A DEMOCRATIC SOLUTION FOR THE WESTERN SAHARA
Malainin S. Nayem
The United Nations, has finally, decided to renew its efforts to unblock the political impasse in the Western Sahara. Ambassador Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands, Mr. Annan´s new Personal Envoy for the Western Sahara is touring the region to explore with the parties and the neighboring states how to break the current deadlock. The Italian Francesco Bastagli, the new chief of the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) had already met with the parties.
Van Walsum, a veteran Dutch diplomat, will face a very hard task during his first tour in the region and his challenge will, ultimately, depend on his ability to convince Morocco that only a democratic solution will bring a lasting peace to the region and will give international legitimacy to the outcome. Moroccan king's refusal of any proposal that gives the saharawi people a chance to vote on its future and its current crackdown on human right activists and peaceful demonstrators, demanding that right, are the main obstacles in front of the Van Walsum mission.
The Polisario front initiative to release the last group of Moroccan POWs is a very positive step, but unfortunately, the authorities of the kingdom had responded with a wave of terror and intimidation against the human right activists and defenceless civilians in the occupied territories of the Western Sahara. What is worse: Such horrendous campaign is still happening with the absolute indifference of the international community and the total silence of the European Union and the United Nations.
The monitoring of the human rights violations, as well as, the presence of international media and observers and the control of the resources of the territory until the celebration of the referendum should be included in the work of the new UN representative, Francesco Bastagli, for the saharawis to regain confidence and trust in the international body.
Both, Van Walsum and Bastagli, come in a very sensitive moment in the history of the conflict and will need a lot of support to overcome the many obstacles Morocco is putting to block any solution that takes into consideration the will of the saharawi people.
Moroccan King Mohamed VI's opposition to the holding of a referendum on self determination for the people of the Western Sahara, that his father and predecessor, had already accepted and defended and his promotion of what he calls "a mutually accepted political solution" may very well be a calculated policy to curb the internal endemic problems of his country in the short run, but obviously it is a risky and unwise decision in the long term.
Abandoning the referendum process, would effectively, eliminate the only clear, legal and mutually accepted framework to settle the dispute; it opens the doors for a long period of uncertainty and would pave the way for a regional crisis of an unknown outcome (like what we are witnessing in the occupied territories) and even, in the event such "political" solution is envisaged, outside a democratic and fair referendum, would the Moroccans be willing to welcome thousands of saharawis, against their will and with the feeling that their legitimate rights were ignored? And, after 14 years trying to organize a vote, will the UN ever give its blessing and legitimacy to such a solution? Right now the saharawis are only demanding a say about their political future and the Moroccan authorities are opposing it, fearful maybe, of the outcome or perhaps, unsure if it is the best solution for them. At the end, it will become clear to all, that what is good for the saharawis is better for Morocco and is the best for the region.
While it is difficult to speculate about the real intentions of the monarch, when he talks about a "mutually accepted solution", he however, disclosed in his throne day speech: "a mutually accepted solution supported by the UN that gives autonomy to our southern provinces in the framework of the sovereignty of the kingdom, its unity and territorial integrity." The very same idea that the Moroccan press is presenting as the "Moroccan peace initiative and representatives of the regime are discussing with the new UN envoy in his first visit to Rabat and
It is obvious that the terms of a "mutually accepted solution" cannot be dictated by one of the parties and, if such solution is the "autonomy", already rejected by the saharawis, it would not be "mutually accepted" and therefore, it would not have the "support" of the UNO. The king's intentions, then, could be interpreted as a real challenge to the UN and a first obstacle in front of the Van Walsum mission. Such declaration, far from bringing any hope to the saharawis, increases their frustration and their lack of confidence, both in the intentions of the occupying authorities and in the determination of the United Nations.
Moroccan violent actions against peaceful saharawi demonstrators, in almost all the occupied cities and in front of the ayes of the UN mission in the territory were also defended by the Moroccan ruler. King Mohamed VI´s endorsement of his henchman's actions against innocent saharawi civilians makes him "the torturer in chief" and fuels the tensions in the region, leaving the saharawi population in the occupied territories in a vulnerable position.
