Global Policy Forum

Thinking Outside the Box in Western Sahara


By Rob Annadale

Angus Reid Global Monitor
June 17, 2007

Resolving the long-running dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front over Western Sahara will undoubtedly require a fresh approach but only the most incurable optimist could believe that a lasting peace will come out of talks mediated by the United Nations (UN) set to begin tomorrow in Manhasset, New York. As the proposals submitted by each side to the UN Security Council in April suggest, both parties remain far apart on the essential question of self-determination for the Moroccan-held territory's Sahrawi people. Morocco, a country where even the central government serves as little more than a rubber stamp for the king's edicts, is willing to grant regional autonomy while retaining its claims to sovereignty and the Polisario demands a referendum on independence. It is difficult to see how positions that have shifted little over the past three decades will suddenly merge into a consensus through talks.

After the fighting of the 1970s and 1980s, the UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and set up a mission to organize a vote on self-determination within six months. Sixteen years and 35 mandate renewals later, there is still no sign of a referendum Morocco now dismisses as an obsolete notion. Like his predecessor, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon sees direct negotiations with no preconditions as the best hope for a mutually acceptable solution but such efforts have proven fruitless in the past. Barring a miracle in Manhasset, it is time to start thinking outside the same tired framework. But imposing a solution would risk replacing the undesirable status quo—a garrisoned sand wall of more than 2,000 kilometres divides the Moroccan-controlled area from Polisario-held land, tens of thousands of refugees continue to dwell in camps in the Algerian desert, minefields on both sides of the wall impede the Sahrawis' traditionally nomadic way of life and the parties accuse each other of human rights abuses—with something even more dangerous. Rather, as the former colonial power in Western Sahara for almost a century, Spain must finally make some sacrifices to end a conflict it helped create.

Earlier this year, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos recognized in an El Paí­s opinion piece that his country bore some responsibility for the Western Saharan dispute. Indeed, it set the stage for the current conflict by ceding what had been Spanish Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania mere days after the International Court of Justice had ruled against both countries' claims of sovereignty over the territory. Still, he wrote, Spain does not hold the key to resolving the dispute. But that is not necessarily true. While the UN struggles to find a win-win solution to what it considers a question of decolonization, the fact of the matter is Morocco has much to lose and little to gain from a referendum that threatens its hold over a Colorado-sized territory rich in phosphates, fishing and possibly oil. Spain, however, has something Morocco wants.

Proponents of Sahrawi independence call Western Sahara "Africa's last colony", apparently oblivious to the two Spanish enclaves—Ceuta and Melilla—which interrupt Morocco's Mediterranean coastline. Spain argues the two towns are an integral part of the country, echoing Morocco's position on Western Sahara or, until 1962, France's on Algeria. It is the colonizer's mantra but the time of European possessions in Africa is over and the fact that Spanish occupation of the two ports has lasted five centuries is not reason enough to justify its continuation.By offering to relinquish its last toeholds on the continent in exchange for Morocco's willingness to allow a referendum under conditions acceptable to the Polisario, Spain could help clean up the mess it left behind in 1976.

Such a step would provide Morocco with a face-saving way out of the impasse and offer the prospect of reducing military expenditures it can ill afford. Having resolved one of the key issues poisoning relations with neighbouring Algeria, it might then be able to reorient the tens of thousands of troops currently mobilized at double pay in Western Sahara towards more constructive purposes in a country where widespread poverty fuels rising fears of terrorism. The Polisario would get the referendum it has always wanted and if the vote went its way, the movement has said an independent Sahrawi state would cooperate with Morocco to foster security and rein in illegal trafficking in the region.

Spain would be unloading territories which were at the centre of the illegal migrants crisis in 2005 and are a potential security threat if one gives weight to Internet calls for jihad and the Spanish military's recent refusal to renew the postings of a handful of Muslim soldiers in the enclaves. Most importantly, the international community would benefit from sending a clear message that peaceful negotiations can deliver results. It is difficult to imagine how the imposition of a solution—whether it be a referendum without benefits for the Moroccans or a false autonomy for the Sahrawis—can lead to anything but increased instability in a volatile region. And that is something the world can ill afford.

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Western Sahara


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