Western Sahara – How not to Try to Resolve a Conflict
August 3rd, 2007
By Anna Theofilopoulou
On June 18 and 19, 2007, direct talks between the two protagonists in the Western Sahara conflict, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, were held under United Nations auspices at Greentree Estate in Manhasset, New York. As expected, the negotiations were concluded without any major breakthrough or mishap, and both sides agreed to the UN suggestion that another round take place on August 10 and 11.
This result was predictable, since both sides went to Manhasset determined to stand by their already stated and much advertised positions, which nobody attempted to reconcile at this stage. Morocco is offering limited autonomy that would require Polisario to accept Moroccan sovereignty over the territory a priori, while Polisario remains steadfast in its own proposal to resolve the conflict through a referendum on self-determination, with independence as one of the choices.
The composition of the delegations sent to Greentree gave testament to the firmness with which both sides were holding to their positions. Morocco's delegation was headed by the Minister of the Interior and included the head of the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS) who, in addition to his CORCAS title, holds also a position in the Ministry of Interior. By contrast, during all rounds of negotiations under the UN Secretary General's Personal Envoy, James Baker, in 1997 and 2000, Morocco's delegation was always headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation.
Thus Morocco emphasized its point that the issue of Western Sahara is an internal one, and that the matter should really be discussed among Saharans on both sides of the divide – the "separatists," as Morocco often calls Polisario officials, and those loyal to Morocco. Polisario, on the other hand, sent the exact same delegation that it had sent to all direct talks held under Baker's auspices, thus making it clear that as far as Polisario was concerned nothing had changed in its position since that time.
Apparently both sides behaved reasonably well as neither wanted to be seen as the spoiler responsible for precipitating a collapse in the talks. The two sides chose to ignore any small provocations that may have taken place in their determination to be awarded good grades by the United Nations.
The Secretary General's Report
Although it was evident on the basis of statements made by members of the delegations and the Secretary-General's spokesperson at the end of the talks that nothing much had happened – other than that both sides had behaved well and that the atmosphere had been good – the fact that both had agreed to another round aroused considerable speculation as to what might happen next. For this reason the Secretary-General's report to the Security Council on the talks was eagerly awaited.
The report was issued on June 29, 2007 in all six UN official languages. A few hours later, the report was recalled for "technical reasons," only to be reissued later without the observations and recommendations that formed the core of its policy analysis. This was a first at the United Nations as far as anybody familiar with these kinds of proceedings can recall. It was announced that instead of including the observations in the report, the Secretary-General's current Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum, would brief the Security Council orally – which he did on July 11.
A reading of the first version of the report, including the observations, makes it easy for anyone familiar with the Western Sahara conflict to understand what had happened. The suggestion that Polisario could be asked to "test Morocco's readiness to take part in serious, constructive negotiations by making concrete proposals to define, clarify or amend provisions in the proposal of Morocco, leaving the final status out of consideration at this stage" inevitably elicited strong protest from Polisario and its ally, Algeria. There was a clear implication in this suggestion, whether it was meant or not, that down the line as the talks went forward, the United Nations planed to use the Moroccan autonomy proposal as basis for the negotiations. It appeared that Polisario would be ultimately asked to accept autonomy in some form. A follow-up sentence evidently intended to balance the suggestion made to Polisario stated that Morocco "could be asked to show a greater awareness of the complexity of the issue by not insisting that its acceptance of autonomy instead of integration is equivalent – in terms of sacrifice, to a possible acceptance by Polisario of autonomy instead of independence." Neither Polisario nor its supporters, however, could regard the two suggestions as in any way equivalent. They deem the difference between autonomy and the possibility of independence as fundamental.
The decision to withdraw the report and then re-issue it minus the observations was damaging to the stature of the United Nations as an independent mediator in the Western Sahara conflict. At the very least, it suggested that the Secretary-General and his advisers were not as familiar as they should have been with the issues at hand, and that they had failed to think through the implications of what they said in the first version of the report. Alternatively, an observer might conclude that the Secretary-General and top aides lack strength of conviction on Sahara issues and would tack with the winds rather than standing by what they said and explaining what they meant. Whether the United Nations can recover from this Western Sahara stumble remains to be seen.
The situation is complicated by the fact the United States, always a close ally of Morocco, but nowadays perhaps motivated even more by a desire to cement its ties with the North African country in waging the Global War on Terror, seems to be coming down openly on Morocco's side on the autonomy question. To the extent that the United Nations appears to be taking the same position, its neutrality will be in question. At the end of van Walsum's closed-door briefing to the Security Council – but before either the Personal Envoy himself or the Council President came out to face the press stake-out of the meeting – the Deputy Permanent Representative of the United States, Jackie Wolcott Sanders, appeared and took note of the April 11, 2007 Moroccan proposal to the Secretary-General that unveiled its autonomy plan. The American representative welcomed what she said were Morocco's serious and credible efforts to move the process forward toward resolution. She added that as far as the United States was concerned, Morocco's initiative was a flexible and realistic framework for beginning negotiations on a plan that would provide for genuine autonomy contingent on the approval of the local populations in a referendum that would be in keeping with the principle of self-determination.
The statement made by the President of the Council, Ambassador Wang Guangya of China, was more sober, expressing the Council's support for the agreement by the parties on negotiations that would continue in the second week of August under UN sponsorship. The statement expressed hope that the parties would use the next round of negotiations to engage in good faith in substantial negotiations on the way forward.
