US leadership, not partisanship, desperately needed for peace in Western Sahara

November 2010

[The following, coauthored with Anna Theofilopoulou, was sent to Foreign Policy magazine’s Middle East Channel blog in November 2010. It was written in response to a MEC posting by two lobbyists for Morocco (see below for links) who were responding to two earlier MEC posts by Theofilopoulou and me. MEC did not publish the response below nor did they respond to our subsequent emails. At roughly the same time, MEC did publish a response from Carne Ross, who lobbies for Polisario, the Western Sahara independence movement. – JM]

The past three days of violent confrontations between Moroccan security forces and Sahrawi protesters in the disputed Western Sahara clearly demonstrate the urgent need for the Security Council to take the issue more seriously before it spirals out of control. Initiative from the United States will be key to make this happen.

Recently we made the case for a more active US role in the Western Sahara peace process, prompting a constructive response from former US diplomats Ambassador Edward Gabriel and Mr Robert Holley, who now work as lobbyists for the Kingdom of Morocco. In their posting, Gabriel and Holley agree that a strong US role is needed but they claim that we are proposing a solution based on a referendum with independence as an option. Nowhere in our recent article or even the previous one posted in the Middle East Channel did we suggest such a thing.

Polisario and its supporters are quite capable of making the case for the independence option themselves.

There is a major point of difference between our approach and that of Gabriel and Holley: they back a partisan negotiation framework based upon Morocco’s 2007 autonomy solution. We, on the other hand, are advocating for a non-partisan approach, one that does not predetermine the meaning of sovereignty or self-determination before the parties get to the table. Essentially, we are saying that all the ingredients for a solution — final status, a referendum, power sharing, refugee repatriation, the role of Moroccan settlers, etc. — must be negotiated. With the guidance of the UN envoy, a more active US role, well-timed pressure from the UN Security Council and more imagination from the international community, we believe that Morocco and Polisario can piece together a comprehensive settlement that bridges their notions of sovereignty and self-determination.

Gabriel and Holley also present a questionable narrative of the peace process. They claim that the shift away from the integration/independence approach of the original 1991 UN Settlement Plan was initiated by the Clinton Administration and “was backed” by former Secretary of State James Baker, Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. Those of us intimately involved with Baker’s work and internal happenings in the Western Sahara file at the United Nations beg to differ.

After watching the Western Sahara peace process stagnate for four years, the Clinton administration was more than happy to take a hands-off approach and let Baker do the heavy lifting. The Clinton White House fully backed his effort to implement the original Settlement Plan under the 1997 Houston Accords, which Baker had quickly negotiated between Morocco and Polisario. It was not until September 2000, in a meeting organized by Baker between the parties in Berlin, that the negotiations began to discuss other options besides the two choices of independence or integration. The impetus for this new direction, as everyone involved knows, was the fact that it had become abundantly clear that the referendum electorate would not favour integration with Morocco.

In Berlin, Baker asked Morocco if it would support a solution based upon some devolution of its governmental authority in Western Sahara. Though Morocco seemed willing, Rabat refused to discuss the issue of power sharing in a concrete or serious manner. This was especially the case after Baker proposed his own plan, at the prior request of the Security Council, in January 2003, a plan that included the option of independence. The US government then led effort in the UN Security Council to build support for Baker’s proposals in the summer of 2003. Only when it became clear that Morocco would no longer work with Baker did the George W. Bush administration, following the advice of Elliott Abrams, work with France and Spain to water down the Security Council’s support for the Baker Plan in April 2004.

After much coaxing, Morocco finally presented its autonomy proposal in 2007, which the Bush administration immediately deemed “serious and credible.” However, as an actual peace offer, its credibility and seriousness have to be reconciled against some hard facts that Polisario is well aware of. Morocco put it on the table because Abrams had suggested that formal US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara would then be forthcoming. The State Department wisely derailed Abrams’ ambitions and helped run down the clock until the next administration. Now that Morocco is stuck with its autonomy proposal, Rabat has argued that Polisario must accept it on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Those of us with some historical memory can’t help but see this demand as a bit hypocritical. In 2003 and 2004, Morocco and its supporters in Washington and in the Security Council were working overtime to convince everyone that Baker could not force a solution to Western Sahara on either party — peace had to be the result of dialogue. Now Morocco wants the Security Council to force its 2007 autonomy solution, which precludes the option of independence, on Polisario.

To suggest that the negotiations over Western Sahara require such preconditions is neither true in theory nor in practice. As demonstrated in the parties’ rejections of the previous UN envoys (Morocco’s refusal to work with Baker, Polisario’s staunch refusal to accept Peter van Walsum), the neutrality of the UN Secretariat must be maintained. And since 2007, at the request of the Security Council the parties have been negotiating without any concrete preconditions. The paucity of results owes to the conflict’s apparent lack of urgency (prior to the events of the past two weeks). Western Sahara’s low strategic risk profile and negligible body count allows the UN to punt the issue every April when the UN mission comes up for renewal, passing vague and self-contradictory resolutions open to different interpretations by each party.

Just as there is a political stalemate in Western Sahara, there is also an intellectual stalemate. For too long, self-determination and sovereignty have been framed by the parties, their backers and, unfortunately, key mediators as diametrically opposed absolutes. This need not be the case. An honest broker will not accept the parties’ red lines as given but will attempt to find ways to transcend them.

In practice, self-determination and sovereignty can be seen as much more flexible than the discourse on Western Sahara often indicates. Very few countries have all of the attributes associated with claims of sovereignty; any state that has signed a treaty or entered into an agreement has already compromised its sovereignty. The realization of Morocco’s 2007 autonomy proposal would only prove the point.

In very few cases of decolonization were subject populations actually consulted in a formal referendum giving them the option of independence. By default rather than mandate, the international community has passively accepted independence as sufficient to achieve self-determination. It need not, however, been seen as necessary for self-determination. All that matters is whether or not the people of Western Sahara have the ultimate say when it comes to the final status of the territory.

About the authors

Anna Theofilopoulou covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations from 1994 to 2006. She worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III throughout his appointment as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara.

Jacob Mundy holds a PhD from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He is coauthor of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press).

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