New York - United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has begun a tour of the Maghreb region with the intention to breathe new life into the stalled political process to achieve a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict. The tour, which will not include Morocco, comes nine years after Ban Ki-moon assumed his post as UN Secretary General. The trip also comes nine years after the UN Security Council called on the parties involved to strive to reach a mutually acceptable political solution to the territorial dispute.
New York – United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has begun a tour of the Maghreb region with the intention to breathe new life into the stalled political process to achieve a resolution to the Western Sahara conflict. The tour, which will not include Morocco, comes nine years after Ban Ki-moon assumed his post as UN Secretary General. The trip also comes nine years after the UN Security Council called on the parties involved to strive to reach a mutually acceptable political solution to the territorial dispute.
Nine years after the Security Council adopted Resolution 1754 in April 2007, the dispute is at a standstill, and no progress whatsoever has been achieved since Ban Ki-moon came to office. Observers are wondering what effect this trip, which comes during the last year of Ki-moon’s term as UNSG, will have on the political process. Can we expect him to achieve in the coming months what he failed to achieve in nine years? What prevented him from helping the parties reach a political solution? And what is the path his successor at the United Nations should take in order to avoid a repeat of the same scenario?
Ban Ki-moon’s missed opportunity to breathe life into the stalled political process
Most observers doubt that this trip will lead to any progress in the political process. Many think that it is a routine trip that Ban Ki-moon felt obliged to make in order to give the impression that he has tried his best to put to an end to the conflict. The statements that the UNSG has made in his visits to Mauritania, the Tindouf camps, and Algeria echo the same monotonous statements that he has made over the past nine years.
An analysis of the conflict since Ban Ki-moon assumed office will show us that the UN chief has lacked the courage, clairvoyance and determination to help the parties reach a political solution, as called for in several Security Council resolutions since 2007. In fact, the South Korean diplomat missed a golden opportunity to be remembered by future generations as the UN chief that helped put an end to the 40-year-old conflict.
Over a year after the Security Council called on the parties to bring innovative ideas that would pave the way towards reaching a political solution, Peter Van Walsum, the former UN Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara, said in April 2008 that the establishment of “an independent state in Western Sahara is not a realistic proposition.” This statement was a timely gift from the Dutch diplomat to the UN chief, prompting him to break free from the UN fixation on self-determination as leading necessarily to the independence of the territory from Morocco.
Walsum’s statement was a blow to the aspirations of Algeria and the Polisario, and was in line with the autonomy proposal that Morocco presented to the Security Council in April 2007. The Moroccan proposal offers one of the three options provided for in UNGA resolution 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970. According to this resolution, “The establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people.”
The statements made by the former UN Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara were understood by observers as a call on the UN to change its approach on the conflict. The UN mediator had, in fact, the courage to express out loud what most countries had only been thinking. Walsum’s conclusion came after he chaired four rounds of direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisairo in Manhasset, a New York suburb.
But instead of taking Walsum’s conclusions seriously and bringing new ideas to help the parties reach a political settlement, Ban Ki-moon gave in to the pressure placed on him by Algeria, the Polisario, and their allies, and pushed the Dutch diplomat to resign.
Ban Ki-moon has locked himself in deadlock since 2009
In January 2009, Ban appointed American diplomat Christopher Ross as his new Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara. As a result, Ban Ki-moon locked himself in a situation that would eventually prevent him from bringing any innovative ideas to the table.
Rather than building on the work done by his predecessor, Ross chaired nine rounds of indirect talks between the parties from when he assumed his new office until 2012. None of these talks proved useful in advancing the political process. Instead, at the end of each meeting, media and observers were dismayed to hear the same statements made by the UN mediator, that none of the parties were willing to accept the position of the other as a basis for negotiations.
In addition to bringing the political process to a standstill, the new UN envoy has been perceived by Rabat as being “sympathetic” to the thesis of the Algeria and the Polisario. This “bias” was on display in the annual reports presented to the Security Council in recent years. In the reports, instead of suggesting new ideas, Ross echoed the allegations made by Algeria and the Polisario regarding the alleged systematic violations of human rights in the territory. This new twist diverted the political process from its main path, which stoked the ire of Rabat and caused Morocco to withdraw its trust in the UN envoy in 2012.
