Why the UN Failed in the Sahara, Why a new approach is needed?
By Samir Bennis
Morocco World News
New York, May 21, 2012
Earlier this week, as I was reading the news and navigating through social media networks, I was curious to analyze the reactions of Moroccans to the decision made by Morocco to withdraw its confidence in the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy to the Sahara, Christopher Ross.
Immediately after the announcement by Morocco’s Foreign Ministry was made public, people seemed to be taken aback by the decision. While some commended the courage of the Moroccan authorities to voice their concern on the way the UNSG personal envoy has been handling the negotiations over the Sahara issue, others expressed their concern that this might be an uncalculated move by Moroccan diplomacy.
Was Morocco right in making such a decision? What implications will it have on the negotiation process and what message is Moroccan diplomacy conveying to the United Nations? Is this rebuke a testimony that the UN has failed in its role to bring about a political and mutually acceptable solution to the dispute?
After the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario in 1991, on April 29 the same year, the UN Security Council, by virtue of its resolution 691, dispatched a UN mission to the territory, United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. The mission is known by its French acronym as MINURSO.
Since it was established, this UN force has had a strictly technical mission. It has been in charge of assisting the UNSG personal envoy to the territory in making the necessary arrangements for the preparation of a referendum that would allow the population of the Sahara to choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
Yet, after trying for several years to determine the electoral pool of people allowed to participate in the referendum, this approach has proved to be unfeasible. The deadlock in reaching an agreement between Morocco and the Polisario on the eligibility of voters caused some former UNSG personal envoys to lose faith in the possibility that the current approach adopted by the UN would yield any concrete result.
After almost 8 years at the helm of the negotiation process between the two parties, former UN envoy James Baker presented his resignation to the UN Secretary General in 2005.
The fate of his successor to this mission was no better. After 3 years of strenuous efforts to bring about a settlement based on a referendum, the other former UN Envoy, Peter Van Walsum, came to the conclusion that a referendum was not feasible under the current circumstances.
The Dutch diplomat went as far to say in an interview given to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, in August 2008, that the establishment of a Saharawi state is not an “accessible objective”.
This statement caused the Dutch diplomat to be the target of harsh criticism from the Polisario, leading to his subsequent replacement by the former US Ambassador to Algeria, Christopher Ross in January 2009.
Almost a decade earlier, being aware of the difficulty to bring the two parties to common ground regarding the eligibility of voters, in his report presented to the Security Council in September 2000, former Secretary General Kofi Anan stated that it is essential that the parties be “prepared to consider other ways of achieving an early, durable and agreed resolution over their dispute over the Sahara.”
To break the deadlock, Morocco presented to the Security Council the initiative of the Autonomy Plan in April 2007. The later was hailed by the members of the Security Council as a “credible” and a “serious” option likely to lay the ground for the settlement of the dispute. Ever since, all Security Council resolutions took note of the Moroccan proposal and have welcomed the Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards a settlement.
Here is where the United Nations failed to bring about a solution to the conflict. Even as it is aware of the near impossibility of organizing a referendum of self-determination, for the reasons mentioned above, it keeps calling on Morocco and the Polisario to reach a negotiated solution acceptable to both parties while at the same time, insisting that any solution should provide for the self-determination of the people of the Sahara on the understanding that self-determination should include independence as an option. The latter position ignores the option of free-association and autonomy, as provided for in UN General Assembly resolution 1541 of 1960.
How can we achieve a mutually acceptable solution, when we know that there is always a reference to the principle of self-determination with the option of independence, a principle that Morocco opposes? The phrase “mutually acceptable” means that any solution that is rejected by one party has to be dropped, which is the case with the principle of self-determination as necessarily implying the secession of one territory from the other. Self-determination does not necessarily have to be a choice about independence but can be realized in other forms as well.
