Promise of peace

Print edition : September 12, 2003

A solution is in sight for the conflict in Western Sahara, with the U.N. Security Council approving the James Baker proposals.

FINALLY, it appears that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Western Sahara. The United Nations Security Council has approved the plan formulated by James Baker, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's personal envoy to the region, in the last week of July. Baker, who was Secretary of State under George Bush senior, has been working on the problem for the past couple of years. Morocco has once again rejected the U.N. plan to find a negotiated settlement to the 27-year-old conflict.

The Security Council voting to adopt the resolution for a peace plan for Western Sahara.-REUTERS

However, unlike earlier ones, the new set of proposals does not need the consent of both parties to the conflict at every step of its implementation. The spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General said that Kofi Annan "is gratified that the Security Council has adopted a resolution expressing its clear and strong support" for the peace plan. The Secretary-General, in his report, wrote that the Baker plan was something of a compromise, providing "each side, but not all, of what it wants".

Several countries, which include the majority of African states, consider the case of Western Sahara as the last major unresolved issue relating to decolonisation. Morocco, on the other hand, has long-standing historical claims to Western Sahara. (At one time, Greater Morocco extended all the way to sub-Saharan Africa.) Baker submitted his plan, the "Peace Plan for the Self-Determination for the People of Western Sahara", after visiting the region in January this year. It has also been formally presented to the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front, the parties to the conflict. Algeria and Mauritania, two neighbouring countries, which are interested parties to the conflict, were also made privy to the proposals.

The objective of the plan is "to arrive at a political solution to the conflict, which will ensure self-determination" for the people of Western Sahara. A referendum will be held in five years' time. Only those on the voters' list approved by the U.N. on December 31, 1999 will be eligible to participate in the plebiscite. However, the Baker plan proposes the establishment of an interim administrative authority, called the Western Sahara Authority (WSA), before the Sahrawi people will be allowed to choose their future. The WSA will consist of executive and legislative wings, which would be elected for a period of one year. An independent judiciary will also be set up by the executive arm with the approval of the legislature.

The Sahrawi people, through the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, will have full control of the local budget, taxation, planning, internal security, education, fishing and other key domestic matters. As envisaged by the Baker plan, Morocco will continue to have exclusive authority over foreign affairs and defence until the referendum is held. The flag, the currency, customs, and the postal and telecommunications systems of Morocco and Western Sahara will continue to be the same until the Saharawi people make their final decision. Morocco will have to consult the institutions elected by the Sahrawis while deciding on matters of foreign affairs that would affect the direct interests of Western Sahara.

According to the Baker plan, a referendum should be held in four years at the earliest or five years at the latest. The Sahrawi people will be given the choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco, and complete integration with Morocco. The referendum will be organised by the U.N. and monitored by international observers. People who are above 18 years of age and who have been continuously resident in the region since 1999 will be eligible to vote in the referendum. A provisional voters' list drawn up by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in December that year will be the basis of the electoral roll. A repatriation list of Saharawi refugees compiled by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in October 2000 will also be allowed to vote.

Ahmed Boukhari, Polisario Front representative in the U.N.-ED BAILEY/AP

Within 90 days of the implementation of the Baker plan, the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front will have to reduce their troop concentrations and confine the troops to their bases. Ironically, a large component of the Baker plan was based on earlier Moroccan proposals. Until recently, the Sahrawi leadership had refused to contemplate any kind of power sharing with the Moroccan government. The Sahrawis' acceptance of the proposals has apparently caught the Moroccan political establishment off balance.

As of now, the Baker plan has the full backing of the Bush administration. Baker had played a key role in sorting out the legal mess in Florida, which led to the controversial election of George W. Bush to the presidency three years ago. Baker also continues to be a confidant of the senior Bush and is close to the powerful oil lobby in the U.S.

FOR more than a quarter of a century, the Polisario Front has been waging a struggle for independence. Although there has been U.N. supervised ceasefire between it, which represents the people of Western Sahara, and Morocco, the occupying power since 1990, a solution to the problem has proved elusive. Morocco, which occupied the region after the departure of the Spanish colonial power in 1976, was apparently having its way. Algeria, the Polisario Front's biggest backer, was preoccupied with its own domestic troubles. Morocco, meanwhile, consolidated its position as the staunchest ally of the West in the region. A new King came to the throne in Rabat, promising more openness and freedom.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI in Dakhia, Western Sahara, in November 2001.-ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP

The recent terrorist attacks in Casablanca has given King Mohammed V1 the rationale for reverting to a very authoritarian rule. Morocco has also signalled that it is in no mood to accept the Baker proposals. Moroccan officials have pointed out that if a referendum is allowed to be held in Western Sahara, it would inevitably lead to the de jure independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is already a member of the African Union (A.U.). It has been a member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) since the 1980s.

A letter sent by the Moroccan Foreign Minister to Kofi Annan is critical of James Baker and the role of the Algerian government. The Minister has expressed his disapproval of both the referendum proposal and the plan to set up an interim administration, which will comprise exclusively of Sahrawis. Rabat is apprehensive about giving the Sahrawis control of their economy, including the mining of the rich phosphate deposits. Phosphate deposits in Western Sahara are estimated to be around 10 billion tonnes - among the biggest in the world. The Moroccan government has also indicated that it would allow a referendum only if the voters' list is expanded to accommodate many of the 200,000 Moroccan settlers and the 100,000 Moroccan soldiers, who are in Western Sahara.

Many commentators in the region are of the opinion that the Polisario Front has managed to salvage a good deal from a seemingly impossible situation. Until a few years ago, it would have been difficult to visualise a situation in which the doughty Polisario fighters would agree to share power with the Moroccan government, albeit for a short interregnum. Their leadership has been threatening a resumption of the guerilla war, but many consider that as not being a feasible option, given the current geo-political reality. Sahrawi refugees have been living in desolate camps for more than three decades. Self-rule is now seen as a first step towards full independence, which would allow them to return home.

Many observers of the region compare the case of Western Sahara to that of East Timor. East Timor was a Portuguese colony, and it was overrun by Indonesia in 1976 despite the desire of the Timorese people for independence. Morocco, along with Mauritania, occupied Western Sahara in 1976 with the tacit approval of the outgoing colonial power. Indonesia has been applauded by the international community for finally allowing the Timorese to choose their destiny. It is pointed out that Indonesia's stature has risen dramatically after its withdrawal from East Timor.

Morocco, which is pumping in millions of dollars to keep its troops in Western Sahara and has lost a lot of international goodwill in the process, has not yet shown any signs of following Indonesia's example.

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