It is time for the US to re-evaluate its current strategy in helping resolve the Western Sahara. Frustration is building within the Territory and the refugee camps in Algeria.
On 22 November 2013, King Mohammed VI of Morocco visited Washington, DC for his first meeting ever with President Obama. The visit followed a difficult and awkward interaction between the two countries in the UN Security Council in April 2013. At that time, without any warning, the US proposed that the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), created in 1991 to organize a referendum of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, be given by the Council a formal mandate of human rights monitoring in the territory. The US was persuaded to do so by the Polisario Front, a Western Sahara grown liberation movement recognized by the UN as the other party to the conflict with Morocco over Western Sahara.
This surprising proposal by the US, without any prior consultation with any member of the Security Council, brought about a quick and angry reaction by Morocco which denounced such a move, called it an affront to its sovereignty and cancelled planned joint military exercises with the US. No other member of the Council responded favorably, being taken aback by the US decision. At the end, the US dropped any reference to human rights monitoring from the resolution authorizing an extension of MINURSO’s mandate for another year.
The visit by Mohammed VI to the US was seen by observers of the relations between the two as a test of Moroccan assertiveness to remind the US of Morocco’s importance in US policy in North Africa, the Middle East and counter-terrorism. The joint statement by the two leaders did not disappoint Morocco and its supporters. Very favorable reviews and support were given by the White House to Morocco’s “democratic and economic reforms”; the economic and security cooperation between the two countries was stressed and hailed as was the educational and cultural cooperation. Cooperation on regional security and counterterrorism was emphasized and Morocco’s important role in Africa and the Middle East was singled out.
The Western Sahara conflict
The key issue in the statement for Morocco was praise by the US administration for Morocco’s autonomy proposal for Western Sahara which was called “serious, realistic and credible” representing “a potential approach that could satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity”. This was the first time that a US administration would take such a clear and unambiguous position on the Moroccan proposal at such a level. Following the joint US-Morocco statement, the Moroccan press claimed new gains for Moroccan diplomacy and signaled further determination by Morocco to remain within its stated position with regard to the resolution of the conflict.
It is not clear whether the Administration was aware when it called the Moroccan autonomy offer “serious, realistic and credible” that it all but ensured continuation of the current impasse within the UN on efforts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. Morocco is an important ally of the US with a long history of mutual support and cooperation. However, the history of this particular conflict shows that while always a reliable friend of Morocco, the US has been more instrumental in making progress to resolve the conflict when it acts as an honest broker. When the US abandoned this role in April 2004, Morocco’s stance became harder and the current impasse ensued.
The US administration’s pronouncement on the Moroccan proposal is bound to be problematic for Algeria also, one of the two neighboring countries to the conflict, whose support is deemed essential in helping resolve it. Through this role and by virtue of its unfailing support for Polisario and the principle of self-determination, Algeria is in the position to facilitate or impede any solution to the conflict.
The conflict over Western Sahara has been existential for Morocco since 1975 when then King Hassan II, in an effort to quell internal unrest following two military coups to overthrow him, annexed the territory. Following the fighting that ensued with the Polisario Front, he was persuaded to accept in 1990 a UN sponsored Settlement Plan that would result in the holding of a referendum of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara with options of integration with Morocco or independence. Although he accepted the Settlement-Plan, Hassan II never hid his intention for a “confirmative” for Morocco referendum that would integrate the territory to Morocco and he did his best to achieve this.
Nevertheless, in the 22 years since the Security Council assumed in April 1991 responsibility to peacefully resolve the conflict through the referendum, both the Council and the UN Secretariat, responsible for implementing the Settlement Plan, pretended that Morocco acted in good faith in its claims of cooperation with the UN. The Polisario Front, with strong support from Algeria, also worked to achieve independence for Western Sahara, its desired outcome.
Throughout the 10 years that the UN was actively trying to implement the Plan and hold the referendum, both sides blocked whatever they saw as detrimental to their preferred outcome in the referendum. In early 2000, it became clear that the UN could not hold the referendum which was slipping into the far future. The search for a mutually acceptable political solution that would allow for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara started, under the mediation efforts of former US Secretary of State James, A. Baker, III, appointed as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara.
Both the Security Council and the Secretariat have allowed acts of impunity blocking efforts to a solution by both sides, showing an inability or unwillingness to take a firm position. For members of the Security Council, especially France and more subtly the US, both key allies of Morocco, the reasons have been bilateral concerns that took priority over resolution of the conflict. For different Secretaries-General and the Secretariat the reason has been a misplaced sense of responsibility to remain engaged in a situation going from one impasse to the next, caused by one party or the other.
This continues being the case at present, with little indication that anything will change, despite stated intentions by the current Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General, Christopher Ross, to change his approach of holding face to face meetings with the two parties where both have refused to engage in serious negotiations. As he informed the Security Council after recently visiting the region, he intends to talk to each party separately and focus on elements that will respond to the two central aspects of the Council’s guidance: the substance of a political solution and the means of determining the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.
Both parties’ bottom-line interests would have to be addressed and satisfied but they should recognize that neither would obtain everything it seeks. Morocco voiced unease about discussions outside the framework of the proposal that Morocco submitted to the UN in April 2007 offering autonomy to Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty which Morocco feels that the Council recognized as superior to that submitted by Polisario. The Polisario confirmed its readiness to participate in the new approach while also insisting that any negotiated solution must respect the inalienable right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination through a three-option referendum.