In light of the foregoing, the UN has to be clear in addressing the issue of self-determination. Does self-determination as referred to in the UN resolution necessarily have the same sacrosanct interpretation as it did in the sixties? Can we accept the application of the same concept from the period of decolonization without taking into account the geopolitical realities of the second decade of the third millennium? Or could this concept be subject to other interpretations, including in some cases, that the best way to decide the fate of a minority of a separatist group is to allow it greater autonomy, as provided for in the autonomy proposal put forward by Morocco five years ago?
The second reason that explains the failure of the United Nations is that it turned the process of informal negotiations into an end in itself, instead of using it as a means of reaching a settlement to the Sahara conflict.
The process of formal negotiations over the final status of the territory has been in a standstill since March 2008. Ever since the appointment of Christopher Ross, nine rounds of informal negotiations were held between Morocco and the Polisario.
Instead of building on the work done by his predecessor, Peter Van Walsum, and his conclusions, and try to put a concrete proposal on the table with the hope of bridging the gap between the two parties, Mr. Ross chose to restart from square one, ignoring the developments achieved before his appointment.
Moreover, before and after every informal meeting, we read the same broken-record: that the parties continued, “to deepen the discussion on their respective proposals.” “Each party continued to reject the proposal of the other as the sole basis for future negotiations, while reiterating their willingness to work together to reach a solution in conformity with the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations.” The same exact statement was made by Ross after each of the nine rounds of these fruitless talks.
Instead of endeavoring to push the parties towards formal talks on the core issue, which is to find a final solution to the conflict, the UNSG personal locked himself into the routine role of convening these meetings as if the holding of the latter was the goal for which he was appointed by the UN Secretary General.
In addition, what angered the Moroccan authorities is that Christopher Ross, after over three years, failed to take into account all the new developments on the ground in the Sahara and in the Tindouf camps. While he was instrumental in accusing Morocco of spying on MINURSO in the last report presented by the UNSG to the Security Council, he overlooked the oppressive policy adopted by the Polisario leadership against any dissenting voices in the Tindouf camps, as was the case of Mustapha Salma Ouled Sidi Mouloud.
He also turned a blind eye on the condemnation by the Malian government of the Polisario for using its territory for extortion, kidnapping, and drug smuggling.
He further omitted to mention that Sahrawi smuggling networks have also used their influence in northern Mauritania to expand their illegal trafficking and make the country a major hub of cigarette, drugs, arms, fuel, and human trafficking, all with the complicity of the Algerian army, the Polisario, and senior Mauritanian officials.
The UN envoy also departed from his role as mediator when he started pushing for the establishment of a mechanism to monitor the alleged human rights violations in the Sahara, a role that has nothing to do with the technical mission of the MINURSO.
Moreover, the UN envoy has also failed to make any mention of the misappropriation of financial assistance delivered to the Polisario, which have been denounced by many studies and NGO’s that provide financial and in-kind assistance to the population living in the Tindouf camps.
Likewise, while alluding to the “misdeeds” of the Moroccan authorities with MINURSO, the UN envoy did not reflect in the UNSG report the proven implication of Polisario in the abduction of the three humanitarian aid workers from the Rabouni camps near Tindouf last October.
When a mediator starts looking into an issue from his own perspective and based on his personal convictions, he loses his credibility and becomes a liability for the question at hand. The key preconditions of a mediator to succeed in any mediation are impartiality and fair-mindedness. And for a mediator to secure the successful outcome of his endeavors, he must understand the conflict’s dimensions. He must also refrain from expressing his own opinion on the conflict, and eagerly seek to take into account the interests and claims of all parties of the conflict.
Yet, these are the qualities that Christopher Ross lacked, as he seemed to give more weight to the claims of the Polisario, prompting the Moroccan authorities to lose confidence in him.
As a matter of fact, by withdrawing its confidence in Ross, Morocco is conveying an encrypted message to the United Nations that it is no longer satisfied with the course taken by the process of negotiations and that a new approach is needed in order to move the process forward and find a final settlement.
Through its mediations efforts, the UN plays the role of a doctor, and finding a cure to an illness depends on its ability to make the right diagnosis and come up with the right prescription. If the prescription does not match the diagnosis, this might lead to further complication and turn the doctor into a liability rather than a solution.
