Western Sahara: hope for change?

By Anna Theofilopoulou, May 20, 2011

UN soldiers on a mission to Western Sahara

UN soldiers on a mission to Western Sahara

April 2011 marked the 20th anniversary since the U.N. assumed responsibility to resolve the conflict in Western Sahara. There have been scant results so far with no hope of an early resolution. The 'Arab Spring' offers some opportunities for progress. Will the Council and 'Friends' take them?

This article by Anna Theofilopoulou is an update of her detailed article on the Western Sahara question published in The Global Dispatches on 1 February 2011, click here for the original article

April 2011 marked the 20th anniversary since the UN Security Council took up the conflict over Western Sahara in April 1991 as an issue of peace and security and accepted the responsibility of trying to resolve it by creating the UN Mission for a Referendum on Western Sahara (MINURSO) to organize a referendum of self-determination. At the end of April, the Council adopted another resolution extending MINURSO’s mandate for another year.

The key language of the resolution remains the same as that in resolution 1754 of April 2007, calling on the parties, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, to continue to show political will and work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations. The Council also calls upon the parties to continue negotiations without preconditions and in good faith, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Basically the Council asks the parties to continue doing something that they have not done so far, as no real negotiations have taken place since 2007 and there has been no good faith or political will to resolve the conflict, especially on Morocco’s side.

What is new in the resolution is a call upon the parties to pay attention to the ideas of paragraph 120 of the recent report by the Secretary-General, where there is a suggestion that the Council recommend three initiatives to the parties. But in its usual manner of never taking a bold stance and never asking the parties to engage in some serious compromise, the Security Council asks the parties to “pay attention” to these initiatives.

As the Secretary-General admits in his April 2011 report, four years since the adoption of resolution 1754 that asked the parties to agree on a mutual acceptable political solution that would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara under the auspices of the UN and after ten sets of meetings between the parties, the process remains deadlocked. In reality the process remains deadlocked 20 years after the Security Council put the conflict in its agenda and seven years after James Baker, the first Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara, resigned. In his letter of resignation, Mr. Baker informed the Secretary-General that the UN would not resolve the Western Sahara conflict without asking both parties to undertake actions that they would not voluntarily agree to. And as it turns out, neither side has accepted the proposal of the other party as the sole basis of negotiations and neither side has taken any steps to suggest willingness to compromise although Polisario has suggested that both proposals be put on the table. The parties appear to agree only that they will continue meeting but even though they said that they were willing to devote future meetings on innovative approaches and other subjects, the Secretary-General admits that they both appear attached to the essence of their proposals.

The Secretary-General further admits that a total lack of trust continues to haunt the negotiating process and each party harbors deep suspicions of the other. Morocco is concerned that Polisario is attempting to steer the talks to the Baker Peace Plan and to present the international community with the conclusion that no significant progress has been made on the core issues. As for Polisario, it is concerned that Morocco is exploiting the exploration of innovative approaches in order to divert talks from the April 2007 proposals and to present the international community with the appearance of progress in the lead up to the renewal of MINURSO’s mandate.

Nevertheless, the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy appear determined to press on and to hold more informal talks. The three initiatives that they have asked the Council to recommend to the parties are: (a) to include representatives of the Sahara population inside and outside the Territory in the discussions (b) to examine more deeply each other’s proposals and seek common ground on a key point of convergence in the proposals, the need to obtain approval of the population for any agreement and © that the parties devote additional energy in identifying and discussing a wide range of governance issues with a view of meeting the needs of the people of Western Sahara.

Good and sound suggestions, which the Council in its resolution asks the parties to devote attention to. However given the parties behavior since April 2007, are we to believe that they will modify their positions after the last resolution, which in its essence is a repeat of 1754?

As has become clear, resolution 1754 will never really resolve the conflict. Events up to date support this claim. And the reasons can be found in the wording of the resolution, the Council’s abandonment of the Baker Peace Plan and the state of affairs surrounding the situation.

Firstly, the resolution does not elaborate on the meaning of “negotiations without preconditions”; or the Council’s expectations of what should be negotiated. As a result, each party has interpreted it differently and each proceeded to advocate and stay with its own position during the sessions. Secondly, the call to work toward a mutually acceptable political solution, which implies a compromise satisfying both parties, appears contradictory to the concept of self-determination through choice by the people. Moreover, the Council’s call for self-determination overlooks Morocco’s claim of “sovereignty” in its offer of autonomy. Neither Polisario nor any government have accepted such claim. Finally, Morocco feels its proposal is more widely accepted since the resolution welcomed it as “serious and credible”. For Polisario, all that matters is that both proposals are on the table and insists that both ought to be discussed.

