reluctance to push Morocco over the Western Sahara, despite the kingdom defying the organisation on a number of issues, including refusing to allow its special representative for the territory to step foot in the country.

Analysts say that Security Council nations such as the US and France are reluctant to give support to the Polisario due to concerns that the creation of a new country the size of Britain in North Africa will create further instability in an already troubled region.

These concerns are valid, but inaction may not be the best strategy. Since war broke out in 1975, a whole generation of disenfranchised young men has grown up as refugees in the Tindouf Saharawi refugee camps. They have little to lose and lost homeland to fight for.

If the UN turns a blind eye to oil drilling that is found to fly in the face of international law, it could undermine regional stability as well as its own authority.