The situation in the occupied territories of the Western Sahara is both dangerous and worrisome. The reported cases of torture and disappearance and the sealing of the territory to international observers and independent journalists should not be tolerated by the international community, especially if such events are happening in a territory where the UN has a mission. Amnesty International, wrote in a statement made public recently "Moroccan security forces were accused of using excessive force during the policing of the protests and of torturing and ill-treating protesters they detained. Amnesty International wrote to the Moroccan authorities on 21 June to urge them to investigate these allegations, but has not so far received a response."
The Moroccan King missed one more chance to re-conduct his policy toward the Western Sahara; instead, he decided to hold to the old Moroccan tactic of attack when facing pressure. Stressing the same propaganda repeated, day in and day out, in the Moroccan official media (the saharawi refugees as people kept against their will) could be a clever move to manipulate the information and confuse the public opinion. The problems begin when the makhzen, itself, gets trapped in believing its own propaganda.
If the Moroccan king is really interested in a realizable peace or in a mutually accepted solution, why didn't he consider his position regarding the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara? In accepting the self-determination principle as the only democratic solution to the dispute, Morocco will open a window to push ahead with the peace process and would give the new UN envoy a mandate to accelerate its implementation. A solution is more likely to come if the will of the parties goes along with their rhetoric. Moroccan past commitment to cooperate with the UN has always been buried by its actions.
What other solution could replace the holding of the referendum and guarantee the stability of the region? What is a "mutually accepted solution" when the parties' positions are totally irreconcilable, regarding the issue of sovereignty? Nobody can ensure that a solution out of the polls, can assure a smooth transition, taking into consideration that the Saharawi people have been living separated by a wall for the last 30 years and have accepted the challenge of defending their recognize right to self determination and any dubious maneuver to skim that right will certainly lead to chaos and turmoil. On the other hand, Moroccan authorities would find themselves in a serious trouble, if they had to deal with a saharawi population, at last, united and with the categorical endorsement of thousands of supporters from all around the world, and denied the right to express their political desires.
Driss Bassri, King Hassan's strong man in the Western Sahara, ruled out any solution out of the referendum. In a series of interviews in European and Maghreb press, Bassri, discouraged the young king about the risks of skipping the referendum. The king may well be aware of such dangers, but he does not seem to be ready for the necessary reforms that would take Morocco to the democratic path and solve the Western Sahara conflict according to the UN resolutions or as Toby Shelly points out he is "too insecure to risk a settlement"
Many in the Moroccan establishment, however, would argue that "a large autonomy," where the inhabitants of the Western Sahara can manage their own internal affairs, is the ideal solution. Those same individuals would fail to answer some of the most complicated issues of their own idea and at the end would recognize that autonomy should only lead to total integration, not independence. Supporters of this idea are also aware that it would not be a lasting solution, due to the growing independence sentiment inside the saharawi occupied territories, after 30 years of Moroccan occupation and the open and patriot generation that has grown in the refugee camps. For how long, then, do the Moroccan rulers want to "moroccanize" the saharawis against their will? Does not anyone in the Moroccan strategy-makers think that oppression and incarcerations would only increase saharawi resistance? One effective line of attack against the "autonomy solution" is that it would not lead to a long-lasting solution and it would increase the sense of uncertainty.
Autonomy, is also a very complicated and often confusing process and even in developed democracies, like Spain, the status of some autonomous regional governments ( as old as the Western Sahara Conflict) is still today a major challenge facing the socialist government of Rodriguez Zapatero. In Catalonia, the governing coalition of republicans and socialists is becoming untenable due to disagreements and demands that are being considered in the new estatut, The parliament of Spain's autonomous Basque region voted last year in favor of a proposal to loosen ties with the central government against the will of the central government in Madrid, in Valencia, they want their native language to be recognized by the European Union, in Galicia, the newly elected coalition government of socialists and nationalists is already demanding the recognition of Galicia as a nation among other demands .... And these are only some of the problems affecting the former colonial power of the Western Sahara.
Defenders of the "autonomy solution" usually base their arguments on the baseless idea that "a referendum on self determination could put in danger the stability of morocco and the region." The greatest risks to peace and stability in the region history have the Moroccan seal. From the war against newly independent Algeria in 1963, the opposition to the independence of Mauritania, the invasion of Western Sahara to the invasion of Spanish island of Persil in 2002, Moroccan monarchy, have been a factor of instability in the whole region and handing it the Western Sahara, against the will of its people, will only increase its perception that through escalation and crisis it can regain its claims of the "greater morocco."
