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The Sahara's Frozen Conflict
The Sahara's Frozen Conflict

Western Sahara: The Cost of the Conflict

The Western Sahara conflict is both one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected.

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Executive Summary

The Western Sahara conflict is both one of the world’s oldest and one of its most neglected. More than 30 years after the war began, the displacement of large numbers of people and a ceasefire in 1991 that froze military positions, its end remains remote. This is substantially due to the fact that for most of the actors – Morocco, Algeria and the Polisario Front, as well as Western countries – the status quo offers advantages a settlement might put at risk. But the conflict has human, political and economic costs and real victims: for the countries directly concerned, the region and the wider international community. This is important to acknowledge if a new conflict-resolution dynamic is to be created.

Based on their own calculations, the parties have deemed the stalemate bearable. As a result, the conflict has become one of those “frozen” ones that draw scant attention or engagement. The estimated costs appear far lower than the costs of a solution that would be detrimental to one party or another. For Morocco, an unfavourable settlement could have very serious domestic consequences since the monarchy has turned the issue into a powerful force for national unity and a means to control the threat to its power from political parties and the army.

An unfavourable settlement could mortally wound the Polisario as a political organisation and force it to compromise with the Sahrawi notables who have made their peace long ago with Morocco. It would also mean that the Sahrawi refugees in the Algerian city of Tindouf would have lived 30 years in camps for nothing. For Algeria, it would involve the loss of leverage in relations with Morocco and the defeat of principles it has defended for over three decades.

And yet, these calculations ignore the very heavy price that all – states, but also and above all, peoples – are paying. The Sahrawis who live in the Tindouf camps have to put up with exile, isolation and poverty; day after day they feel increasingly deserted by the international community. They live under the authority of an exiled state structure (the Polisario and its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) that is barely democratic and whose leaders are suspected of enriching themselves by embezzling aid. The Polisario also has to face the increased discontent of a base whose morale and unity are weakening after years of stagnation.

Those Sahrawis who live on 85 per cent of the territory controlled by Morocco enjoy better material conditions, in particular thanks to important investments made by the kingdom. However, it is almost impossible for them to express opinions that are not pro-Moroccan. Rabat violently stifles any claim of independence, frequently resorting to torture and arbitrary arrests, including against human rights activists. It has repeatedly prevented visits by international delegations wishing to observe the situation and has frequently expelled foreign journalists. Through the numerous benefits it grants, Rabat attracts populations from the north of Morocco to Western Sahara with the effect that the Sahrawis will very soon be a minority in that area, giving them a strong sense of dispossession.

Moroccans as a whole have also had to bear heavy costs. Hundreds of Moroccan troops have been captured and tortured by the Polisario. Most have remained in prison for a long time. Moroccans also have to shoulder an exorbitant financial cost (military budget, investment in the “Southern provinces”, tax breaks and higher salaries for civil servants) that has hampered national development – a situation all the more serious since poverty in the country’s slums is generating momentum for a Salafi Islamist movement.

For Algeria, costs have been primarily financial (from aid to refugees and donation of military equipment to the Polisario) and diplomatic (with this commitment sometimes at the expense of other interests), but also have to be measured in terms of the continuing existence on its western border of a major source of tension. Mauritania paid a price for the Sahrawi conflict with the 1978 coup, which ushered in a long period of institutional volatility, and the issue remains a potential source of instability for Nouakchott.

The overall cost of this conflict is also very high for the region as a whole, since it hinders the development of the Arab Maghreb Union, generating delays in economic integration, low foreign investment and slower rates of growth. Perhaps more serious is the fact that the badly governed area covering Western Sahara, Northern Mauritania and South West Algeria is becoming a zone of trafficking (drugs, people and multiple forms of contraband) that suffers from lack of security cooperation. Finally, the UN has been thoroughly discredited by its attitude in this conflict, while the international community has to pay large sums for an observation force and economic aid.

This report describes the human, social, economic, political and security price the parties need to acknowledge if they are to end the protracted conflict. A companion Crisis Group report issued simultaneously, Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse, analyses how a new dynamic might be developed that could produce the necessary diplomatic breakthrough.

