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Occupied Arab World

The elusive quest for peace in the Western Sahara

Abul Fadl

Despite the recent increase in the tempo of diplomatic activity to find a solution for the decades-long conflict in the Western Sahara, a lasting and comprehensive peace settlement remains a distant hope. On May 15, Idris al-Basri, Morocco’s interior minister, dealt a serious blow to efforts to resuscitate the moribund peace process when he declared his country’s opposition to a compromise solution based on any form of limited autonomy for the Western Sahara, the site of Africa’s longest post-colonial conflict.

The intransigent position announced by al-Basri is bound to frustrate the current efforts of James Baker, the former US secretary of State who was chosen in March by UN secretary general Kofi Annan as his personal envoy for North Africa, which aim to identify ways to secure the implementation of a long-stalled UN-sponsored peace plan. Baker, who paid an initial visit to the region in late April, is planning another trip later this month (June).

Baker’s April tour, which he described as a ‘fact-finding trip,’ took him to Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro) main rear base at Tindouf, in southwest Algeria. His meetings with the leaders of the various parties to the dispute were intended to help him formulate recommendations to the UN secretary general on whether the faltering peace plan could still be salvaged, whether adjustments acceptable to all sides could be introduced, and whether alternative ways of resolving the conflict could be found. However, Baker’s four-day-long shuttle efforts did not succeed in patching up the differences that have hitherto ground the implementation of the peace plan to a halt.

Based on the preliminary findings of Baker’s April visit, Annan submitted a report to the security council recommending a four-month extension to the mandate of the UN force in the Western Sahara, which expired on May 31. The peacekeeping force, known as the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), comprises a small contingent of military observers assisted by a support staff. It was formed in accordance with a peace plan embodied in a resolution passed by the security council on April 29, 1991.

The security council’s resolution calls for a referendum that allows the people of the Western Sahara to choose between independence, as demanded by the Algerian-backed Polisario, or incorporation into Morocco, which claims the Sahara as an integral part of its territory and whose army occupies most of its land. MINURSO is charged with overseeing the implementation of the peace plan as well as monitoring a UN-brockered ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario which has been in effect since September 1991.

Baker’s visit did not materialize in any substantive recommendations on how to jump-start stalled UN plans to hold a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara. The referendum, which was originally scheduled for January 1992, has been repeatedly postponed because of continued disagreements over voter eligibility criteria.

A major bone of contention in this long-running controversy concerns a roster of potential voters submitted by Morocco for UN identification. It lists 100,000 people living in Morocco who Rabat claims to be descendents of Sahrawi families expelled from the territory during the Spanish colonial period. As such, they were not counted in the 1974 census which put the total population at 74,000. The 1974 census was taken by the Spanish colonial authorities which ruled this thinly populated desert land south of Morocco from 1884 until February 1976.

In the early 1970s, Morocco started to put forward claims to the territory, which is rich in iron ore, phosphate deposits and fishing reserves, based on the fact that it used to be under the suzerainty of its rulers prior to the Spanish occupation. Such claims were opposed by Mauritania, the country immediately to the south of the territory, which put forward its claims to the southern parts of the Spanish colony. Moroccan and Mauritanian claims, however, ran counter to the indigenous population’s drive for independence spear-headed by Polisario which had been battling Spanish colonial rule for independence.

In 1975, Morocco attempted to attain its irredentist claims by organizing the famous al-Masirah al-Khadra’ (Green March)--a massive nonviolent march into the territory by an estimated 350,000 civilians. The Green March provided the spark for a diplomatic process that culminated in the Madrid Accords--a tripartite agreement between Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed in November 1975. The Accords envisioned the evacuation of the Spanish forces and the division of the territory between the other two signatories. Intense behind-the-scenes American pressure was instrumental in convincing Spain to reverse an earlier decision to grant the territory full independence in favour of partition.

