afrol News, 25 June - The controversial new UN plan for a solution to the conflict in Western Sahara seems to polarise even more the parties to the conflict. While the Moroccan government already has agreed to the plan "as a framework for discussion," the Sahrawi resistance, POLISARIO, threatens war. Even among UN officials, the plan causes controversies.
On the recommendation of former US secretary of state James Baker III, now Personal Envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Western Sahara, the UN is to drop its 10-year-old plan to hold a referendum about the independence of the disputed territory. The territory is to be put under Moroccan administration, though granted autonomy, and within four years, a referendum on its status is to be made, based on the people then living there - something the POLISARIO hardly can accept because Morocco is subsidising Moroccan migrants to the territory, assuring a pro-Moroccan majority.
Most international observers thus have characterised Baker's plan a "capitulation to Morocco" (Giles Tremlett in 'The Dawn') or commenting it as "conceding much to Morocco, and give little away to the Sahrawi nationalist movement" (David Bamford, BBC).
Positive reactions are only found in Morocco and its long-time ally France, the plan advocating a 'third way' that France and Morocco have been pushing for years. The Moroccan government thus in general already has agreed to the plan, however emphasising that it does not adhere to all the terms, but accepts it "as a framework for discussion." Referring to the plan's referendum in the Sahara province in four years, the organ of the Moroccan governing Istiqlal Party, 'Al Alam', already has said that Sahrawi autonomy within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty is "the first and last solution to emerge from the impasse".
Possible return to armed struggle
The POLISARIO representation in Australia today issued the first POLISARIO press statement on Baker's proposal, concluding it was "based on proposals made by the Moroccan government and aim to simply integrate Western Sahara into Morocco and thus legitimise the illegal occupation of the Territory." It reminded the UN that its mandate in Western Sahara "is to implement the peace plan accepted by both parties in 1988 and which is based on the organisation of a free and fair referendum of self-determination."
Expressing its "utter rejection" to the plan, the statement says nothing about the return to an armed conflict, although the statement that "the responsibility of any deterioration of the situation in Western Sahara will rest on Morocco," may point in that direction. POLISARIO spokesman Ibrahim Mokhtar on the other hand told the press the plan would "implicate the return to armed struggle of the POLISARIO against Moroccan occupation."
The POLISARIO threat to return to the armed struggle, abandoned after 16 years of fighting in 1991 to implement the referendum, is a serious threat. It has been articulated more and more clearly as frustrations with UN Envoy Baker's work increased over the last year. In February this year, for the first time the POLISARIO stated that the ceasefire with Morocco was "null and void". The reason given was that Morocco had "consistently blocked moves to hold a democratic poll agreed to an in international treaty." However, UN facilitated negotiations continued.
UN change of mind
In fact, both James Baker and Kofi Annan as late as October last year criticised Morocco for the failure to implement the referendum. Annan thus stated, "It is also the view of my Personal Envoy, which I share, that if the Government of Morocco is not prepared to offer or support some devolution of governmental authority that could be discussed... the [UN] Mission [to Sahara, MINURSO] should begin hearing the pending appeals from the identification process on an expedited basis, without regard as to how long it might be expected to take to complete them." UN officials working in Sahara have made even clearer statements making "Moroccan bullying" responsible for the nine years of failure of having a voter list being drawn up.
Within less than a year, Baker's and Annan's argumentation has changed considerably. Their new report, defining the new plan, concludes that referendum process became a "zero-sum game" that each side felt it absolutely had to win, since, "due to the nature of the agreement that the UN was trying to implement, the referendum would produce one winner and one loser and the states were therefore too high."
Annan and Baker conclude that "there are serious doubts as to whether the settlement plan can be implemented in its present form in a way that will result in an early, durable and agreed resolution of the dispute over Western Sahara." They are equally doubtful as to "whether any other adjustments to the settlement plan would resolve [long-term] problems, since the endgame would still produce one winner and one loser."
Plan splits UN administration
UN officials operating in Western Sahara strongly disagree. Firstly, they claim, it is wrong to reward Morocco, as the country is the principal responsible for the failure to implement the referendum. Secondly, the hold it is not correct that the referendum cannot be arranged within short, even if one has to process all the Moroccan appeals to the voter list.
Frank Ruddy, once a senior UN official in Western Sahara, has blamed the UN for not standing up to the "Moroccan bullying" that prevented a voter list being drawn up. "Morocco did not simply influence the referendum; they controlled it, down to what days the mission worked. Morocco tapped UN phones, intercepted UN mail and searched the living quarters of UN staff with impunity," retired US ambassador Ruddy concluded after his mission in Western Sahara.
High-ranking MINURSO officials further allegedly very recently have confirmed to Carlos Wilson, executive director of the US Western Sahara Foundation (pro-POLISARIO) that "the referendum could be held this afternoon," if the UN would stop caving in to Morocco's obstruction of the process. The UK Western Sahara Campaign confirms this view, saying it "believes that the referendum could take place within six months if the UN applied their own signed agreements," that is to say, allowing Moroccan appeals to be heard. The UN has received appeals to the voter list from 131,038 people, the majority residing in Morocco, but the majority of these cases have already been heard (and rejected).
Plan probably accepted
Of the approximately 60 countries recognising POLISARIO as the legitimate government of Western Sahara (half of them African countries), none is a UN Security Council veto holder. Mauritius, Africa's present member in the Council, has recognised the 'Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic', but does not hold a veto.
If the Security Council adopts the plan, this would mean the end of the referendum process, at least for four years. The fate of the Sahrawi people would then rest in the hands of three governments, which according to the plan are to continue the process after Sahara is made a autonomous Moroccan province; Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania, together with the POLISARIO. Morocco and Mauritania are for the total integration of Western Sahara into Morocco. Algeria, still POLISARIO's most outspoken ally, has officially protested against the plan but has sent Baker a memorandum saying it does not rule it out as a basis for talks.
The Algerian government is experiencing great pressure from its main allies, France and the US, to reconcile with Morocco. The new UN plan is seen in both Washington and Paris as a possible path to an aim more important that the Sahrawi issue; the stability in Northern Africa, which would have been significantly strengthened if the 25-years-old conflict between Morocco and Algeria, mainly based in the Sahara issue, could be replaced with an alliance.
Sources: Based on UN sources, press reports, POLISARIO, Moroccan govt. and afrol archives