Responses to "Western Sahara: It's Time for the People to Choose"
Carne Ross is right when he refers to the unwillingness of the Security Council to impose any mandatory solution over the last 35 years, but wrong if he believes that the international community will change its approach in the foreseeable future. In this context, is it wise or constructive to definitively conclude that “really there is no other option” possible than the only one that has been impossible to achieve during more than three decades? One might conclude that it is wishful thinking or statement of principle rather than search for an outcome to this difficult problem.
I won't come back to my previous presentation in which I gave my personal perception of the situation based on my experience as former UN Under-Secretary-General in charge of Peacekeeping. Insofar as nothing has really changed since my departure from the UN Headquarters in October 2000, despite the appointment of several new Personal Envoys or Special Representatives of the Secretary General, it seems to me that my thinking was right concerning the impasse, which the Western Sahara process was just hitting. Is it reasonable to continue on a road going nowhere?
Although both parties had agreed to proceed with a settlement plan, it is hard to see how a referendum could be organized today or tomorrow. It has never been possible to complete the work of identification, which is now stalled for more than a decade. Since the 1974 Spanish census establishing the number of Sahrawis living in the territory at 72,370 persons, the evaluation has constantly been drifting without reaching any common agreement. The Spanish official in charge at that time, Colonel Cuevas, later recognized that Spain ran out of time to make an accurate account; other Spanish officials — who were interviewed by Paul Balta for his book, Le grand Maghreb des Indépendances à l'an 2000 [The Great Maghreb: from Independences to 2000], published in 1990 — confided to him that the real number was probably between 150,000 and 250,000. With such a margin of error, it is easy for the parties to reject any proposal; it also explains the stalemate that resulted from such a discrepancy as well as the UN Security Council’s shyness.
If it is true to affirm that there is a “large power’s unwillingness to advance,” but it seems to me that putting the essential responsibility on the French authorities’ shoulders is an optimum way to conceal or avoid confrontation with political reality. When Carne Ross writes that France and the United States see this situation as “peripheral to their strategic interests,” he is both right and wrong. He is right, as this conflict never interfered with the East-West confrontation (even if many pro-Soviet countries rapidly recognized the SADR). But he is also wrong, because neither France nor the United States has been ready to undermine its relations with both Algeria and Morocco. He should have added that many other powers, starting with the Soviet Union and later Russia, shared a similar feeling. In such a situation, it appears vain and facile to put the blame on one or two countries when the reality is much more complex.
It might be worth recalling that the affirmation that “no country has recognized the Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara” might lead an ill-informed observer to conclude that all or most of UN member states support the Polisario Front’s claim. In fact, the situation is very different. How could you explain why none of the permanent members of the Security Council or none of the European countries has ever recognized the SADR? Were they threatened or influenced by anyone? Were they unable to state their views on the international scene? It is also true that after the early recognition of the SADR by a majority of OAU States, the diplomatic landscape is completely different today, with only 19 countries out of 53 remaining along this line. Furthermore, with only two members of the G20 recognizing the SADR, it is fair to say that the unwillingness to move forward forcefully is largely shared worldwide.
If there had been a true and strong pressure in favor of the only solution proposed by Carne Ross, it would have assuredly found its way through the Security Council or in other international bodies. Barring the early position taken by the Organization of African Unity, which has steadily eroded year after year, we never saw the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference following the same path.
Within the UN, any honest observer knows that several civil servants coming from different countries are involved in the political process. The UN report drafting process on Western Sahara goes through various levels of clearance and responsibility starting with the MINURSO team and Head of Mission, the Personal Envoy, who consults with the Department of Political Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and finally the Secretary General, who gives the final approval. Who might seriously say or believe that one man or one level in this machinery could distort the whole process without any reaction or opposition from anyone? Looking for scapegoats is merely useless and counterproductive.
In conclusion, I think it is necessary to recall that the solution can only come from the parties themselves, being understood that Algeria has always been and remains an indispensable “player” in this game! It appears still worthless or childish to expect any solution imposed by the international community. Would it be honest to entertain such an illusion for the population of Western Sahara, which has been living in dire conditions for such a long time?
