A volte-face on Western Sahara

Published : Jul 21, 2001 00:00 IST

The United Nations' radical new plan on the future status of Western Sahara, one that favours Morocco, indicates that the idea of a referendum has been abandoned.

IN a development that has caught many observers of the Western Sahara region by surprise and infuriated the Sahrawis, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has voiced serious doubts about the possibility of holding the referendum that was promised in 1991.

In effect, Annan suggested in the last week of June that the Sahrawis forget about freedom and instead let Western Sahara be part of Morocco, the occupying power. He wants them to accept the Moroccan flag and operate under the Moroccan Constitution for a period of four years. Significantly, the International Court of Justice had ruled the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara illegal and said that the Sahrawis were entitled to independence.

Under the new U.N. proposals, which represent a dramatic reversal of stated U.N. policy, the Sahrawis will be "autonomous" and "may" be given a choice to decide after four years whether they wish to stay with the Kingdom of Morocco or opt for independence.

The Sahrawis are naturally furious at the volte-face. They had fought a bitter war of liberation after Spain transferred power Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara) to the Moroccan and Mauritanian governments in 1976. Morocco occupied two-thirds of the productive territory, leaving the rest to Mauritania. (In 1979, Mauritania renounced its claim to the territory and the area was taken over by Morocco. Mauritania recognised Western Sahara as an independent country.) Although most of the land in Western Sahara is desert, it has rich phosphate deposits; the total reserves are estimated at around 10 billion tonnes. Besides, the waters along its long coastline are rich in marine resources.

Frente Polisario, the guerilla organisation that launched the liberation struggle in 1973, renamed the former Spanish province as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) admitted the SADR, as Western Sahara is officially known, as a full-fledged member in 1982. Since 1979, the OAU has been active in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario. The overwhelming majority of its members want the Moroccan occupation to end so that the last vestiges of colonisation in the African continent are removed. More than 70 countries worldwide have recognized the SADR as a legitimate government.

In recent years, given the changed global situation and the downturn in the fortunes of Algeria, the biggest backer of the SADR, some countries have distanced themselves from the legitimate cause of the Sahrawis. Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, known for their cash-and-carry diplomacy, took steps to derecognise the SADR, under pressure from Morocco. What came as a rude shock, especially to African countries that had experienced the painful decolonisation process, was India's decision, without any warning, to derecognise the SADR. This move has done more damage to India's credibility among African countries than the general insensitivity of the National Democratic Alliance dispensation in New Delhi towards the continent.

The U.N. had at times played a dubious role on issues relating to Western Sahara. Secretary-General Peres de Cuellar managed to put the issue on the back-burner during his term in office. After retirement, he served on the board of directors of a company owned by the former King of Morocco, and was paid a handsome honorarium. His successor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, also displayed a pronounced pro-Moroccan tilt. After the Security Council decided to hold a referendum, Boutros-Ghali appointed the Pakistani diplomat, Sahabzada Yakub Khan, his personal envoy to Western Sahara. Khan was ever willing to lend a helpful hand to the Moroccan efforts to derail the settlement process.

Things started to take a positive turn after Kofi Annan took over. In a significant move to pursue the peace process, he appointed James Baker, the former United States Secretary of State, as his personal envoy. Baker's personal stature, coupled with his apparent eagerness to find a just solution to the problem, enthused the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawis, who are suffering in the squalor of refugee camps since the mid-1970s. The new Republican administration in the U.S., under the stewardship of George Bush, raised fresh hopes about a referendum. But Washington seems to remain indebted to Rabat for the invaluable help it rendered during the Cold War. It is a foregone conclusion that a fair and free referendum would result in victory for the Sahrawis. But Baker has stunned them and their supporters in the international community by recommending a radical new course, one that blatantly favours Morocco.

Concurring with the conclusion of Baker, Kofi Annan said that "there are serious doubts as to whether the settlement plan can be implemented in its present form in a way that will result in an early, durable and agreed resolution of the dispute over Western Sahara." He, however, stressed that the new U.N. plan on the future status of Western Sahara "does not foreclose self-determination, but indeed provides for it".

Baker has also tried to convince the Sahrawis and the international community that the new proposals did not mean the abandoning of the current settlement plan, which calls for a referendum to allow the people of the territory to choose between independence or integration with Morocco. During the period of a truce between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawis were assured that a referendum would be held to ascertain their wishes in the shortest possible time. On April 29, 1991, the Security Council, through Resolution 690, decided to establish the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

The plan explicitly provided for a transitional period during which the Secretary-General's Special Represen-tative would have sole and exclusive responsibility over all matters relating to the referendum in which the Sahrawis "would choose between independence and integration with Morocco". According to the U.N., the transitional period was to begin with "the signing of the ceasefire agreement and come to an end after the results of the referendum". Despite persistent stonewalling by the Moroccan side, MINURSO's was making slow but steady progress in identifying the electorate. Initially the U.N. proposed a list of 86,000 voters on the basis of the Spanish census. Morocco demanded that an additional 130,000 people be added to the voters list. The U.N. rejected this demand but Morocco made it review the decision. Thus people not registered by the census and those settled by the Moroccan authorities on Sahrawi territory were included in the electorate. Around 200,000 Moroccans have been re-settled in Western Sahara along with 100,000 troops.

Instead of punishing Morocco for recalcitrance and filibustering, the U.N. has virtually handed over the territory on a platter to the new Moroccan King. The Polisario Front has rejected the new proposals and has been threatening to relaunch the liberation struggle. A full-scale war may not be imminent, but Sahrawis have nothing to lose by fighting for their homeland. Most of them are anyway refugees in their own land or under the yoke of the Moroccan occupation forces. "Entire homeland or martyrdom" has for long been their war cry.

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