Western Sahara issue
Excerpts verbatim from the book:
“Surrender Is Not an Option:
Defending America At The United Nations And Abroad”
By John Bolton
Chapter 2: Exile and Return---------------------------------pag. 45
I also had the opportunity to work pro bono for the United Nations during 1997-2001. Kofi Annan asked Jim Baker to become his personal envoy to help resolve the long-standing dispute over the future of the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony on the west coast of Africa where a guerilla war had been festering for over twenty years. Baker’s mission was to bring about a referendum the UN Security Council had resolved to hold in 1991 to determine whether the Western Sahara would be annexed by Morocco, which had held de facto control of the territory since 1975, or achieve independence. Despite baker’s leadership and our strenuous efforts to get the disputing parties to agree on the voting rules for the referendum, we did not succeed and the Western Sahara matter was still pending when I arrived in New York in August 2005.
Fortunately, the 2000 Florida recount, although at times it seemed liked guerilla warfare, did not last as long as the dispute over the Western Sahara. By mid-December 2000, although somewhat delayed by the length of the election dispute, the Bush Transition Team turned its full attention to the new administration’s staffing and policies. And so did I.
Chapter 7: Arriving At the UN---------------------pag. 198
Another important formality was presenting my credentials to Secretary General (SG) Kofi Annan, which I did the day after arriving in New York. Annan had just had shoulder surgery, his arm was in a sling, and he seemed very unanimated, perhaps due to his medication. Before the inevitable picture taking for the press, we traded stories about the Western Sahara, a problem still unresolved even after fifteen years with a UN peacekeeping force there.
Chapter 9: As Good As It Gets: The Security Council----pags. 246-47
I opened my mentioning that the last time I had been in the informal consultations room was when I’d accompanied Jim Baker, reporting on the 1997 Houston Accords on the Western Sahara. One of my goals, I suggested, might be finally to bring the long-running peacekeeping operation to a close by actually holding the referendum on the future status of Western Sahara that it had been established to undertake. There was laughter around the room, which turned out to be justified, since the fifteen-year-old effort was still struggling along unchanged when I left sixteen months later.
Chapter 13: Darfur and the Weakness of UN Peacekeeping in Africa.
Because of my work in Bush 41 and then with Jim Baker on the Western Sahara, I had a particular interest in trying to wrap up this fifteen-year-old peacekeeping operation, and in giving the residents of the territory the referendum on its future status they had long been promised. Morocco initially agreed to a referendum – that was, after all, what the “R” in MINURSO, the Spanish acronym for “Mission of the United Nations for the Referendum in Western Sahara,” stood for –but consistently blocked taking the steps necessary to conduct it, such as voter identification and registration. This was a clear example of the limitations of UN peacekeeping, which Sudan’s government was demonstrating contemporaneously in Darfur, namely that there simply was no chance of success if any of the actual parties to a dispute dug in their heels and refused to cooperate. In that sense, at least with respect to UN operations directly affecting them, almost every UN member has a kind of veto, not just the Security Council’s Perm Five. This is undoubtedly why the UN so often resembles the League of Nations in its achievements.
I met repeatedly in 2005-6 with the perm reps of Algeria and Morocco, both of whose countries were quite satisfied with the status quo in the territory, but for essentially opposite reasons. Morocco is in possession of almost all of the Western Sahara, happy to keep it that way, and expecting that de facto control will morph into de jure control over time, giving it both territorial breadth consistent with its historical concept of the “proper” size of Morocco and access to possible natural resources and fishing rights.
Morocco’s alternative to a referendum was “autonomy” for the territory, which meant effectively keeping it under Moroccan control. Algeria, the main supporter for the POLISARIO (the political and military vehicle for the Sahrawi rebellion), tens of thousands of whose refugees lived in camps near Tindouf in southwestern Algeria, liked having the threat of POLISARIO action against Morocco, but found the threat more useful than the actual prospect of renewed hostilities. In fact, unresolved tensions between Morocco and Algeria, unrelated to the Western Sahara, were a major factor in the dispute, not that anyone talked about them very much.
