With their backs up against the berm

When Kofi Annan in 2005 appointed Peter van Walsum , a very low-profile Dutch diplomat, as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara to replace the very high-profile James Baker, most Western Sahara watchers were struck by the obvious down-grading of the Envoy position. It was as though Mr. Annan was throwing in the towel. After all, if Mr. Baker, the negotiator extraordinaire with the clout of the lone superpower behind him, couldn’t get the job done, who imagined that a relative unknown from a second tier country could make any headway with the wily, intransigent, and well-connected Moroccans?

With the release on April 19, 2006, of the Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara (S-2006-249), it is fair to say that this assessment was right on target. Mr. Annan in a startlingly candid analysis of the current state of the crisis has let it be known that the UN’s almost-50-year crusade to de-colonize and bring justice to the Western Sahara is coming to an end. Sure he recommended a six month extension of MINURSO, but given Mr. van Walsum’s total lack of spine in confronting Rabat and upholding international law and the Secretary-General’s bowing to political reality (aggression), there is little possibility that anything constructive will take place during this period.

The Secretary-General’s argument goes something like this. The Western Sahara question is at an impasse, with Morocco refusing to accept any referendum that would include the option of independence and the Polisario refusing to consider any plan that DID NOT include such an option. While the International Court of Justice has ruled in favor of Western Saharan self-determination, the United Nations has consistently come down on the side of the Polisario, and no member states recognize the Moroccan occupation, none of the great powers, especially those in the Security Council, have seen fit to pressure Morocco to alter its current stance. Given this situation on the ground, there are two options, “indefinite prolongation of the current deadlock in anticipation of a different political reality; or direct negotiations between the parties.” The first option in the opinion of the Special Envoy is a “recipe for violence,” which would be catastrophic for the Western Saharans, and thus is unacceptable.

And so in Paragraph 34 we get the Secretary-General’s recommendation:

What remained therefore was a recourse to direct negotiation, which should be held without preconditions. Their objective should be to accomplish what no “plan” could, namely to work out a compromise between international legality and political reality that would produce a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which would provide for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara.

The fatal flaw in these recommendations, in the Secretary-General’s whole argument, and indeed in the whole report, is the refusal to recognize that it is Morocco alone that has created the impasse by refusing to hold a referendum on independence and that the Polisario is being asked to settle for a “compromise between international legality and political reality” when they have already done so several times.

The Report seems totally oblivious to the huge compromises the Polisario has made from its initial position that the referendum should be based totally on the old Spanish census numbering 74,000 to their acceptance of the Baker II Plan that would allow an additional several hundred thousand illegal Moroccan settlers — who outnumber the Western Saharans by some two, three, or four, to one — to vote. Since 1988 the pattern has always been the same. The Polisario and Rabat negotiate and come to an agreement. Rabat realizes that the electorate they had agreed to would almost certainly vote for independence. Rabat consequently obstructs voter registration until the UN brings the parties together again to put together a new agreement that broadens the electorate in Morocco’s favor.

And what is the Polisario’s reward for fifteen years of negotiating in good faith, respecting the cease fire, unilaterally returning the Moroccan prisoners, compromising several times, and finally agreeing to what can only be seen as a horrible referendum plan slanted enormously in Morocco’s favor? Their reward is Morocco raising the bar once again by removing independence from the table altogether and the Secretary-General calling for more negotiation and compromise.
The question I ask myself and which the Secretary-General should be asking himself is why in the world should the Polisario once again sit down with Morocco. After all the Polisario and Rabat have already negotiated three agreements to hold a referendum — in 1988, 1991, 1997, and in the four rounds of Manhasset. And all these times Morocco has refused to honor the agreements. Rabat has proven itself time and time again to be a totally untrustworthy negotiating partner. Rabat’s rejection of Baker II is the surest sign that Morocco all along was just stalling. They never had any intention of allowing any referendum on independence to take place.
In short, the Secretary-General’s Report is a disgrace. It is appeasement pure and simple. Holding direct negotiations “without preconditions” is a joke. Since the early 1960’s the UN has always operated under the basic “precondition” that the Western Sahara must be considered a non-self-governing territory with the right to self-determination through a referendum. The Secretary-General simply does not have the right to discard this precondition. And the Polisario is not about to discard it unilaterally.
And the final silliness of the Report is the preposterous idea that somehow somewhere out there is a negotiated compromise “that would produce a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which would provide for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara.” As I discuss above, for the Polisario there are just no compromises left. And if the Western Sahara conflict has taught us anything it is that there is no “mutually acceptable political solution.”

Perhaps the most interesting observation to come from Van Walsum’s declarations is his belief that the UN Security Council should have used Chapter VII powers (ie, coercion) to stop Morocco’s 1975 invasion of what was then the Spanish Sahara. Indeed, he notes that the Security Council treats the Chapter VI (ie, non-coercive) nature of its intervention in Western Sahara since 1988 as ‘holy’. In other words, it’s not just Morocco and Polisario who have ‘red lines’ in this conflict, but also Paris and Washington.

In the NRC interview, he further clarified his position, which is clearly empathetic towards Western Sahara’s right to independence: ‘The moral dilemma is that Polisario is more on the right side than Morocco. But because the Security Council will never force Morocco into a referendum on independence, they actually choose for the status quo’. He then criticizes Polisario for choosing exile over autonomy.

So this is the world we live in: In the same interview, a lead UN negotiator simultaneously acknowledges Western Sahara’s right to independence and the illegality of Morocco’s annexationist move. Only to conclude by suggesting that the Security Council — in the name of realism! — should force Western Sahara to accept, for a brief trial period, an illegal occupation.

So where does all this leave the Western Sahara. Mr. Annan is probably correct when he says that doing nothing is a “recipe for violence.” But, as I argue above, the alternative that he offers, direct negotiations without preconditions, is no recipe at all. Unfortunately, this leaves the Polisario with their backs up against the berm. The logic of the Report is that the Polisario will never get their referendum on independence as long as they pursue legal and non-violent means. By throwing the territory to the wolves, the Secretary-General is telling the Polisario that their only recourse is a return to violence.

In these conditions, it is difficult to understand the optimism of the new UN Envoy, Christopher Ross.

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