New Jersey - In a lecture on Thursday 20 February at Princeton University, MWN co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Samir Bennis shed light on an issue not frequently discussed in American academia: the Sahara dispute. Mr. Bennis started the talk by clearly stating some goals.
New Jersey – In a lecture on Thursday 20 February at Princeton University, MWN co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Samir Bennis shed light on an issue not frequently discussed in American academia: the Sahara dispute. Mr. Bennis started the talk by clearly stating some goals.
“I am here today to give the historical background of the region, to explain the efforts of the United Nations, and to explore other possible solutions,” he said.
The floor was then open up to faculty students, and community members for discussion and debate.
History of the Sahara
Mr. Bennis pointed out that the history of the Sahara is riddled with legal and political disarray. One of the most important ideas to note is that many NGOs, and even the UN itself, misrepresents the issue by not providing complete facts. In this regard, he highlighted that UN timeline on Western Sahara omits a span of almost 80 years (from 1885-1963), during which several important negotiations were conducted.
He also mentioned the case of a Security Council Report, a non-profit organization based in New York, which focuses on the activities of the UN Security Council. In this context, he said that for this organization, “the history of the Sahara starts in 1973, which is a blatant distortion of facts.”
Mr. Bennis was able to shed light on the events of these “missing years.”
He refuted the argument that the Sahara was Spanish, adding that Spain had no valid legal claim to the territory. He backed his statement by giving a detailed account of the manner in which Spain came to have a “full possession” of what would later be called Spanish Sahara.
The lecturer emphasized that the agreement signed between Morocco and some European powers and the colonial records show that the Sahara belonged to Moroccan sovereignty before the country came under French and Spanish rule.
In this regard, he referred to the agreement signed between Morocco and the United Kingdom, in which the latter recognized the former’s sovereignty over the Sahara.
“The agreement signed between Morocco and the UK in 1895 recognized that the territory between Cap Juby (the area near Tarfaya) and Cap Bojador (present day so-called Western Sahara), belonged to Morocco. From then until 1904, when the UK signed an agreement with France, the British, as well as the French and the Spaniards recognized that this territory was under Moroccan sovereignty,” he noted.
“When the UK accepted the principle of French and Spanish protectorate over Morocco, it clearly insisted in article 3 of the secret accord that Spain could not undertake any action that would alienate the sovereignty of territory of its sphere of influence.”
Mr. Bennis mentioned a turning point that would later alter the sovereignty of the territory in the following decades. He referred to the accord signed by France and Spain in October 1904 on the division of their spheres of influence in Morocco.
“By virtue of the French-Spanish accord of October 1904, Spain was given possession, not sphere of influence, of the disputed territory, without informing Morocco or seeking the approval of the British, who had signed an agreement recognizing its sovereignty over the territory,” he said.
Quoting professor Frank E. Trout, author of the book Moroccan Saharan frontiers, Mr. Bennis said that it was unlikely that the Britain gave any formal approval of the recognition that Seguia El Hamra was to become Spanish territory outside of the limits of Spanish sphere of influence in Southern Morocco.
He pointed out that even in the event that Britain had given its formal approval of the 1904 French-Spanish accords, “it would have meant a unilateral- and presumably secret- renunciation of the agreement signed with Morocco in 1859, which have been meaningless since Morocco was not informed of the renunciation.”
“This in itself constitutes a violation of international law at the time,” he said.
The lecturer added that the French-Spanish agreement of 1904 by virtue of which Spain was given full possession of the present days so-called Western Sahara, was even contrary to the 1906 Algeciras Conference.
“The signatories of the Act of Algeciras, including Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, the United States Germany and other European powers, all committed to preserving Moroccan territorial integrity,” he explained.
The post-colonial period
Mr. Bennis emphasized that Morocco was the first and only country to bring the issue of the Sahara to the United Nations General Assembly’s agenda as early as 1957. He went on to say that until 1966, Morocco and Spain conducted negotiations on the settlement of their territorial dispute. The question of Sidi Ifni, which returned to Morocco in 1969, and the Sahara were dealt in the same package, meaning that Spain had to return both to Morocco. In this regard, he clarified that the UN approach to the Sahara changed only after Rabat accepted that the dispute be solved by an approach different than that for Sidi Ifni.
Hence, in December 1965, the UN General Assembly called on Spain to decolonize the territory. A year later, the UN ordered Madrid to decolonize the territory by means of a referendum of self-determination, which was supposed to be held in 1967.
