Stubborn Stalemate in Western Sahara

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On June 11, 2004, the United Nations announced that former Secretary of State James Baker had resigned his position as the secretary-general’s personal envoy to the Western Sahara. Despite his personal prestige and the explicit backing of the US government, Baker failed to bring the Moroccan government around to his vision for resolving its almost 30-year old dispute with the Algerian-supported POLISARIO Front, a Western Saharan independence movement active since 1973. If Morocco does not agree to Baker’s most recent settlement proposal soon, the Security Council has threatened to turn the impasse over to the General Assembly come October, thereby admitting that its 16-year, $600 million effort to resolve the conflict has come to naught.

After his appointment by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1997, Baker convened numerous high-level meetings and presented two different proposals to give the Western Sahara four to five years of autonomy within the Kingdom of Morocco. The proposals also contained provisions whereby a "final status" referendum, at the end of the autonomy period, would determine whether the desert territory is to be independent or permanently integrated into Morocco. Protected by its allies France and the US from UN sanction or other penalty, Morocco has thus far refused to accept the plebiscite. Annan’s new envoy to the Western Sahara, Alvaro de Soto, inherits a stubborn stalemate that he is unlikely to break.

A REFERENDUM DEFERRED

Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since "reclaiming" the territory from Spain in November 1975. King Hassan II moved aggressively to prevent Spain — then the colonial occupier — from holding a self-determination referendum recommended by the International Court of Justice and mandated by the UN. Yet the POLISARIO, which had been fighting Spain, soon turned their guns on Moroccan troops and found strong backing from Algerian President Houari Boumedienne, who sought to check Hassan’s expansionism. A war for the Western Sahara raged until the UN got serious about resolving the dispute in the late 1980s. Based on a plan drawn up by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), the UN proposed to hold a referendum on self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara. Morocco and the POLISARIO, however, held different views on who is really a Western Saharan. The Sahrawi independence movement rejected the eligibility of thousands of Moroccan settlers introduced into the territory since 1975. From 1991 to 2000, the UN Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) attempted to verify the legitimacy of over 200,000 prospective voters, the vast majority of them presented by Morocco. The identification process ground to a halt in 1995.

In 1997, according to Marrack Goulding, former head of UN peacekeeping, Annan approached Baker to see if he could convince Hassan II and the POLISARIO to accept an alternative settlement based on autonomy for Western Sahara. Instead, Baker reconciled the parties so that MINURSO could finish its initial vetting of prospective referendum participants. MINURSO published preliminary lists of all eligible voters in late 1999 and early 2000. Morocco quickly cried foul, pointing to the fact that most of its candidates failed to pass the UN identification process, which had employed Spanish colonial records and tribal leaders from Western Sahara (chosen by both Morocco and the POLISARIO) to verify an applicant’s legitimacy. At that point, Annan pushed the Security Council to drop the referendum, arguing that the winner-take-all nature of the poll, along with the lack of an "enforcement mechanism," could lead one party simply to reject the outcome of the vote. Unconfirmed rumors have maintained that the US and France were the ones doing the pushing, aiming to protect Morocco’s newly crowned monarch, Mohammed VI, from a scenario similar to East Timor, where Indonesia was eventually forced to honor the results of a plebiscite in favor of independence.

In 2000, Annan called on Baker to resume his position as the secretary-general’s personal envoy to the Western Sahara. The former secretary of state ostensibly set out to find a way to bridge the mutually exclusive goals of Morocco and the POLISARIO. In fact, he presented a whole new endgame for the dispute, one that aimed to settle the fate of the Western Sahara once and for all.

"OPTIMUM POLITICAL SOLUTION"

The secretary-general unveiled Baker’s first Western Sahara "autonomy" proposal in 2001. Morocco’s satisfaction with the "framework agreement" was obvious; King Mohammed subsequently told Le Figaro that he had "solved" the issue. For Algeria and the POLISARIO, Baker’s proposal looked like a total sellout. Not only did the proposal offer the Western Sahara minimal autonomy, but it also gave Rabat a better chance at winning the desert territory than the original UN-OAU settlement plan had. Baker’s proposal also called for a "final status" referendum after four years of autonomy — the difference being that, under Baker’s proposal, Moroccan settlers in the Western Sahara would be able to vote. As the settlers vastly outnumber the indigenous Western Saharans, the autonomy proposal prompted a predictable backlash from supporters of independence.

In order to correct Baker’s aim, the Security Council passed Resolution 1429. The resolution specifically called on Annan and Baker to seek a solution that would uphold the Western Sahara’s right to self-determination. Baker’s second proposal paid obvious yet superficial heed to the Security Council’s wishes. Unveiled in 2003, the Peace Plan for the Self-Determination of the Western Sahara offered the Western Sahara a significant degree of self-governance and reduced the overall number of potential Moroccan settlers who could vote in the final status referendum. The secretary-general wholeheartedly endorsed the proposal, calling it an "optimum political solution" whereby both sides would get some, but not all, of what they wanted. Annan also claimed that the plan guaranteed that the "bonafide" inhabitants of the Western Sahara would be able to express their right to self-determination, as called for in Resolution 1429. It was strange enough that Morocco and the POLISARIO had been offered another paradoxical winner-take-all "compromise." But Annan also seemed intent on blurring the lines between Moroccan settlers and indigenous Western Saharans, the majority of whom are ethnic Sahrawis who speak Hassaniyya, a distinct Arabic dialect.

