Home Editorials Time for UN To Adopt A Realistic Approach to the Sahara Conflict

Time for UN To Adopt A Realistic Approach to the Sahara Conflict

New York – The UN Security Council is set to adopt a new resolution to renew the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Organization of the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Like the previous resolutions adopted since 2007, the resolution that will be adopted on Tuesday will renew its call on the parties to continue their negotiations in “good faith and without preconditions”in order to achieve a mutually acceptable and political solution to the conflict. It will also lay emphasis on the necessity that Morocco and the Polisario take the necessary measures to uphold the situation of human rights in the Sahara and in the Tindouf camps.

The question that comes to mind is to what extent this resolution will push the two parties to the conflict to push ahead for a political solution and to what extent the approach adopted by the United Nations is likely to help them bridge the gap between their respective positions and pave the way towards reaching the called-for political solution.
 
If one analyzes the previous resolutions and the endeavors undertaken by the United Nations, one can conclude that if the UN adopts the same approach as in previous years, the same scenario will play out all over again to no avail. In other words, we will see the UNSG’s personal envoy to the Sahara make several trips to the region, meet with Moroccan officials and Polisario representatives, as well as with officials from neighboring countries, brief the Security Council on his endeavors, but then nothing concrete come out of the briefings.
 
The questions that analysts and commentators are asking are first, to what extent the shuttle diplomacy started last year by the UN Personal Envoy has been instrumental in ironing out differences between Morocco and the Polisario. What alternative might the United Nations have in store to help the two parties achieve a political solution? Will the UN still call for a political solution while insisting that any political solution must provide for the self-determination of the Saharawi people? Will the UN continue to be fixated on the outdated concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence? Is not time that the UN adapted to the changing realities of the second decade of the third millennium, accepted the realities on the ground and endeavored to resolve each conflict on its agenda on a case-by-case basis? Will the UN apply to the Sahara the same approach to the one it applied to the conflict of Timor-Leste, or East Timor, in Southeast Asia, as some Polisario supporters suggest?
 
If the United Nations does not depart from its stubborn fixation on self-determination as the vehicle to independence instead of working towards finding other alternatives, there is no doubt that the conflict will continue for many more years and we may find ourselves talking about the same issue in perhaps 10 years from now. As I have pointed out in several of my previous articles, one of the main obstacles that prevents the United Nations from fully discharging its role of mediator in this conflict is its contradictory approach.
 
While on the one hand it calls for a mutually acceptable political solution, it, on the other hand, insists that this solution must provide for the self-determination of the people of the Sahara. By doing so, the UN seems to buy into the advocacy of certain international non-governmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and certain activists, such as Javier Bardem or Kerry Kennedy, who call for the establishment of an independent state in the Sahara, rather than the analyses and recommendations of a growing number of scholars who point out that the concept of self-determination is not a one-size-fits all approach that can be applied to every conflict regardless of its nature and geopolitical considerations.
 
Need to Avoid one size fits-all approach
 
Those who call for this approach always cite the alleged similarities that exist, according to them, between the Sahara conflict and the case of Timor-Leste. Yet an analysis of the two cases shows that this parallel is inaccurate. While Timor-Leste was under Portuguese sovereignty until 1975 when it was invaded and taken over by Indonesia, the Sahara was under Moroccan sovereignty until the end of the 19th century. Morocco’s claim to sovereignty is supported by historical (colonial) records and a number of international agreements, such as the accord signed between Morocco and the United Kingdom in March 1895, in which the British government acknowledges that the Sahara belonged to Morocco.
 
Another factor demonstrating the absence of similarities between the two cases is linguistic, religious, and ethnic unity among the regions. There is a linguistic, religious, and ethnic unity between the rest of Morocco’s territory and the Sahara: Saharawis are a mixture of Arabs and Amazigh, are Muslims and speak Arabic and Berber in addition to the Hassani language. Such similarities did not exist between Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
 
While Indonesia is a Muslim country, the population of Timor-Leste is predominantly catholic, making the country after its independence the second largest Roman Catholic country in Asia after the Philippines. Likewise, as to the language, while Indonesia’s language is Indonesian, the two main languages used in Timor-Leste are Portuguese and Tetum.
 
Consensus on the need to adapt self-determination to new realities
 
Away from any politicization of the conflict or misrepresentation of facts, there is a growing of number of scholars who have been calling on the United Nations to reconsider the concept of self-determination and adapt it to the new reality of today’s world.
 
If it is to put an end to the Sahara conflict, the United Nations should take into account the growing consensus among academia that its focus on self-determination as necessarily leading to independence is among the main hindrances against finding a political solution to the conflict and that the concept of self-determination as it was construed in the latter part of the 20th century is not one-size-fits-all, and cannot be applied to every territorial dispute.
 
In a report published in June 2007, the International Crisis Group clearly said that the UN fixation on self-determination is not helping to break the impasse and assist the two parties find a political solution to the conflict:
 
“By continuing to define the issue as self-determination, the U.N. has encouraged the Polisario Front and Algeria to continue to invest all their energy in seeking the realization of this principle and at the same time has pressured the Moroccan government to pay lip service to self-determination, when in reality Rabat has never sincerely subscribed to it. The U.N. thereby has inhibited the parties to the dispute from exploring the possibility.”
 
The same opinion is shared by a number of scholars who point out that the concept of self-determination has outlived its usefulness of the post-colonial era.  They have called upon the United Nations to depart from its exclusive focus on the independence of the Sahara as the only solution to the conflict.
 
In this regard, Robin White, a professor of law at the University of Leicester, says: “Had the United Nations worked on the criteria to be used in determining when the alternatives of association, integration, or some other political status would be appropriate, it is possible that there would have been greater room for manoeuvre and resort to unilateral unlawful acts inhibited.”(1)
 
For his part, in his essay “The Western Sahara and the Self-Determination Debate,”Samuel J. Spector says that the UN tendency to ignore Morocco’s strategic interests in the territory and historical rights while giving the priority to the full independence of the Saharawis, is one of the main hindrances that prevents the UN from playing an effective role towards putting an end to the conflict:
 
“While the latter half of the twentieth century may have marked the predominance of equality theory, that same theory may not be as appropriate for resolving disputes in the twenty-first century. Claiming an absolute right to full ‘external’ self-determination in the form of complete independence for the Sahrawi people while ignoring Morocco’s interests in the matter has continued to block any meaningful diplomatic compromise.”
 
After more than 23 years of fruitless mediation and a number of unsuccessful proposals put on the negotiation table, the ball is now in the UN’s court, and it is the UN officials’ moral duty to put an end to this conflict in a way that will preserve the rights and interests of the Saharawi people, as well as Morocco’s territorial integrity and the region’s stability.
 
The geopolitical reality of today’s world is not similar to the 1960’s when the equality theory and the concept of self-determination were perceived as the most suitable approach for solving territorial disputes resulting from European colonialism. The UN ought to take this into account, as well as the reality on the ground in the Sahara. In short, there is a need for the UN to change its course, press for a clear approach without preconditions, and pave the way towards finding a political solution that does not involve a winner-takes-all approach, but rather focuses on a win-win result.  

You can follow him on on Twitter @Samir Bennis

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1- Robin C.A. White, “Self-Determination: Time for Re-Assessment?” Netherlands International Law Review, no. 28, p. 434.

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