Western Sahara
Sahrawi independence would be "viable" (Baker)

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UN Envoy James Baker III

«A Sahrawi state would contribute to the stability of the Maghreb»

James Baker III

afrol News, 2 March - The UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, James Baker III, has stated that an independent Sahrawi state would be "viable" and would contribute to the creation of "stability" in the Maghreb region. Baker generally has been perceived to favour the Moroccan view to the conflict.

Baker had been interviewed by the UN Security Council after presenting several new proposals for a new approach to the conflict over the Western Sahara territory in a report together with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. The Council's discussions on Western Sahara on Wednesday (27 February) ended in the decision to extend for two months the UN mission (MINURSO). Within these two months, the Security Council will decide whether to abandon the territory "due to the lack of progress" after an 11-years engagement or take on wider powers to require "that one or the other or both of the parties do something that they do not wish to voluntarily agree to do" (Annan).

James Baker, earlier defending proposals of Moroccan origin, this week told the Spanish newspaper 'El País' he indeed believed in an independent Sahrawi Republic. He said he had told the Security Council he estimated that a "Sahrawi state within the old Spanish colony would be viable and would contribute to the stability of the Maghreb."

The UN engagement in Western Sahara has lasted more than 11 years and has led to the expenditure of sums of money nearing half a billion dollar. The original mission of MINURSO, organising a referendum to allow the territory’s people to choose between independence and integration with Morocco, is increasingly being viewed as an option impossible to implement. This referendum has been stalemated by institutionalised complaints (mostly by Morocco) to the UN list of accepted voters at the future poll. 

Over the last year, the Annan and Baker team thus has tried to find alternative solutions to the endless and expensive Western Sahara conflict. A plan presented in June last year abandoned the referendum concept and instead proposed accepting the territory as a part of Morocco, but with considerable autonomy. Morocco immediately accepted the plan while POLISARIO, fighting for Sahrawi independence, and its ally, Algeria, forcefully rejected the idea. 

After the Moroccan origin of Baker's and Annan's plan was disclosed and admitted, the concept lost some of its force. The UN Security Council, not wanting to attack the UN Secretary-General, carefully backed the plan, "encouraging the parties to discuss" it, but signalled clearly this was neither the only nor the preferred solution. The "autonomy" plan immediately lost momentum. 

Eight months later, in February 2002, the Baker and Annan team was ready to present a new report and new solutions. This report was equally negative on the "rather bleak" future for the stalled peace process within the referendum solution. This time, however, the proposals did not side with one of the parties but sought to strengthen the UN's powers to find a solution.

If the parties would not cooperate, the UN should threaten to withdraw from the peace process. This would most likely mean that the 1991 ceasefire would break down. While reports indicate that Morocco has prepared for such a situation military, it remains unclear whether the parties, including Algeria, are interested in returning to open hostilities. 

The three alternatives presented by Annan and Baker all call for wider UN powers. The first option would have the UN resume trying to implement the 1988 Settlement Plan, even without the concurrence of the two parties, Morocco and the POLISARIO. 

Under the second option, Baker would try to revise the draft Framework Agreement – again without necessarily gaining the agreement of both sides. The third option would involve mandating Mr. Baker to discuss a possible division of the territory with interested parties. 

Reactions from Morocco, POLISARIO and Algeria have so far been careful, indicating they do not favour a UN withdrawal. The two sides however agree that a partition of the territory is not an option. The Security Council on Wednesday expressed its intention to “consider actively” the options presented by Baker and Annan during the two months' extension of MINURSO's mandate. It will probably opt for a solution where Baker is to have wider powers in the deciding the voters list and organise the referendum. 

Baker's statement that a Sahrawi state would be "viable" might indicate he would use his increased powers to cut through Moroccan complaints and adopt the long prepared voters list as it is.

Sources: Based on UN, SPS and afrol archives.

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