In the past and especially, during the cold war, the USA and European countries, worried about "stability," have looked the other way when "benign dictatorships" ignored the international law, but now it became clear that by appeasing such dictators the world can have neither peace nor stability. Applying the cold war speech to the new realities, the king, insisted that he needs to control the Western Sahara to save the region from the "threats of terror." From Spain to the US, it is clear to all that the despotic rule of the Moroccan monarchy has made of morocco one of the biggest exporters of terrorists in the world.
When the International Court of Justice, dismissed Moroccan claims of the Western Sahara and called for the celebration of the referendum, back in 1975, Morocco ignored the ruling and put the region's stability in jeopardy, Spanish fragile transition caved in and the North African monarchy sized the territory. In the summer of 2002, Morocco, again and without any warning invaded the Spanish island of Persil, President Aznar's firm action drove the invaders back and kept the status quo on the tiny island. Two actions and two different responses explain why pressure and not containment, is the only way to make the Moroccan rulers respect their engagements and keep the stability of the region.
Then, seriously, are there any prospects of a realistic autonomous government inside a developing, not yet a democracy and a centralized country like Morocco? The culture, traditional idiosyncrasy and relations with the monarchy, may make some sort of limited regional rule work for some provinces inside Morocco as a first step to bust political freedoms, but certainly, that is not the case of the Western Sahara. Such steps are unlikely to curb the saharawi sentiments or make the monarchy more attractive in their ayes. Western Sahara is not considered by any country as a Moroccan province, so more administrative powers for its inhabitants are the wrong cure for a sovereignty problem.
An autonomous government in the Western Sahara, inside Moroccan authority and without a prospect of a referendum on self determination, would surely lead to a Kosovo situation, in the most optimistic view or to the pre referendum massacres in East Timor, as the worst possible scenario. Yielding the sovereignty over the Western Sahara in a UN - sponsored plebiscite would increase Moroccan prestige in the world, while yielding it, through civil unrest and turmoil would only weaken the kingdom.
The way out of our current predicament, should only be through a fair and democratic vote on the future of the Western Sahara.
The referendum of self-determination, however, was accepted by all the parties and would give legitimacy and respect to whoever wins the vote. The 30-year dispute over the Western Sahara will be resolved only if both, the European Union and the Maghreb, realize that only a fair referendum would bring a lasting and legitimate solution and put all their efforts behind its implementation.
While it is certain that the list of possible voters for the referendum on self determination, has been the most sensible of all the obstacles in the way toward the implementation of the peace plan, it is also remarkable the hard work and the dedication carried out by Secretary James Baker III to unblock the situation and manage to have the parties agree to a provisional list of voters and a code of conduct during the referendum process, in the Houston Accords. Once the list was, finally, published by the UN, Morocco backed again, alleging more than 100 thousand Moroccan citizens were appealing to be included in the final draft, and from then, it tried to avert the referendum, calling it "inapplicable" and instead proposing- always with the unconditional support of France, an autonomy for the saharawi population within "the Moroccan sovereignty." Mr. Baker put the best of his diplomatic abilities to find a middle ground, proposing to the parties and the neighboring countries "the peace Plan for the Self-determination for the people of the Western Sahara" also Known as the Baker Plan. The new "political package" combines the autonomy (Moroccan option) during a period of four to five years fallowed by a referendum on self-determination (demanded by the UN Security Council) and allowing the more than 100 thousand Moroccan challengers to participate in the vote. The UN Peace Plan for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara does not satisfy all the demands of the Saharawis; it is a compromise to put an end to the long dispute.
The POLISARIO Front and the neighboring countries accepted the Plan and the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed it as "the optimal solution" and called for its implementation. Once more, Morocco rejected the compromise, Baker got frustrated and resigned, as the UN envoy to the region. He later declared that Morocco will never have legitimacy of its occupation until the saharawis exercise their right to self-determination.