“When Morocco accepted that the Sahara issue be solved based on a referendum of self-determination, it was evident to Moroccans officials that if a referendum were to be held, it would tilt in their favor,” he said. “But Spain had other plans.”
Mr. Bennis explained Spain’s efforts, starting in 1966, to prevent Morocco from regaining its sovereignty over the disputed territory. In this regard, he mentioned the alliances that Spain forged with Mauritania and Algeria in order to isolate Morocco.
He then turned to the creation of the Polisario, stressing that the Poliario was not created in order to build an independent state in the Sahara, but rather to fight Spanish colonialism. He backed his statement by saying that when the founder of the Polisario first launched his movement he tried to seek support from the Kingdom, but was turned down.
“Following the creation of the Polisario, El Ouali Mustpaha Sayed, its founder, tried to obtain support from Morocco, but he was turned down. He was also turned away by the Algerians, who expelled him.”
“It is only thanks to the mediation of Fqih Basri, one of the opponents of late King Hassan II, that the Polisario obtained support from Libya,” he noted. “Contrary to common belief, Algeria was not the first country to support the Polisario, but Libya,” he said.
In the same vein, he stressed that until the summer of 1975, Algeria was in favor of the Moroccan position. But since Morocco refused to ratify the border agreement it had signed with Algeria in 1972, the Algerian government decided to stand by the Polisario.
Mr. Bennis then gave an overview over the proclamation of the so-called Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and the ensuing war that pitted the Polisario against Morocco for 15 years.
UN mediation Efforts
The second part of Mr. Bennis’ lecture was devoted to the efforts undertaken by the United Nations in order to bridge the gap between the two parties and pave the way towards finding a solution to the conflict. In this regard, he referred to the resolution adopted by the Security Council in September 1991, which established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, known by its French acronym as MINURSO.
The mandate of the MINURSO was to monitor the ceasefire declared after 15 years of war between Morocco and the Polisario front, but it also promised a referendum in the following year. The referendum would allow the Saharawis of the Sahara to decide whether to join Morocco, or to become an independent nation. However, this referendum was postponed because of the disagreement over the definition of a Saharawi and who was eligible to participate in it.
Mr Bennis. stressed that In the early 2000s, after UN special envoy James Bake came to the conclusion that the approach of the referendum was unworkable, he proposed a number of plans to resolve the regional dispute.
“The first plan in 2001 proposed that the Saharawis be granted large autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, but this proposal was rejected by the Polisario and Algeria,” he said.
Two years later, Baker returned to the negotiating table with a different plan: the Sahara would have autonomy for up to five years, then a referendum would be conducted. However, this time, Morocco rejected the plan,” he added.
Mr. Bennis highlighted that after the failure of his mediations efforts, Baker resigned in 2004.
The same year, the UN Security Council issued a resolution, which for the first time, called on both parties to reach a long-lasting and mutually acceptable political solution.
However, according to Mr. Bennis, here lies the problem of the UN approach.
“While this resolution and the others that followed it call for achieving a political solution, the UN insists that any political solution should provide for the self-determination of the population of the Sahara,” he noted.
“We cannot call for a political solution and insist at the same time on the concept of self-determination as meaning the independence of the Sahara. The concept of self-determination and a political solution are like two parallels that can never meet,” Mr. Bennis stressed.
A Possible Solution
Mr. Bennis argued that the United Nations has to be clear if the international community were to find a political solution to this territorial dispute.
“The United Nations has to be clear. If we are seeking to reach a political solution, then we have to depart from the fixation on the self-determination as necessarily leading to independence”.
He went on to say that there is a growing consensus among academia that the UN focus exclusively on self-determination is one of the main hindrances that prevent the two parties from reaching a political solution. He quoted a number of American and British scholars, as well as a report of the International Crisis Group, who argue that the concept of self-determination as it was construed in the latter part of the 20th century is not a one-size-fits-all, and cannot be applied to every single territorial dispute.
“Yet here is where the United Nations has failed and gives the impression that the holding of informal meetings between Morocco and the Polisario has become a goal in itself rather than focusing on finding a middle ground that would help them find a political solution” he emphasized.
Before opening the floor for discussion with the audience, Mr. Bennis, said that the Autonomy Plan presented by Morocco to the Security Council in April 2007 provides a ground on which the two parties can build a compromise in order to find a final political solution to the conflict.
“However flawed the Autonomy plan presented by Morocco in 2007 might be, it offers a basis on which Morocco and the Polisario can build to reach a mutually acceptable political solution,” he concluded.
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