The Next Round of Negotiations
The big question now is whether in the August session the two parties will move past their positions and engage in a real conversation, which ought to start by trying to find common elements in their respective proposals, if any. If this is to happen, those who support a just solution for Western Sahara will have to accept that as in the past, there will be interruptions in the talks and other delays as each side consults with its principals in a genuine effort to move past the rhetoric. On the other hand, if the session appears to go smoothly and both sides emerge promising to meet for yet another round at some point in the future, one could easily guess that no substance was touched, or that no true effort was made to get to the tough issues. And there is always the possibility that the whole negotiations process could collapse if either side thoughtlessly or intentionally provokes the other.
The Western Sahara conflict has been one of the toughest that the United Nations has had to struggle with. Fortunately, there has been no blood shed by either side since the UN cease fire went into effect in September 1991, but the fact remains that the conflict is no closer to a solution 16 years after the Security Council first got involved, despite the millions of dollars poured into Western Sahara for the maintenance of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). In addition, the Western Sahara refugees continue living in the Tindouf camps in Algeria 30 years after they fled there. Frustration is growing palpably on both sides of the Morocco-Polisario divide.
The closest the United Nations came to resolving the conflict was with the Peace Plan for Self-determination of the People of Western Sahara, which was unanimously supported by the Security Council in July 2003. It offered a period of autonomy for the territory to be followed by a referendum on self-determination which, in addition to the options of integration with Morocco or independence, also included the possibility of continuing autonomy. The Peace Plan was accepted by the Polisario Front and supported by Algeria, but finally rejected by Morocco in April 2004. Morocco maintained that the autonomy period could only be final and not transitional as proposed by the Peace Plan, and that the independence option had to be ruled out since it would be out of the question for Morocco to engage in negotiations over its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This resulted in key members of the Security Council, the United States foremost among them, back-tracking and pulling their support from the Peace Plan. While still talking about the principle of self-determination, they encouraged a mutually acceptable political solution not necessarily including a referendum with independence as an option, They had already been told by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 2002, that this would not be possible given the parties' entrenched and opposite positions regarding a solution.
Taking his cue from the Security Council, however, Secretary-General Annan put aside the Peace Plan. Instead, he and his representatives tried to find a solution by consulting with key members of the Security Council, who naturally put their bilateral interests ahead of trying to find a genuine, long term solution to the conflict. Annan proposed negotiations without preconditions as a possible way out of the impasse. However, the recent suggestion by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the rescinded report that Polisario could be asked to make concrete proposals related to the Moroccan autonomy initiative alerted everybody that the current UN game plan might be to use the Moroccan proposal as a basis for negotiations. The Secretary General's report should not have gotten into detailed suggestions on a solution at this stage of the process, especially when the two parties stand so far apart in their positions. Experience in past negotiations on Western Sahara has shown that they can be more productive if fewer details are disclosed publicly, at least until both sides have had an opportunity to digest changes in the evolving diplomatic situation.
The quick back-tracking to eliminate the controversial paragraph, along with the remainder of the policy part in the report, showed that the Secretariat lacked resolve and would react hastily to whoever was putting more pressure. This was a good example of what not to do in trying to resolve the Western Sahara conflict, or any other conflict for that matter. In the past, whenever the Security Council and the Secretary-General changed positions because one or the other party complained about some development in the peace process, a new stalemate resulted. Flexibility on the part of the Secretary-General can be a virtue, but weakness – which seemed to be apparent in the withdrawal of the initial version of the report – will only complicate future negotiations.
As for the role of the United States, its recent moves have been anything but helpful in terms of bringing about an early, long-term resolution of the conflict. The controversy about the implication in the Secretary-General's report that the United Nations was favoring the Moroccan autonomy proposal was damaging enough. The rush on the part of Deputy U.S. Ambassador to laud the Moroccan proposal will only make it more difficult to persuade Polisario and Algeria to go to the next round of negotiations in an open and cooperative frame of mind. Whether the United States was in a hurry to express publicly views that it was not able to have inserted in the formal Security Council statement, as the Deputy Ambassador was asked by a journalist, remains an open question. What is clear is that in the past, the United States has been more effective and far more helpful in promoting progress toward resolving the Western Sahara conflict when it acted as an honest broker, rather than as an impulsive supporter of Morocco. In fact, unqualified support by outsiders for either side in the Western Sahara conflict has never promoted progress, but only helped solidify the parties' positions.
It is to be hoped that if no meaningful progress is made in the next round of negotiations, the United Nations and Morocco's key supporters, especially France and the United States, will reappraise their strategies on resolving the Western Sahara conflict. They might realize that their support of Morocco's autonomy proposal is not contributing to a resolution. Lauding a proposal that they are not in a position to impose, unless they are ready to flaunt international law and the international community as a whole, is not helping anybody, least of all Morocco, which wishes and needs to resolve the conflict. Morocco could be helped if showed by its friends that 'something cannot be had for nothing,' and that some real sacrifices might be necessary to get out of its current predicament.
At the same time, Polisario needs to be told by its supporters that it should take a realistic look at the world as it is today, which is certainly very different from the world of the 1970s and 1980s, when decolonization still loomed large in the UN agenda, and when liberation movements could still count on support by the super-powers and their proxies based on the cold-war divide. Polisario and its supporters should ask whether continuing to cite past promises by the United Nations and others, or touting principles of international law that seem to be on their side, will help them move toward a sustainable solution any time soon. The solace to be found in continuing demonstrations and calls of support by young Saharans in Western Sahara might not be itself enough reason for Polisario to perpetuate its pursuit of what may be an unattainable situation.
In short, the Security Council, the parties themselves, and their outside supporters should do a reality check on whether their current policies and rhetoric are likely to be helpful in finding an early and long-term solution to conflict. If they do this, they could find that with discretion, persistence, and good will they might succeed in negotiating a way out of the current impasse.
Anna Theofilopoulou covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations from 1994 to 2006. She worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III throughout his appointment as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara – from March 1997 until his resignation in June 2004.