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Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse
Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Sahara's Frozen Conflict
The Sahara's Frozen Conflict

Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse

The combination of Morocco’s recent proposal of a “Sahara autonomous region”, the Polisario Front’s counter-proposal of independence with guarantees for Moroccan interests and the UN Security Council’s 30 April resolution calling for direct negotiations between the parties – due to begin on 18 June – has been hailed as a promising breakthrough in the protracted Western Sahara dispute.

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Executive Summary

The combination of Morocco’s recent proposal of a “Sahara autonomous region”, the Polisario Front’s counter-proposal of independence with guarantees for Moroccan interests and the UN Security Council’s 30 April resolution calling for direct negotiations between the parties – due to begin on 18 June – has been hailed as a promising breakthrough in the protracted Western Sahara dispute. This optimism may eventually be vindicated but is likely to prove premature, since the underlying dynamics of the conflict have not changed. The formal positions of Morocco and the Polisario Front are still far apart; Algeria’s position remains ambiguous and difficult to deal with; and the UN, which has responsibility for resolving the conflict, still denies itself the means to do so.

Breaking the impasse requires, at a minimum, changing the framework that has governed efforts to resolve the conflict until now. The Security Council must either discharge in full the responsibility it assumed to secure the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara or accept it cannot and encourage Morocco, the Polisario Front and Algeria to resolve matters among themselves on whatever basis they can.

The impasse can be attributed in part to the reluctance of the main parties to compromise on the fundamental elements of their respective positions. This in turn has been due to many factors: the extent to which elements of the Moroccan, Polisario and Algerian leaderships have had vested interests in the status quo; the limited room for manoeuvre of both the Moroccan monarchy and the Algerian presidency, notably in relation to their respective military commanders; the lack of pressure for a change of policy from domestic public opinion in Algeria and Morocco; the insulation of the Tindouf-based Polisario Front from public opinion in the territory and the fact that, since the ceasefire took hold in 1991, the political cost of maintaining intransigent postures has appeared lower than the potential cost of moving away from them. But, if these factors have tended to reinforce one another and to combine in a vicious circle, this has been above all the consequence of Security Council failure.

The UN’s assumption of responsibility was originally predicated on a thesis – that the Western Sahara question is a matter of decolonisation – and the principle that the future of an ex-colony must be decided on the basis of the self-determination of the population in question, to be exercised in a UN-organised referendum. For such a referendum to be truly based on the principle of self- determination, at least the two main options – integration with Morocco and independence – must be on offer. But so far the UN has wholly failed to put its doctrine into practice and organise a referendum. Yet, it has not drawn the lesson of this failure, namely that, if it cannot be reversed, the question cannot be resolved on the basis of the self-determination principle. The UN’s refusal to draw this lesson has also inhibited the parties from doing so.

Instead, the UN has tacitly abandoned its earlier position of principle while continuing to play the role of arbiter of the dispute. Its inability to broker a compromise was evident as early as 2003. Yet, by continuing to attempt to arbitrate, it has encouraged the contending parties to continue to concentrate on lobbying it to arbitrate in their favour. The latest proposals by Morocco and the Polisario Front are cases in point; they have not addressed their proposals to each other, but to the UN and major Western governments. Consequently, the proposals have the character of ploys to impress the international gallery rather than opening moves in a sincere negotiation with the historic adversary. Should the Security Council favour either proposal, the result would be an imposed “solution”, which would have little moral force with the other side and accordingly be unlikely to constitute a real solution.

As shown by a simultaneously published companion Crisis Group report,* the continued failure to resolve this conflict has had high costs, especially for the people of the Western Sahara, for Maghreb unity and cooperation in the security and economic spheres, and for the credibility of the UN. An end to the impasse requires the Security Council to make a choice: either it must find what it has hitherto lacked, the political will to secure a resolution of the conflict through a truly free and fair referendum, or it should renounce its ambition to arbitrate and instead induce Morocco, the Polisario Front and Algeria to resolve the dispute among themselves on the basis of whatever principles they can genuinely agree to apply. In adopting Resolution 1754, which calls for negotiations between the parties, the Security Council may seem to have definitively rejected the first option and taken up the second. But by simultaneously stipulating that these negotiations should seek a solution “which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”, the Security Council has in fact fudged the issue in a way that could seriously prejudice the negotiations it has called for.

A resolution of the conflict could be achieved if the three main parties were left to negotiate the terms for themselves. These terms would undoubtedly be based on raison d’état, and consist of a package of reciprocal concessions. Since neither Algeria nor the Polisario Front is likely to revert to war, and there is little the Polisario can offer that would address Rabat’s fear that an independent Western Sahara would destabilise the monarchy, it is most unlikely they could persuade Morocco to resolve the dispute on the basis of the democratic principle of self-determination. But they and Morocco could conceivably agree to resolve it on another basis. And should the parties reach such an agreement, it would be possible to submit it to ratification by the population of the Western Sahara. Such a procedure would fall far short of realising the principle of self-determination, and it would debase the principle to pretend otherwise. But by securing consent, it could nonetheless legitimate the agreed solution in the eyes of those most directly affected.

The protracted attempt to resolve the Western Sahara question on the basis of the principle of self-determination has led most actors and observers alike to become fixated on this principle as if it is the only one at issue. In fact, other principles have been involved throughout and have tacitly informed the behaviour of the main protagonists. For Morocco, these have included the integrity of the national territory as Moroccans conceive this and the monarchy’s legitimacy. For the Polisario Front, they include the preservation of the identity of the Sahrawi population of the Western Sahara and the effective representation of its interests. For Algeria, they include the principle of the inviolability of the frontiers inherited from the colonial era, the preservation of strategic equilibrium in the region and the honouring of its commitments to the Polisario Front.

These are all matters of genuine principle for the concerned parties. A negotiation which took them into account might possibly yield an agreement. And an agreement based on them would deserve the international community’s respect.

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.