Peter van Walsum, a retired senior Dutch diplomat with extensive UN experience as a former perm rep, and Baker’s replacement as the SG’s personal envoy for the Western Sahara, tried repeatedly in 2005 to see if any Council member, especially the United States, planned to pressure Morocco to adhere to its many commitments to hold a referendum. He found that none were willing, except Algeria, which of course Morocco would ignore.
One of the high points of my tenure at the UN came when van Walsum briefed the Security Council on April 25, 2006, explaining that “international legality” (the World Court having rejected Morocco’s claim of sovereignty over the Western Sahara) was in conflict with “political reality” (Morocco’s control over almost all of the territory), and that the Council had to find a compromise. Although many countries could not conceive of a conflict, let alone a “compromise” where “international legality” might give way to mere “political reality,” I was delighted that someone had at least spoken the unspeakable, even though his logic cut against the Sahrawi position.
If only others were as forthright as van Walsum.
Since it was clear that Morocco had no intention of ever allowing a referendum, there was no point in a UN mission to conduct one. Instead, and typically of the UN, MINURSO seemed well on the way to acquiring a near-perpetual existence because no one could figure out what to do with it.
Accordingly, consistent with my fundamental notion that the Security Council should try to find a real solution to the underlying problem, I suggested terminating MINURSO and releasing the Sahrawis from the cease-fire they had agreed to in exchange for the promise of a referendum.
If Morocco didn’t like that prospect, then let it get serious about allowing a referendum. If not, then the Council should admit its failure and get out, or at least not become another part of the problem by locking in a status quo
that could go on indefinitely. Otherwise, MINURSO seemed a perfect example of costly UN peacekeeping operations that were not promoting resolutions to conflicts, but prolonging or even complicating them.
The biggest obstacle to my approach was, as usual, the State bureaucracy, joined unusually by the NSC’s Elliot Abrams. They accepted Morocco’s line that independence for the Western Sahara – which nearly everyone thought the Sahrawis would choose in a genuinely free and fair referendum- would destabilize Morocco and risk a takeover by extreme Islamicists. This was why the administration had rejected the last “Baker Plan” in 2004, and why Baker finally resigned as the SG’s personal envoy after eight years of trying to resolve the issue. I wondered what had happened to the Bush administration’s support for “democracy” in the broader Middle East, but there was no doubt here that stability for King Mohammed VI trumped self-determination. In practice, it meant that State was always open to plans for “autonomy” for Western Sahara, which Morocco, at regular intervals, promised to produce, and invariably never did, at least not until after long delays. I engaged in a number of frustrating and unsuccessful efforts to find support for the referendum elsewhere in the U.S. government, but failing to do so, Abrams and I agreed to convene a meeting at State on June 19, 2006, to see if he and I could come up with a common strategy. If so, we knew that the bureaucracy, having no alternative ideas, would endorse it.
I explained my view to the meeting, which had over thirty attendees, which was that MINURSO had failed in its central mission to conduct a referendum and was now actually an obstacle to Morocco and Algeria dealing with each other and the continuing fact of tens of thousands of Sahrawi refugees; that in the absence of someone with Jim Baker’s status, the UN had essentially no political role to play; and that Morocco was never going to agree to a referendum where independence was a real option. Abrams stressed stability in Morocco, but said if Morocco came out with a “true” autonomy plan, he could support terminating MINURSO. I still thought the reverse was true, namely that neither Morocco nor Algeria would get serious until they saw MINURSO about to disappear, and I never believed that Morocco would tolerate “true” autonomy. Nonetheless, during this one-hour meeting, we had stretched the limits of bureaucracy about as far as we could, and I made at least some progress on the idea that eliminating MINURSO would not impede the search for a solution, but might actually be the only way to achieve one. Other than Abrams and me, all of the representatives from the rest of the bureaucracy wanted to defend the status quo. At this rate, of course, MINURSO would have perpetual life, and this was the United States that couldn’t figure out what it wanted to do, let alone the UN !
In fact, in March 2007 Morocco promulgated yet another “autonomy” plan, with no provision for a referendum, and the Sahrawis rejected it yet again. This could well go on forever. The Security Council has gone back to sleep.