Cairo/Brussels, 11 June 2007

The Sahara's Frozen Conflict

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal Europe

Efforts to end the near-forgotten conflict in Western Sahara seem to have picked up momentum, after 16 years of bloody war and another 16 of failed peacemaking. The conflict began when 350,000 Moroccans marched into the formerly Spanish-controlled region in 1975, generating armed resistance by the Polisario Front movement of the local Sahrawi people, who wanted independence, not a new overlord. After apparent concessions from both Morocco and the Polisario, U.N.-sponsored talks involving the local and regional parties began this week.

But appearances can be deceiving. The dynamics of the conflict have not changed, and the formal positions of Rabat and the Algeria-backed Polisario are far apart. It's little surprise the negotiations stalled after only two days. Morocco has proposed creating a "Sahara autonomous region" but insists on retaining formal sovereignty over the area. The Polisario wants a referendum with independence as a clear option, the eventual solution proposed in 2004 by James Baker, then the U.N. Secretary-General's personal envoy for Western Sahara.

There are many reasons why the various parties in Western Sahara do not want to compromise. Elements of the Moroccan, Polisario and Algerian leaderships have vested interests in the status quo. The 1991 cease-fire is working well enough that neither the Algerian nor Moroccan publics are pressing for change. The Moroccan monarchy and Algerian presidency also have limited room for maneuver with their military commanders.

The Security Council, which has given itself the responsibility for resolving the conflict, continues to insist that an acceptable solution "will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara." So far, however, the U.N. has wholly failed to put its doctrine into practice and to organize a referendum allowing for choice between at least two options: integration with Morocco and independence. That is what would be needed for the U.N. to really put its money where its mouth has been.

The U.N. has its reasons for being cautious. Morocco's consent is hardly likely, and in its absence such a referendum would have to be imposed on it by a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the Charter, a course both extremely unlikely to win the necessary votes and full of operational pitfalls.

The alternative approach is for the Security Council to allow and encourage the parties to negotiate the terms of a settlement themselves, without imposing any conditions as to the outcome. It remains wholly unlikely that Algeria and the Polisario Front will persuade Morocco to resolve the dispute on the basis of the democratic principle of self-determination: Rabat's fear of an independent Western Sahara destabilizing the monarchy is just too strong.

But it is conceivable that the parties could agree on a package of reciprocal concessions that the territory's population, and its neighbors, could live with. For example, the new autonomous region could be designed to correspond exactly with Western Sahara boundaries; Rabat could stop encouraging settlement of the region from other Moroccan provinces; and it could accept the Polisario as a legal political organization capable of assuming political power in the autonomous region, if elected.

The trouble with the Security Council's position is that it has in fact set the negotiators mutually exclusive objectives. It is simultaneously continuing to stipulate that the talks between the parties vindicate the right of self-determination (which means independence is an option) and welcoming Morocco's recent autonomy proposal (which rules out independence). This recipe for deadlock is not a matter of bad faith or familiar Security Council power politics so much as competing imperatives. Self-determination, with all that implies, is a longstanding U.N. doctrine that no one really wants to abandon. Yet autonomy, while strongly favored by traditional Morocco supporters, the U.S. and France, has long been seen by others as well as a possible practical solution.

So with the best of intentions, the U.N. has succeeded only in encouraging another round of lobbying. The latest proposals by Morocco and the Polisario Front -- addressed not to each other, but to the U.N. and major Western governments -- are meant to impress the international gallery rather than serve as opening moves in a sincere negotiation with the historic adversary.

Whether achieved by a full self-determination referendum (the ideal solution), or a negotiated settlement, the main objective must be to bring this conflict to an end. Though the status quo looks appealing, it hides costs that have been unacceptably high for everyone concerned. The Sahrawi people have suffered most. Even if the 1991 cease-fire stopped most of the outright violence, refugees in the Tindouf camps in Algeria live in isolation and poverty, under political leadership that is barely democratic. Those who live in the territory controlled by Morocco fare a little better materially, but Rabat systematically suppresses political rights calls for self-determination and any right of free association.

Moroccans have also borne huge financial costs for the military presence there, the investment in the "Southern provinces," and tax breaks and higher salaries for civil servants based in Western Sahara. All of this hampers national development elsewhere. The situation is all the more serious since poverty in the country's slums is generating momentum for a Salafi Islamist movement. Algeria also faces financial and diplomatic costs, and the security problem of continuing tension on its western border. The international community has to pay large sums for an observation force and economic aid.

The answer is for the Security Council to admit its approach has become part of the problem and make a decision: either to push for self-determination, with all the problems that go with that, or let the parties resolve the dispute among themselves without preconditions.