This is exactly what happened to the United Nations with the Sahara issue. Assuming that it made the right diagnosis to the question at hand, it failed to come up with the right prescription. Although the same prescription, namely self-determination with the option of independence, has proved unfeasible, it persists in prescribing it, while at the same time compounding its prescription by another contradiction: finding a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict.
In this respect, instead of becoming a helpful agent in assisting the parties to reach a final solution, the UN has become a liability.
As the UN is in the process of reforming the Security Council, its working methods and its relationship with the General Assembly, it needs to rethink the way it deals with conflicts in many parts of the world. It has to reform and adapt to the changing realities of the world of the 21st century instead of analyzing it through the same prism as in the 1950s and 1960s.
If the UN is really concerned with the stability of the region and interested in finding a long-lasting solution to the dispute, it needs to chart a new approach and take into account the reality on the ground. If the UN is concerned with the well-being of the Saharawi population, including those living under harsh conditions in the Tindouf camps, it needs first and foremost to carry out a census of people living in the camps in order to assess their needs, their aspirations and their political leanings with regard to the territorial dispute, as well the end destination of the humanitarian assistance provided to the Polisario by NGOs and governments sympathetic with the movement.
The UN can’t keep ignoring the calls and the reports that suggest that this aid has been embezzled and finds its way to black markets in Mauritania and Mali.
To keep insisting on urging the parties to hold informal meetings with the knowledge that these talks would not yield any results, does but a disservice to peace and security in the Maghreb and the Sahel regions.
As things stand, the only beneficiaries of the status quo are the Polisario leadership, who still reap the benefits, along with their families, of being at the helm of a so-called liberation movement. As the British professor of economics at Oxford University Paul Coller puts it in his book Wars, Guns and Votes, Democracy in Dangerous Places, in cases of secession, more often than not, the voice of the people is not heard. What people hear is the voice of the leadership who find the rebellion and the status quo more attractive, than finding a final settlement.
In addition to the Polisario leadership, the other beneficiaries are UN personel working in MINURSO in the Sahara, for whom working in the region is like being in Club Med. Throughout my years working within the United Nations community, I have spoken to several people who worked in MINURSO. The latter told me literally that for most UN employees who like to work in UN missions, the most preferred one is MINURSO, considered as a five-star destination.
Conversely, the victims of this status quo is first the population living in the Sahara, and in the Tindouf camps. While the latter live in harsh conditions and are deprived of the right to work permits and move freely within the Algerian territory, in violation of international law, the former suffer from the inflation brought about by the presence of UN personel whose high salaries cause the prices of housing and commodities to go up. Second the people of Morocco, in that this question jeopardizes the stability of their country and constitutes a drain on its financial resources, as well as liability for its diplomacy.
If the UN is concerned with promoting and preserving peace and security in the region, it should take heed of the recent developments in the Maghreb and the Sahel region. The UN should learn from the military coup in Mali and the proclamation of independence by the Touareg rebels and their allied Islamist groups.
The extent of the danger looming over the whole Sahara-Sahel region, prompted the British think tank Intelligence Economic Unit in its last April report to warn the international community against the establishment of non-viable states in the region, while stressing the relevance of the autonomy plan presented by Morocco to provide a final settlement to the conflict. The United Nations has to rid itself of politics and face the reality on the ground if it is to put an end to this conflict and keep a semblance of credibility in the eyes of the Moroccan public, and broadly the Arab public opinion.
A member of the United Nations community, Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Provence in France. He also holds a Master’s degree in political science from the University of Toulouse I, a Master’s degree in Iberian studies from the University of Toulouse II, a Master’s degree in diplomatic studies from Center for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies in Paris and a bachelor’s degree in Spanish studies from the University of Fez. He pursued a post-doctoral research at the Diplomatic School of Madrid. His areas of academic interest include, relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil. He has published articles in a variety of languages, and authored: Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News.You can follow him on twitter @SamirBennis
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