Although they renewed their trust in the American diplomat a year later, Moroccan authorities were convinced that he was either unable or unwilling to fulfill his role as a neutral mediator and come up with new ideas that would pave the way towards helping the conflicting parties reach a political settlement.
After seven years at the helm of the UN political process, Ross has not been able to achieve even minimal progress in his mission. His failure ultimately is the failure of Ban Ki-moon. In fact, a mere comparison between the work done and the efforts exerted by his predecessors will give a clear understanding as to why the UN chief failed in his mediation efforts and why there will be no solution as long as the same approach is adopted.
In 1997, Kofi Anan, the former UN Secretary General, appointed James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, as his Personal Envoy to the Western Sahara and tasked him with mission of helping the parties reach a solution away from the “winner-take it all” approach. After four years of strenuous efforts to work out the principle of the referendum, Baker came to the conclusion that this solution was unworkable, because of the irreconcilable positions of the parties on voter eligibility.
Therefore, in 2001 Baker presented the “Framework Agreement” (Baker Plan I). The proposal provided for a period of five years for the territory’s autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, to be followed by a referendum in which all people living in the territory would participate. The proposal offered voters the choice between integration with Morocco or independence, with autonomy being a third option. While the proposal was accepted by Morocco, it was rejected by the Polisario and Algeria.
Two years later, Baker came up with a reworked version of his plan, called Baker Plan II. This time around, Morocco rejected it, arguing that it merely reflected the failed UN settlement plan of 1991, which had proposed a resolution by a referendum with the option of independence. In June 2004, realizing that his efforts had resulted in a deadlock, Baker presented his resignation to Kofi Anan.
After entrusting mediation efforts to Alvaro De Soto, who was at the time Special Representative of the Secretary General in charge of MINURSO, Kofi Anan appointed Peter Van Walsum as his new envoy in July 2005. Following in the footsteps of James Baker, Walsum strove to steer the parties towards a mutually acceptable solution. The statement he made in April 2008 was a sober and realistic conclusion that could have paved the way towards breaking the deadlock had the UN chief had the courage to follow his strategy.
While James Baker and Peter Van Walsum, two personal envoys appointed by Kofi Anan, strove to work out innovative realistic approaches. In contrat, the only envoy appointed by Ban Ki-moon failed to bring any fresh ideas to the negotiating table. In addition, instead of replacing him with a bolder and more courageous mediator, the UN chief chose to keep him.
The way forward after Ban Ki-moon leaves office
As Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as UN chief is nearing its end and the prospects of reaching a political solution under his auspices are nearly impossible, there is hope that his successor, who will take office in January 2017, will have enough courage and vision to bring the conflict to an end. However, for the new UN Secretary General to succeed in his or her mission, he or she will have to reshuffle UN policy and its approach on the conflict. The new UN chief well also have to determine what the new UN seeks to obtain from its mediation efforts, as well as set a timeframe for reaching its goals. Clinging to the same stubborn approaches that proved to be failures will not lead anywhere, and we might find ourselves still talking about the same subject in the next five or ten years.
One of the first elements that should be taken into account is that there was a procedural flaw in the 1991 UN Settlement Plan, on which the UN has built its approach for the past 25 years. Contrary to common belief, the Settlement Plan approved by the Security Council was not agreed upon by Morocco and the Polisario, nor did it take into account the reservations of both parties.
In his book entitled Western Sahara, Anatomy of a Stalemate, Erik Jensen, Representative of the Secretary General in charge of MINURSO from 1994 to 1998, shows that Morocco and the Polisario never accepted the Settlement Plan fully. Though they agreed to carry on with it in principle, they had reservations that were not taken into account. The main fault line of the plan was the electoral roll, determining who was Saharawi, and who was eligible to vote in the referendum. But instead of taking the parties’ reservations into account, the Security Council ignored them and proceeded to adopt it.
In a letter to the Secretary General in July 1990, King Hassan II expressed his frustration that the plan submitted to the Security Council did not take into account Morocco’s reservations. However, this letter was never conveyed to the Security Council nor to the task force in charge of the drafting the settlement.
