Western Sahara After Three Negotiating Rounds: What Is To Be Done?
February 26, 2008
In early January 2008, the third round of United Nations-sponsored negotiations on a political solution to the Western Sahara conflict ended without the parties reaching any kind of agreement other than to meet again in March. The third-round talks were known as “Manhasset III,” because like the earlier, equally unsuccessful rounds they took place in Manhasset, New York. The participants, as in previous rounds, were the two parties to the dispute – the Government of Morocco and the Polisario Front – as well as the neighboring countries of Algeria and Mauritania. The UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Peter van Walsum, visited the region in February for consultations in preparation for the fourth round, expected to begin on March 11. There is little reason to expect, however, that Manhasset IV will be any more fruitful than Manhasset I, II, or III.
The Manhasset meetings are being held in response to UN Security Council resolution 1754, adopted in April 2007, asking the parties to negotiate without preconditions under UN auspices. Prior to the Council adopting this resolution, Morocco had submitted its proposal to grant autonomy to its “southern provinces,” as it refers to Western Sahara, within the framework of the Kingdom’s sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity. The day before Morocco submitted its proposal, Polisario submitted its own – to reach a solution through the 2003 Baker Peace Plan for the Self-determination of the People of Western Sahara, which called for a referendum on self-determination with independence one of the three choices after a 5-year period of self-government under Moroccan sovereignty. The other choices under the Baker plan were to be autonomy and integration, representing a change from a 1991 UN Settlement Plan, which offered a choice only between independence or integration.
Praise has been heaped on Morocco for dropping its demand for full integration and offering autonomy, which it had earlier opposed. But what Morocco and its apologists fail to acknowledge is that Morocco was persuaded to adjust its policy only after it became fairly clear from the preliminary voter identification figures that a free and fair referendum under either the Baker or Settlement Plans could easily result in independence for the Territory. Morocco’s objectives now are to avoid mention of independence at all costs and persuade the international community that its autonomy offer is a fair one.
Polisario for its part is perfectly willing to accept autonomy as an option in a referendum because it believes the voters will choose independence if given the chance. Its goal is to assure that a free and fair referendum under UN supervision actually takes place, with independence on the ballot. In other words, neither side has really moved away from their zero-sum, winner-take all stances from the earliest days of the conflict. Morocco wants an integrated or at worst autonomous Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty; and Polisario wants an independent Western Sahara which it will govern after more than three decades of acting as governmentin exile.
While once again during the third round both sides reiterated their willingness to cooperate with the United Nations to resolve the conflict, the actions which might prove they mean what they say were absent. Do we have any reason to believe that any time soon one or the other or both sides will approach the negotiations prepared to do something that would break the stalemate? Or that if one side did so, the other would perceive that it had been offered an honorable way out of an unproductive impasse? Based on the outcome of the three Manhasset meetings and on more recent developments, this looks far from likely.
Nobody expected that the first round in June 2007 would be more than an icebreaker after the seven years that had elapsed since the parties had last met face to face. The international community was pleased that at least the meeting took place. There was hope that during the second round held in August 2007, the parties would start searching for a mutually acceptable political solution.
However, despite the Council’s specific request for meaningful progress, there was no movement during the second round either. Each party stood by its own position. The UN put on a brave face through both sessions, with the final communiqué on the second round stating that the parties had been able to hold substantive talks. In his October 2007 report to the Council, however, the Secretary-General admitted that no substantive negotiations had taken place regarding the political solution of the conflict and that both parties had manifested the same rigid positions. He asked that the Council provide guidance to them as without it, they would not start meaningful negotiations.
Resolution 1783, adopted in October 2007 in response to that report, again asks the parties to enter into substantive negotiations without preconditions in order to reach a mutually acceptable political solution. However, it is perhaps unfortunate that as in the case of Resolution 1754 of April 2007, the resolution singles out the Moroccan autonomy proposal, welcoming it as “serious and credible,” while simply taking note of Polisario’s position. This seeming departure from Security Council evenhandedness may well be complicating the negotiating process, encouraging Morocco to persist in its stance and making Polisario wary of the process.
In any event. developments between the second and third rounds of negotiations did not bode well for a breakthrough in January 2008. Using as a rationale the fact that a new government had been elected in Morocco in September elections, Morocco remained uncommitted to a third meeting for a long time. It rejected UN suggestions for a possible November or December meeting, delaying its answer and keeping everybody guessing as to the next round. Although the invitation for a third round had been sent to the parties by the United Nations soon after the end of the second round, it was only in early December that Morocco agreed to attend.
As for Polisario, in mid-December it held its Twelfth Congress in Tifariti, located in the zone between the Western Sahara international border and the berm (the sand wall constructed by Morocco to keep Polisario out of the Territory). This is an area under supervision by MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping operation for Western Sahara, and Polisario refers to it as its “liberated zone”. Prior to the meeting, which involved the re-election of Secretary-General Mohamed Abdelaziz, there had been press statements by Polisario representatives that the Congress would discuss the possible resumption of hostilities.