The Baker Peace Plan, which was unanimously supported by the Security Council in July 2003, has been the closest the United Nations has ever come to resolving the conflict. The Peace Plan was accepted by the Polisario Front and supported by Algeria, but it was rejected by Morocco in April 2004 on the grounds that the autonomy period could only be final and not transitional. Most importantly, the option of independence was ruled out by Morocco which always invokes its sovereignty and territorial integrity when referring to Western Sahara.

The Baker Peace Plan is in fact the political solution that the Security Council has been asking for. The mutually acceptable part will be achieved through negotiations that will involve give and take from both sides. The Security Council did not have to look far for such a solution.

However, after the Security Council abandoned the Baker Peace Plan, neither the Council as a whole, nor individual states within or outside the Council have engaged into real thinking and soul searching. If they had, they would have admitted that both sides have stood firm by their same positions since Mr. Baker resigned. Morocco does not accept any solution that would include a referendum with independence as an option; for Polisario, an act of self-determination must include such an option. So far, neither the Security Council nor individual states with influence on one or the other side seem willing to pressure them to make some concessions to meet the concerns of the other side and find a solution.

Rather, the Council has ignored reality and has repeated the language of 1754 in all its subsequent resolutions up to April 2011. As for individual states, each praises the position of their protégé. Somehow, the majority seems to think that keeping the process going and having meetings where nothing resembling negotiations takes place will result in a miracle that will resolve the problem.

What is to be done?

The violent events of November 2010 in Western Sahara itself first and later in the rest of the Arab world are showing that the time for complacency needs to end. Key countries and supporters of both parties should ask themselves whether the time is not ripe to stop paying lip service to the need for a solution while perpetuating the impasse and actually work for a feasible solution.

As recent events have shown, no doubt there is danger of terrorism in Morocco as in the rest of North Africa. Both sides are using the general state of unrest, especially the mild (so far) demonstrations in Morocco, to their advantage. Morocco uses the sense of uncertainty and fear of turmoil and unrest in the Arab world to point to its own indispensability for stability in North Africa in order to prevent the spread of militant Islamism. As for Polisario, it points to the tolerance by the Western states of the pervasive political and economic oppression and corruption of which they were aware by the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes which resulted in their downfall. It argues that something similar could happen in Morocco pointing also at the inconsistency by the West but especially by France, toward Libya where military action has been taken to protect the human rights of the population from their own government.

Similarly, any objective political observer can also point to the Western states’ eager acceptance of a referendum of self-determination in both Kosovo and Southern Sudan and their recognition of independence in both those cases, but not for Western Sahara. One could call this “realpolitik” and point out that “realpolitik” does not engage in idealism or ideology and principles, but I would argue that consistency and standing by principles should be an essential component of “realpolitik”.

A big question arises about how internal unrest in Morocco might affect its strategy toward Western Sahara. In one scenario, Morocco could use Western Sahara as an excuse for continuing to divert resources and attention toward that conflict and continue to use it as a patriotic rallying point for all Moroccans. This means that Morocco continues with its current inflexible stance. Alternatively, it could divert resources back to Morocco proper, addressing real development needs and stressing to disaffected Moroccans that this and real constitutional reforms will be the government’s priorities, which might give Morocco space for compromise on Western Sahara. It is hard to imagine that Morocco left on its own would choose the second option.

This only leaves the Group of Friends of Western Sahara, (France, Russia, Spain, the UK and the US) to assume a role of leadership and responsibility in the resolution of the conflict with the US and France as leaders. Regardless of the eagerness by French and US senior officials to state that they support the Moroccan autonomy proposal and to call it “serious and credible”, they know that neither they unilaterally, nor the Security Council as a whole, could ask that it be used as the sole basis for negotiating a solution to the conflict. To do so would mean that they accept Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara which would be against international law.

In the Arab world, demands by the people for constitutional reform, more education, more economic opportunities and employment and in general the demands to governments to cease and desist from business as usual are increasing and intensifying., Morocco’s supporters should acknowledge to themselves and tell Morocco as only friends can do, that Western Sahara after 35 years of irresolution has become a liability for the Kingdom. The “Arab Spring” could be an opportunity to resolve the Western Sahara conflict if used with boldness and imagination. Meaningful concessions will need to be asked of both parties and the concession will only be effective if they are addressed to both parties but especially to the stronger one. Firmness is essential in getting stubborn adversaries to cooperate and mediation can only be successful when it asks for concessions from the side it is the closest to. Only in this manner will the other side feel trust and will have no argument when asked to also compromise.

Anna Theofilopoulou 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.

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