Responses to Autonomy: The Optimal Political Solution?
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Responses to "Autonomy: The Optimal Political Solution"

Bernard Miyet rightly points out that it has always been the goal of Morocco to gain the recognition of the international community of what it has maintained was its historically legitimate assertion of sovereignty over the Western Sahara. He is also correct that the UN effort to conduct a referendum on either the full integration of the territory into Morocco or its independence as a new state in the Sahel had utterly failed by late 1998. His analysis of the prospects that any such “winner take all” solution might lead to greater tensions, or worse in this already volatile region, was one of the reasons why the US State Department changed US policy on this question in early 1999, during the second Clinton Administration. This new policy continued during the Bush Administration and is one that Secretary Clinton has stated publicly remains unchanged under the Obama Administration.

At that time, the State Department concluded that the only reasonable way forward to a solution lay in persuading the parties, including Algeria, as Bernard Miyet points out, that a compromise political solution was the only way to resolve this issue. The US conception of that solution, and its subsequent advocacy in the international community at the time, called for a formula that would allow Morocco to maintain its sovereignty in the territory. It would also grant the concerned population a substantial degree of self governance through an autonomy arrangement that would meet the accepted international standards of self determination. Such a sovereignty/autonomy solution would be confirmed through a popular referendum of the concerned population. The referendum as proposed has always been a critical element in every compromise political proposal and further fulfills the requirement of self-determination. This was the basis of former US Secretary of State James Baker’s first “Framework Agreement” as well as the current Moroccan initiative based on the same compromise formula tabled at the UN in April 2007. It was, of course, as Bernard Miyet notes, also clearly implicit in Security Council Resolution 154 of April 2004 calling on the parties to accept “a mutually agreeable political solution.”

Whether the Polisario Front, with Algerian support, can be persuaded to accept any idea of compromise that does not provide their optimal goal of full independence for the territory remains to be seen. However, in the meantime the security situation in the Sahel and the surrounding states continues to deteriorate at an alarming pace. Sadly, the refugee populations of the camps under Polisario control, bear the brunt of this political stalemate, as they are being drawn with increasing frequency into the criminal and terrorist activities of groups gaining an upper hand in a region, which is drifting rapidly “out of control.”

-Amb. Edward M. Gabriel

Miyet presents both the genesis of the conflict and the history of attempts to resolve it as if the only important point of reference is Morocco’s position. One glaring example of this strange bias is that there is almost no mention made of the legality of the situation, which tells a rather different story: to forestall a legitimate and internationally required process of decolonization, and ignoring the clear findings of the ICJ Advisory Opinion, Morocco illegally occupied the Western Sahara in 1975 and since then has prevented the legal requirement for self-determination for the Sahrawi people, who tellingly receive not a single mention in Miyet’s history. Self-determination involves a people choosing freely between different options for their future status, rather than confirming the desire of the illegal occupying power. This legal requirement for a process of self-determination, particularly pertinent here as Western Sahara is a Non-Self-Governing Territory under Article 73 of the Charter, has been iterated by both the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council on many occasions, including this year's Security Council resolution on MINURSO, the UN Mission which was established in 1991 to organize a referendum in Western Sahara, where the people are to be given a clear choice between independence and integration with Morocco.

The evident bias of this version of history unfortunately is little surprise given the historic failure of the UN, including Secretariat officials, to inject any serious energy into resolution of the dispute.  Instead, these officials, including past Secretaries-General and most particularly the French-led Department of Peacekeeping Operations, have taken the lazy and compromised view that self-determination, though legally required, is “impossible” simply because Morocco refuses to permit it. The prevailing official view has been that this dispute is frozen, like Kashmir or Cyprus, and will remain so until “the parties” agree a compromise, which can only be autonomy under Moroccan rule. This framing of the dispute as two more or less equal parties is commonplace at the UN, but ignores the reality that this situation is of one country illegally occupying another and refusing to shift despite repeated international demands that it does so. This is akin to saying that, in the light of Israel’s obduracy, the only “realistic” solution to the Palestinian issue is autonomy, but not statehood, for the Palestinian people under Israeli rule. This comparison illustrates the moral and institutional failure of the UN over the Western Sahara. The parallels to the purported annexation of East Timor by Indonesia are also obvious and should be a warning to the Moroccans. 

The international and institutional neglect of the Western Sahara, and the prejudiced position of key officials, unfortunately reflected in Miyet’s account, is nothing short of an international disgrace.  In part due to the prevailing mindset evident at the UN, there has been no movement in UN negotiations on the issue for decades. And today, Morocco is brazenly undermining that process by claiming it has no confidence in Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy. Already, France is arguing (to its discredit) that it is not “realistic” for Ross to continue given Morocco’s objections. This ignores the reality that there will be no resolution of this dispute without a genuine process of self-determination, which actually means giving the people a free choice. This is what Miyet deliberately overlooks. Behaving as if Morocco alone holds the key to the future is a political strategy that has taken us nowhere in over twenty years since the ceasefire in 1991. Happily, there are signs that some on the UN Security Council, and the current Secretary-General himself, are at last beginning to acknowledge this reality, not least because of the need to resolve the impasse between Algeria and Morocco, a necessary requirement for regional stability. They at last are beginning to realize that a just settlement, rooted in the basic tenets of international law, is in fact the only way out of the impasse.

-Carne Ross