The parties’ opening statements at the third round were as uncompromising as ever. The head of the Moroccan delegation described his government’s autonomy proposal as a “courageous and decisive initiative” and called upon participants to make that initiative the “starting point and final objective of the negotiation process….” The head of the Polisario delegation stated that the issue was one of decolonization, which is fundamental to the basic values and principles of the UN Charter. He decried what he said was an attempt to create a new map based on brute force, a clear enough reference to Morocco’s position on Western Sahara.
The parties’ closing statements at the end of the third round were just as telling. Morocco reaffirmed its view that its initiative conformed to international norms and claimed that its proposals enjoyed the support of the international community. The other side, Morocco charged, was persisting in a policy of threat and provocative acts. Polisario, ever hopeful that a referendum will eventually occur, was more measured in its closing statement, calling the third round important and useful.
Following the conclusion of Manhasset III, a pro-Moroccan NGO ostensibly made up of Saharans announced a peaceful march, under the protection of the Moroccan army, from the town of Smara in the Territory to Tifariti, in Polisario’s “liberated zone.” Polisario representatives, on the other hand, attended a gas and petroleum trade fair in Houston, Texas, where they sought to attract oil companies to licensing agreements in and off-shore Western Sahara. The UN envoy’s February visit to the region took place against this inauspicious background, and it was hardly surprising that he found both sides maintaining their incompatible positions. Van Walsum said he had no new plan to surmount the impasse. While in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, he was told that Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara was not negotiable and that the Moroccan autonomy initiative was a generous proposal. During his visit to the Polisario camps, high level representatives of the Front stated that Polisario would never accept negotiations on the basis of the Moroccan proposal.
What is to be done?
The Western Sahara conflict is nowhere remotely on the way to being resolved. The initial elation surrounding the launching of the Manhasset process has faded, and it is discouraging to see the United Nations expending energy and resources on meetings at which the parties refuse to budge from their positions. The parties have no sense of urgency on finding a solution, and are seemingly unwilling to make any substantive concessions. Morocco will not accept genuine self-determination for the people of Western Sahara as an option; and Polisario will accept autonomy only as an option in a referendum in which it expects the voters to choose independence.
Expecting that one or more additional meetings will lead to a better result is pointless. The Secretary-General and his representatives have no carrots or sticks to use in order to convince one or both sides to give up something in order to reach a permanent and mutually acceptable solution. This possibility was perhaps within reach in the years 1997-2004, when former U.S. Secretary of States James Baker was the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General. Baker enjoyed tacit but clear support from the United States and other major powers due to his previous public service, extraordinary negotiating talents, and his personal integrity.
In July 2003, Baker won unanimous Security Council approval for his peace plan, noted above, which called for a referendum after five years of autonomy for Western Sahara within the Moroccan state. This Security Council stance was short-lived, and the Baker Plan was weakened when, in April 2004, Morocco rejected it. Baker resigned as Personal Envoy in June 2004.
The central problem then, as today, is that key international actors, notably the United States and France, regard Morocco as too important an ally to risk alienating over Western Sahara, which they see as a minor global issue. Instead, they choose to praise the Moroccan autonomy proposal, ignoring the fact that it does not meet UN standards on self-determination and presupposes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This stance of course encourages Morocco in its intransigence. Meanwhile, and paradoxically, UN member states within and outside the Security Council continue to pay homage to the principle of self-determination, thus rekindling Polisario’s hopes that if it perseveres, independence might ultimately be achieved. Another recentcomplicating factor is that the United States and France are ignoring the inconsistency of their positions on Western Sahara with their stance on Kosovo, where they have supported independence after Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. This adds to Polisario’s sense that it is being treated unfairly, but may also encourage the movement to believe that one day the world can be persuaded to see the justice of its cause. At the same time, Kosovo’s declaration of independence, based on a UN plan, couldmake Morocco all the more wary of making any concessions at Manhasset.
The United Nations needs to be honest and admit that it cannot get anywhere on Western Sahara under its present trajectory. Much publicized visits to the region by the Personal Envoy or even the Secretary-General himself will never result in agreements that could help resolve the conflict. Similarly, further rounds of so-called negotiations where the parties talk past each other will be futile.
But perhaps there are still some grounds for hoping that creative diplomacy can find a way out of the impasse. The Moroccan autonomy proposal is general enough so as to allow for some imaginative blending with the Baker Plan, which itself envisaged a combination of Moroccan sovereignty and Western Saharan autonomy for five years. Morocco needs to emphasize its sovereignty over Western Sahara for domestic consumption, but Morocco should be aware that excessive rhetoric on the issue does not help their case in the international arena and should be toned down. Meanwhile, representatives of the Secretary-General need to work discreetly and behind the scenes with all parties concerned to establish a definition of self-determination and guidelines for achieving it that would be acceptable to both Morocco and the Polisario – and obtain their agreement before going public. Polisario should be persuaded to accept that self-determination could take a variety of forms, and that pressing for the maximum – that is, full independence – could mean that it will never achieve self-determination at all.
Finally, and most important, the Secretary-General and his representatives should try to convince the powerful supporters of the two sides to pressure their respective clients to come to terms in the interests of regional stability and economic development. Placating Morocco with praise for its autonomy proposal, or encouraging Polisario to persist in unrealistic hopes, will do no good for the cause of peace or for the people of Western Sahara.
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 – from March 1997 until his resignation in June 2004.
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