afrol.com, 28 February - Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the armed conflict about the Western Sahara territory. The "event" was marked by a large military parade at a Sahrawi refugee camp near Tindouf in southern Algeria. On the same day, the UN extended its Western Sahara mission for another two months.
In the Tindouf camps, thousands of Sahrawis had turned up to attain the military parade of the Sahrawi fighters, the POLISARIO Front, and to listen to the speech by Mohammed Abdelaziz, president of the Sahrawi Democratic Republic, a self-declared state recognised by some 70 countries and the OAU. A majority of the Sahrawi people has been living in Algerian refugee camps since the fighting started.
President Abdelaziz told the Sahrawis that the "POLISARIO's desire for peace is only matched by its determination to free the homeland," according to a BBC report. He thus did not give a clear indication to whether the armed struggle is about to be resumed after some 10 years of ceasefire between the POLISARIO and Morocco, which has been occupying the territory since 1976. Given the lack of progress in the UN led peace and settlement process, frustration in the refugee camps is mounting and repeated calls for a return to arms have been heard.
The United Nations have been directly involved in the Western Sahara conflict since 1988, and initially reached promising results in making the parties agree to a referendum over the future of the territory. The UN engagement has however proved to be impotent over the last decade, as the Moroccan side has not been interested in implementing the agreement. The UN Security Council however yesterday decided to extent its Sahara mission, MINURSO, for another two months. MINURSO was established in 1991 to organise the referendum.
The extension of the MINURSO mission through 30 April came on the recommendation of UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who, in a report to the Council last week, wrote: "Regrettably, I cannot report any progress towards overcoming the obstacles to the implementation of the settlement plan, or towards determining whether the Government of Morocco, as administrative Power in Western Sahara, is prepared to offer or support some devolution of authority for all inhabitants and former inhabitants of the Territory that is genuine, substantial and in keeping with international norms."
Western Sahara, a territory on the north-west coast of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria, was administered by Spain until 1976. Both Morocco and Mauritania had made claims on the territory. Those claims were rejected by the International Court of Justice in 1975 and also opposed by the POLISARIO, which had sought independence while under Spanish colonial rule. Spain's withdrawal was followed by fighting between Morocco, which had "reintegrated" the territory, and the Frente POLISARIO, supported by Algeria. Mauritania renounced all claims in 1979.
A joint mission by the UN Secretary-General and the Chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) led to a 1988 settlement proposal, providing for a ceasefire and a referendum to choose between independence and integration with Morocco. The proposal was accepted by both sides. In 1990, the Security Council approved the Secretary-General's proposal that a special representative would be responsible for the referendum, assisted by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), and, on 29 April 1991, MINURSO was established. Among other things, it is mandated to monitor the ceasefire and verify withdrawal and confinement of troops, identify and register qualified voters, and organize and ensure a free and fair referendum and proclaim the results. According to the Settlement Plan, a referendum in Western Sahara should have taken place in January 1992.
The UN Security Council supported the UN Secretary-General's suggestion that military observers be deployed in the Territory to verify a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities. Since the deployment of MINURSO in September 1991, the ceasefire has generally held. The MINURSO began identifying potential voters in August 1994. According to the UN itself, "progress was slow, and efforts to resolve differences between the parties - notably over eligibility requirements - were not successful. In particular, the eligibility of members of three tribal groups was disputed."
The first part of a provisional voter list was published in 1999 and listed 84,251 eligible voters. MINURSO's Identification Commission subsequently received 79,000 appeals against the list. Following an additional protocol on eligibility, identification from the three contested tribal groups was finished in December 1999, with 2,130 of 51,220 applicants found eligible.
According to a UN statement from this week, "the identification process is now complete, but the parties still hold divergent views regarding appeals, the repatriation of refugees and other crucial aspects of the Settlement Plan. The Secretary-General has instructed his Special Representative to continue to seek reconciliation."
The more than ten years delay in the organisation of the referendum is mostly seen as the product of Moroccan delaying tactics. Morocco has been able to file complaints to the process faster than the UN could treat them. Morocco has combined this with a successful diplomatic initiative towards in particular African nations. The key has been development cooperation in change for recognition of Moroccan claims to Sahara. The latest African country to change part in the conflict has been Senegal, now supporting Morocco.
The further away a possible settlement has seemed, the more frustrated has the Sahrawi population and the POLISARIO become. In the beginning of this month, a POLISARIO spokesman in Algiers said that the ceasefire with Morocco now was "null and void" - opening for the possibility of a return to armed conflict.
Also the UN is openly frustrated about the lack of progress, and it has been speculated that the organisation is preparing for its retreat from Sahara. UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, last week observed "a climate of increased mistrust and bitterness had set in between Morocco and the POLISARIO" and said he understood "this was undermining the ceasefire." The ceasefire is a condition for the direct UN engagement in Sahara.