FLEXIBILITY VS. INTRANSIGENCE

With the second proposal, however, Baker managed to get Algeria and the POLISARIO on board. Emmhamed Khaddad, the POLISARIO’s coordinator with the UN Mission in the Western Sahara, told me in September 2003 that the second Baker proposal offered the POLISARIO a chance to prove to the world that the liberation front could govern fairly, democratically and transparently. Khaddad dismissed as an unproven assumption the notion that the final status referendum would be tilted in Morocco’s favor. Indeed, many observers did question whether Moroccan settlers would stick with Rabat in the referendum, knowing that their subsidized existence would end the day Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara gained international legitimacy. Would they, as some have suggested, choose independence in Western Sahara, where fish, phosphates, tourists and maybe even oil are plentiful?

Morocco, for its part, quickly rejected Baker’s second proposal, feeling that it would lack control over the Western Sahara during the autonomy period, and also fearing the unpredictable outcome of the final status referendum. A palpable sense of betrayal by Baker and the Bush administration, which pushed the Security Council to endorse the plan, led Rabat to adopt some of its most intransigent rhetoric in years. The Moroccan government still repeats that it will not let the international community question the status of its "Saharan provinces." Yet it is obvious, as even the secretary-general has noted, that the international community will recognize Morocco’s chance to win these "provinces" if and only if Morocco also has a measurable chance of losing the Western Sahara.

FOUNDATIONS OF STALEMATE

Morocco’s obstinacy is rooted in the fact that it has everything to lose — and not much to gain — by playing Baker’s game. Rabat is in effective control of over 70 percent of the Western Sahara, including the coast and the rich phosphate mines at Bou Craa. In recent years, Morocco has expanded its investments in the territory, including a new $42 million fishing port at Dakhla and offshore oil exploration contracts with France’s TotalFinaElf and the US-based Kerr-McGee. The only thing Morocco would have to gain by the Baker plan would be possible international legitimation of its claim to the Western Sahara. Rabat clearly does not want to take the risk.

The US and France will make sure that no undue pressure is brought to bear on King Mohammed VI, who is embroiled in his own internal war on terror. In 2003, when former US Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte (now ambassador to Iraq) tried to shove Baker’s second proposal through the Security Council, France jumped to Morocco’s defense, successfully watering down the language in the resolution "endorsing" the proposal to the blander word "support." Mohammed’s recent calls for direct negotiations with Algeria on the Western Sahara, bypassing the POLISARIO, have been taken up by Paris, with French President Jacques Chirac waiting in the wings to reconcile his country’s former Maghribi possessions. For its part, the US recently concluded a bilateral free trade agreement with Morocco and declared the North African nation a major non-NATO ally. When Washington deals with Rabat, the Saharan issue is on one track and mutual interests are on another.

Calling Morocco’s bluff on the Baker plan in mid-2003 was perhaps the only diplomatic gambit left for the POLISARIO. Without the high profile of Baker, and given the Security Council’s looming abandonment, the independence movement could be facing tough times ahead. Yet the POLISARIO and the 160,000 Western Saharan refugees under its supervision in Algeria are ready to play a waiting game as well. While the POLISARIO has suffered some political defeats, the Sahrawi refugees near Tindouf in Algeria are as dug in as their Palestinian counterparts. With remittances and overdue pensions from Spain improving living standards in the camps, along with the rise of a small economy and almost guaranteed support from the international aid community, the exiled Sahrawis can hold out for some time to come. As several refugees told me in the summer of 2003, the thought of returning to the Western Sahara with the Moroccan army and settlers still resident, if only for four years, is chilling. Some were shocked to hear that their leadership had considered this idea before it could be ratified at the refugees’ popular congress in October. Many said they would return only if the international community could guarantee their safety, although they were quick to cite the UN’s dismal performance in Rwanda and, before 1999, East Timor.

Baker’s departure, long threatened, leaves the UN efforts to achieve a rapprochement in Western Sahara without a center of gravity. If one of the most powerful players in Washington could not resolve the Western Saharan conflict, who can? The fact that Annan has assigned de Soto to the Western Sahara, while he is still devoting attention to his previous portfolio, Cyprus, indicates that the secretariat’s peacekeeping office might be stretched so thin thinking about Iraq and the Sudan that it cannot devote substantial time to the deadlocked Western Saharan issue. Since the POLISARIO’s Algerian patrons are not likely to bless a return to armed struggle by the front, a resolution might have to wait for a new generation to come of age in Rabat, Algiers and the refugee camps, or for a monumental historical event like the fall of Suharto in Indonesia. So long as would-be mediators of the Western Sahara dispute seek a winner-take-all solution, one that implicitly grants the Moroccan and POLISARIO positions equal legitimacy, is it any wonder that no progress has been made since 1975?

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