According to Erik Jensen, Morocco and the Polisario “agreed to differing and incompatible interpretations of what was proposed.” But the Security Council adopted the proposal on the premise that the parties will be willing to cooperate to implement the plan.
In addition, former Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar said he “was never convinced that independence promised the best future for the inhabitants of the Western Sahara,” according to his memoirs.
Before the adoption of the Settlement Plan, the former UN chief was also convinced that the plan could not meet all the concerns of the parties and that a compromise solution should be sought.
Need for the UN to rethink its priorities and to work out a win-win solution
Based on the foregoing, there is an acute need that for UN to break free from its fixation on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to the independence of the territory. The UN cannot keep ignoring the multiple studies published in academia in recent years, most of which point out that the principle of self-determination should focus more on internal self-determination, especially in cases that are outside the era and the context of decolonization of the 1960s.
The geopolitical situation of the world in 2016 is different than the one that prevailed in the 1960s when the concept of self-determination was promoted. The UN should not only take Morocco’s historical rights to the disputed territory into account and the efforts it has made to build full-fledged cities out of nowhere, but it should also learn from other instances where independence was granted to new states that have failed to provide security, prosperity and well-being to their citizens.
The case of South Sudan, which obtained independence in 2011, should be present in the minds of the new UN leaders when trying to find a solution to the Western Sahara dispute or other conflicts. The independence of this failed state did not bring peace or prosperity to its citizens. It only brought war, ethnic cleansing, hunger, disease, and a lack of prospects for a bright future. In less than two years after independence, the civil war that erupted caused 1.5 million people to be internally displaced and pushed 700,000 people to flee to neighboring countries. In addition, more than 2.4 million people face hunger in the conflict-affected areas, according to a study conducted by Oxfam International.
Instead of striving to favor the independence of ethnic minorities or territories just for the sake of applying the narrow-minded concept of self-determination, the UN should make sure these territories have the ability to establish successful and strong states.
As the world is in a new era marked by the growing threat of terrorism and organized crime, the United Nations should rethink its priorities. Is it seeking to promote international peace and security and to avoid a worsening of the situation in Middle East and North Africa? Or is it seeking to help establish more failed states as long as the principle of self-determination as leading necessarily to independence is implemented, thereby creating more instability and unrest?
If it is seeking to ensure international peace and security, the road is clear. This can only be achieved through efforts that aim to strengthen established states that contribute to international peace and security, and steer away from any attempt to promote the establishment of tiny, failed states. In addition to the tremendous efforts it has made over the past decades to provide the population of the Saharan provinces with the necessary means to lead a decent life, Morocco has proved in recent years to be a pivotal player in promoting stability in the entire Maghreb region and in fighting against the destabilizing effects of terrorism. Focusing on independence for Western Sahara could undermine Morocco’s stabilizing position.
Given the worsening security situation in Libya, where the so-called Islamic State has managed to have a foothold in large swath of the territory, the world cannot allow the establishment of a new failed state in the region. A new state in the region — as many pseudo-advocate of human rights, who have no clue of the geopolitical complexity of the region or the history of the conflict have called for — would be a disaster for the international community and a gift to terrorist and criminal organizations to take advantage of another large, unstable territory to thrive and use it as their training base. This scenario would have a disastrous destabilizing effect not only on the Maghreb, but also on Europe. The fight against the plague of terrorism necessitates the existence of strong established states, which have proven track records in effectively preventing terrorist groups from expanding their territorial scope. In recent years, Morocco has proved that the international community can count on the expertise of its security apparatus and the foresight of its holistic strategy to fight terrorism.
The future UNSG must show leadership and steer the UN towards a new realistic approach that would enable it fully to discharge its mission in helping reach a political solution to the territorial dispute pitting Morocco against Algeria and the Polisario. This approach should seek a solution that excludes the “winner take-it all” approach, thus giving due consideration to the Moroccan autonomy proposal, which is in line with international law and the concept of self-determination. Additionally, any UN effort should be based on the premise that Algeria is a full-fledged party in the conflict. There is unanimity among observers and diplomats that any decision made by the Polisario is, in fact, decided in Algiers. Therefore, the UN approach should take this fact into account.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @Samir Bennis
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