If history is any guide, it appears unlikely that the Personal Envoy will find a receptive audience to discuss needed compromises to find a mutually agreed political solution to the conflict. This can continue indefinitely with dire implications for all concerned given the recent geo-political and societal developments in North Africa.
Throughout the time of its engagement with the UN, Morocco has demonstrated no strategy to resolve the conflict other than obstinacy in its claims of sovereignty and reliance on its allies in the Security Council to come to the rescue when the going gets tough. When the Settlement Plan was in effect, Morocco bullied MINURSO to register the majority of Moroccan sponsored applicants on the assumption that the final voting numbers for the referendum would ensure a Moroccan victory. When the preliminary numbers of registered Moroccan voters showed that a clear and overwhelming victory could not be assured, Morocco started talking about autonomy, albeit within Morocco’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Morocco failed to propose anything that Baker could present to Polisario and Algeria. After his attempts to help the parties find a mutual acceptable political solution, as requested by the Council did not succeed, he prepared the Peace Plan for the Self-determination for the People of Western Sahara. The Peace Plan foresaw a 4-year autonomy period and a referendum of self-determination with options of integration, independence or continuing autonomy.
In July 2003, the US strongly supported the Baker Peace Plan and worked hard to ensure unanimous acceptance by the Security Council which even France reluctantly accepted. However Morocco, after unsuccessful attempts in the winter of 2003 to present privately to the US and then to Baker an autonomy proposal, it rejected the Peace Plan in April 2004. At that point, the US weakened its support for the Peace Plan and waited for Morocco to come up with its own autonomy proposal.
The White House statement is not likely to help the Personal Envoy in his new efforts to seek compromises from both parties, as it will make Morocco more obstinate in its position. The statement appears based on those made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 and 2012 during joint appearances with the Foreign Minister of Morocco, when she called the Moroccan proposal serious, realistic and credible. In March 2011 she went as far as to claim, erroneously, that the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations believed that Morocco’s autonomy plan was serious, realistic and credible, representing a potential approach to satisfy the aspirations of the people in the Western Sahara to run their own affairs in peace and dignity. In 2012 she called the US policy on the issue “constant”.
These statements by the former Secretary of State ignored important facts. The Clinton Administration completely backed Baker’s efforts to resolve the conflict in a manner consistent with international law and in accordance with the principle of self-determination. Progress was made at that time. As for the Bush administration, it was instrumental in achieving unanimous support by the Security Council for the Peace Plan.
Secondly, the Moroccan proposal did not appear until April 2007 which precludes the possibility of its having been supported by the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Furthermore, Secretary Clinton ignored that as revealed through Wikileaks, internal State Department communications indicated that the US, France, the UK, Spain and Germany were skeptical of the proposal when Morocco presented it to them in March 2007. However responding to Morocco’s insistence they advised Morocco to submit the proposal to the UN and at the suggestion of France they persuaded the Security Council to call the proposal serious and credible.
Both parties have been obstructionist, blocking at different times solutions to the conflict that did not meet their preferred outcome. However, after rejecting the Baker Peace Plan in April 2004 and submitting three years later its own proposal for autonomy of Western Sahara within Moroccan sovereignty, Morocco has blocked all attempts for any other solution that could be accepted by Polisario and Algeria. The US and France, allow this to continue despite their private misgivings of the Moroccan proposal and the fact that neither has or ever will recognize the so-called “sovereignty” of Morocco over Western Sahara, a key precondition in the Moroccan autonomy offer.
The Moroccan autonomy offer focuses on Morocco’s decentralization plan for all regions and stresses Morocco’s view that Western Sahara is no different to other regions. It ignores that any solution for Western Sahara, autonomy or otherwise, must meet international norms and not only internal Moroccan concerns. It also ignores the fact that Algeria, key to the resolution of the conflict, must also find the solution acceptable. This is not because, as Morocco claims, the real conflict is with Algeria and not with the “separatists” as it calls Polisario, but because Algeria’s stance complies with international principles despite its own deteriorating internal political and socio-economic situation.
The US is concerned with developments in North Africa and realizes that cooperation with all countries in the region is essential. Given the turmoil in the Maghreb, all states deserve due importance and no state’s role or cooperation should be taken for granted. His planned first visit to Algeria and Morocco in November 2013 having been postponed, it is expected that Secretary of State Kerry will visit both countries in early 2014. Following the unambiguous support by the Administration of the Moroccan proposal, there will no doubt be some awkward discussions with his Algerian interlocutors.
The US has a precarious line to follow between Algeria and Morocco. Acceding to either country’s view on Western Sahara can cost the administration leverage with the other side, a counterproductive move at a time when there are gains to be made on security cooperation. Will the Secretary be able to step back somewhat from the White House statement and stress to both partners that the US expects real cooperation and compromise in their work with Ross? He should, if the administration wants to work with both to identify relative strengths and security priorities in their cooperation with the US.
It is time for the US to re-evaluate its current strategy in helping resolve the Western Sahara conflict through objectivity and by taking a wider view of its interests in North Africa. Allowing frustration to keep building within the Territory and the refugee camps in Algeria, especially among the young, while Morocco is lulled into pursuing its unimaginative strategy of strengthening the security apparatus is not helping resolve the conflict or US interests at large in North Africa.
Anna Theofilopoulou political analyst and writer, covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations from 1994-2006. She worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III and was a member of his negotiating team throughout his appointment as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara from March 1997 until his resignation in June 2004.
Previous articles in The Global Dispatches by Anna Theofilopoulou
Western Sahara – 1 February, 2011
Western Sahara – hope for change? 20 May 2011 (update)
Western Sahara and the UN – 22 years later – March 31 2013