I can agree with at least one basic premise in Carne Ross’s article on Western Sahara. It does seem true that the UN Security Council, and its “larger powers,” fail to understand that the problem is more than peripheral to strategic interests in the region. Events in North Africa and the Sahara/Sahel over the last year, and especially the increasingly alarming activity of al-Qa‘ida, its regional affiliates, and other like-minded terrorist organizations in northern Mali, make it clear that resolving this long-standing dispute over the future of Western Sahara should be a clear priority. In large measure, this lack of strategic urgency has been at the core of complaints about a UN process that has seemed more focused on peripheral issues than the core problem. However, beyond agreement on this particular aspect of the issue, Mr. Ross’s arguments fail to contribute anything new or practical that might lead to a resolution of this issue and help enhance stability and security in the region. His comments do not improve the prospects for a better future for those still confined in the Polisario’s refugee camps.
The most significant fact that Mr. Ross misrepresents in his article stands out as a clear reason why so little progress is being made to resolve this dispute. Ross alleges, as the Polisario itself often likes to repeat, that only Morocco stands in the way of a referendum on the future of the territory. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is one thing that the Security Council seems to have recognized, it is that the conflict in Western Sahara requires a political compromise among the parties to bring this dispute to resolution. The Security Council, and its “major powers” including France and the United States, have been urging such a political settlement for more than a decade. Only the Polisario and their backers in Algeria continue to insist that the original idea of a referendum still holds any promise for a settlement. Indeed, it was not Morocco that abandoned the referendum track — it was the Security Council itself that recognized that this was a dead end. Instead, it backed then-Personal Envoy James Baker’s efforts to reach a fundamental political compromise to resolve this dispute through a formula that would involve Morocco’s continued sovereignty over the territory while granting the concerned population a broad autonomy to govern their own affairs. It is as clear today as when James Baker first started advancing this kind of political settlement that this is the only viable and realistic way forward to resolve this problem.
Morocco embraced the need for compromise when it accepted nearly a decade ago to negotiate a settlement based on Baker’s original “Framework Agreement” proposal, and it again affirmed its commitment to the need for a fair-minded compromise when it put its own Autonomy Initiative on the table at the Security Council in April 2007. That initiative has been endorsed by the United States as “serious, credible and realistic” on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, despite the broad consensus in the international community that a political compromise is essential, the Polisario, its backers in Algeria, and its advocates seem to continue to prefer a stalemate that only contributes to the growing insecurity of the region and prevents tens of thousands of refugee families from having any real hope for a better future. This is exactly the problem that former Personal Envoy Peter Van Walsum referred to in his last report to the Security Council before the Polisario refused to meet with him again. Van Walsum made clear that compromise was essential, that independence for the territory was unrealistic, and that those who continued to stubbornly insist on a referendum that the Security Council had abandoned for over a decade were only condemning tens of thousands of refugees to a hopeless future.
As for the notion of having a vote on the region’s future, it is extremely disingenuous to suggest that Morocco’s Autonomy Initiative somehow denies the concerned population the opportunity to have a say in their own future. The initiative calls for a popular vote to either ratify or reject the proposal. In the meantime, free and fair elections have become commonplace in Morocco, and the nation’s commitment to democratic practice is a model for the region. Sahrawis routinely turn out in record high numbers in that part of the Sahara under Moroccan administration to vote for local and national representatives. Indeed, the turnout in this part of Morocco is routinely and substantially better than in any other part of the country. That speaks volumes about the population’s commitment to the nation and its territorial integrity.
On the other hand, the same clique of Polisario leaders with the same “president-for-life” have been routinely imposing their own stubborn, autocratic, and regressive philosophy on a captive refugee population for better than three and a half decades. They routinely invent or inflate population numbers in order to get more aid money. Mr. Ross infers there are as many as 150,000 refugees, while others suggest there is less than one third that number, who are direct parties to the dispute. None of this can be verified because the Polisario, and its host, Algeria, will not allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct a census in the camps, done in other refugee situations but blocked by the Polisario. I find it ludicrous for anyone to suggest that the Polisario respects international legal standards or democratic principles when compared to its well-documented authoritarian practices. The Polisario likes to pretend it is a state, but it refuses to be held accountable to the standards and behaviors that other states are judged by. Where else in the region is there a single clique that claims to be democratic and has not had a change in leadership for over 35 years? That anachronism speaks for itself.
-Amb. Edward M. Gabriel