Two compromise solutions are on the table, either the settlement plan accepted by both parties and by the international community in 1991 or the Baker Plan. It is not realistic to call for a "mutually accepted political solution that guarantees the Moroccan sovereignty" over the disputed territory when the UN lists the Western Sahara conflict, as a decolonization issue, and clearly states that sovereignty is the main dispute. Though, a referendum on self-determination is supported by the whole international community, and until recently, by Morocco. But, given the way the new monarch has handled the conflict in the last three years, it makes sense to believe that morocco has abandoned its own engagements and raised itself above the international law.
After so many years and many failed attempts to avert the celebration of the referendum, it has become obvious to many international observers that a vote on sovereignty is a necessary step if a legitimate solution is to emerge. Knowing what is at stake, the challenge would be a new approach to the Maghreb policy from the European Union, as a whole and especially France and Spain by encouraging Morocco to accept the referendum as a first step toward peace and reconciliation in the region. France's position of offering a public support to the UN Security Council resolutions while working behind the scenes to block their implementation is the best tactic to never have a solution. A democratic and free future is needed in both, Morocco and the Western Sahara.
Now that, both, the new UN special envoy to Western Sahara and the MINURSO chief are European diplomats, there is no better moment for the EU leaders to press the neighboring kingdom to release all the saharawi political prisoners and clear the way for the celebration of a free, democratic and just referendum of self determination in the Western Sahara and make a call to the international community to oversee the process. Such moves will be a requirement for European cooperation and would commit some incentives to morocco, like a strategic partnership that would foster Morocco's position in the Middle Eastern democratic strategy and will open immense possibilities for the Maghreb Union. In the past, Morocco's international campaigns to bolster its international position were always tarnished by its illegal occupation of the Western Sahara.
Such steps need the support of the USA and the African Union and the firm commitment of all the parties to contribute to a stable and peaceful transition period, but also the support of the UN is essential, through the reinforcement of the MINURSO.
The UN is celebrating its 60th anniversary, in the middle of a campaign of scandals and criticism, but also of a frank debate to make the international body more democratic and give it the necessary tools to face the new challenges. For the last 40 years, the question of the Western Sahara has dominated the decolonization committee of the General Assembly, the Security Council and periodical reports of the General Secretariat. "The UN should mean what it says" many world leaders had said recently, and in the case of the Western Sahara, it has said a lot. If such resolutions will continue to be meaningless, MINURSO and its entire mission will become another example of inefficiency, mismanagement and lack of credibility for the international body. Time has come to put an end to decolonization issues, for the world to focus on the new threats to global security.
The 30-year dispute over the Western Sahara will be resolved only if the UN new envoy makes it clear to Morocco that no country can raise itself above the international law and that only a free and democratic referendum will be endorsed as a solution to the dispute.
It is a waste of time to bring back the "autonomy" dish again or make more pressure on the Polisario front to gain extra indulgence. The saharawi side has run out of concessions. To decide the final status of the Western Sahara, only the people, through a democratic ballot vote will have the last word.
We do not know what the final status of the Western Sahara will be like- nobody knows for sure until the saharawis themselves vote, however one outcome is already crystal clear: for 30 years now, the people of the Western Sahara have rejected imposed solutions and have proved its determination to exercise its recognized right to self-determination. Both, Morocco and the UN strategists should now know that there is no possible way to skip the polls.
If all the possibilities fail and the Moroccan leaders continue to obstruct the UN initiatives, Van Walsum´s experience in overseeing sanctions against invaders that do not respect UN resolutions should be put to use.
Spanish foreign minister Moratinos wrote (three days after Moroccan rejection of the referendum) that Spain cannot "lead an international campaign in favor of the independence of the Western Sahara," because that would be in a contradiction with the self-determination and undermine the efforts to celebrate the referendum. Such argument, used by the Moroccan lobbyists and the apologists of the status quo in the 90s, is not reliable anymore, because the Moroccan monarch has ruled out the celebration of the referendum. Hence, Moroccan incoherent diplomacy has made it very easy for any rational country to recognize the saharawi republic. If Moratinos finally realizes that Morocco is not serious about the referendum, would he fallow Mbeki and propose that Spain recognizes the SADR?
Facing the hardships of the exile and jailed and tortured in their own country (with the silence of Mr. Moratinos), the saharawis have been very patient, but, those who deny them their rights need to realize that such patience is not an elastic band that could be stretched forever without snapping. The resumption of military hostilities may seem unlikely now, but the threat exists, nevertheless.