New York - In a lecture on Saturday December 6 in New Jersey, MWN co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Samir Bennis shed light on the questions of the Western Sahara.
New York – In a lecture on Saturday December 6 in New Jersey, MWN co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Samir Bennis shed light on the questions of the Western Sahara.
At the outset of his lecture, Mr. Bennis stated that the three elements that support Morocco’s legitimate claims over the Sahara. In this regard, he said that Morocco’s position is based on three factors:
1- The historical ties of sovereignty between Moroccan sultans and Saharan tribes
2- Treaties and colonial records recognizing Morocco’s territorial integrity and its control over the Saharan provinces
3- Morocco’s efforts to help liberate the territory from Spanish colonial rule after 1956.”
History of the Sahara
Dr. Bennis pointed out that the history of the Sahara is riddled with legal and political disarray.
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 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.”
Dr. 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 1895, 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 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
Dr. Bennis emphasized that Morocco was the first and only country to bring the issue of the Western 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 Western 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 Western 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 Western 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.”
Dr. 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 Western 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 on the surface 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.
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 Western 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 Western 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 mediation 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 Western 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 Western 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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