Vehemently opposed to the partition plan, which gave the northern two-thirds of the territroy to Morocco and the rest to Mauritania, the Polisario Front proclaimed the creation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in the former Spanish colony. Armed by Morocco’s regional arch-rival, Algeria, Polisario fighters battled both Mauritanian and Moroccan troops in a bid to regain sovereignty over the entire territory of the Western Sahara. Following a series of devastating military defeats, Mauritania gave up its claims and surrendered its portion to Polisario in 1979. Morocco, for its part, countered by declaring the annexation of the portion relinquished by Mauritania and continued its war against the Polisario. Moroccan war operations, which included widespread attacks on civilian targets, resulted in the displacement of the majority of the indigenous Sahrawis from their homes. Currently, an estimated 170,000 Sahrawis live in a series of sprawling refugee camps in southwest Algeria.

By the time a ceasefire went into effect in 1991, more than 10,000 people had been killed. Meanwhile, Morocco had been busy changing the demographic makeup of the territory by providing various forms of incentives to tens of thousands of Moroccans to settle there. The question of enfranchising the settlers complicated the UN’s efforts to develop criteria for identifying Sahrawis who had been missed in the original Spanish census so as to include them in the voter rolls. Hence, another Gordian knot was added to the controversy over who is eligible to vote in the referendum.

Much to the dismay of Polisario, the UN has agreed to the Moroccan demand to include on the voter rolls any settler who could provide evidence of having resided in the territory for 6 continuous years or 12 non-continuous years. This gave tens of thousands of Moroccan citizens voting rights equal to those of the indigenous poplutaion, thus stacking the voter rolls in Morocco’s favour.

The controversy over the voter rolls highlights the unwillingness of both Morocco and the Polisario to go into a referendum which they do not guarantee to win. Neither side can afford to lose the referendum. For the Polisario, losing the referendum amounts to political hara kiri for such an outcome would deprive it of the very raison d’etre for its existence--that is, the creation of an independent state in the Western Sahara. On the other hand, a striking and rare unanimity reigns across the Moroccan political spectrum, including among opposition groups, regarding the integration of the territory into a ‘greater Morocco.’ Observers believe that ripple effects of a Moroccan defeat in the referendum could pave the way for the overthrow of King Hassan II.

Against this backdrop, Baker’s current spate of shuttle diplomacy is designed to pressure the two parties to agree on an acceptable outcome that would be confirmed in the referendum. It comes on the heels of signs of frustration by the security council at shouldering a peacekeeping operation that is not going anywhere. Last May, for instance, the council voted to suspend the registration of voters and cut the MINURSO staff by 20 percent.

Given Morocco’s close ties to the west and the sagging political fortunes of Polisario, the only viable settlement seems to be one that is short of independence. With the end of the Cold War, the left-wing Polisario lost the support of traditional friends such as the former Soviet Union and Cuba. Its dilemma is further complicated by the bloody civil war in which Algeria, the Polisario’s main military and economic backer, has been embroiled since the military takeover of 1991. In addition, several recent defections in the ranks of its leadership, induced mainly by Moroccan offers of amnesty and financial rewards, have taken their toll on the morale and unity of the Front. Obviously, the extent of this stew of political setbacks narrows the options available for the Polisario.

Obviously, this lopsided regional balance-of-power is conducive for a political settlement that favours Morocco. In the light of this, Morocco’s attempts at derailing the peace process, exemplified by its longstanding position to pay lip service to the referendum while indefinitely delaying its implementation, are curious. If anything, they reflect the determination of Moroccan leaders to stop at nothing short of securing the full achievement of their irredentist designs. In this context, al-Basri’s rejection of any form of autonomy for the Western Sahara, coupled with his government’s announcement that local council elections, which are scheduled throughout the kingdom on June 13, will also be held in the disputed territory, provides another evidence of Morocco’s determination to obstruct the prospects of any political compromise.

Predictably, Morocco’s decision to hold local council elections in the disputed territory, which amounts to creating more facts on the ground, infuriated Polisario. The Front’s envoy to Algiers, Salek Youcef Boubih, described the decision as a ‘provocative action’ that could hinder the UN’s latest diplomatic efforts.

Surely, such policies do not make peace. They deepen and create instability. Ultimately, they bring the spectre of the resumption of the war back on the scene.

Muslimedia - June 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 3

Dhu al-Qa'dah 23, 14171997-04-01

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