In what is possibly a first for the mainstream U.S. media, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently noted some of the parallels between Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and Morocco's attempted annexation of Western Sahara:
It's fair to acknowledge that there are double standards in the Middle East, with particular scrutiny on Israeli abuses. After all, the biggest theft of Arab land in the Middle East has nothing to do with Palestinians: It is Morocco's robbery of the resource-rich Western Sahara from the people who live there.
And just as one would expect, Morocco's ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar, issued a prompt retort denying that Western Sahara was ever stolen. But the ambassador's logic was a bit fuzzy. "Far from stealing Western Sahara," Mekouar argued, "Morocco has offered the region autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty." Which is like saying that theft is not theft if you are willing to sell the stolen object back to the victims for a good price.
Eleven years ago, current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, inherited one of the world's oldest thrones together with one of Africa's most intractable conflicts, the Western Sahara dispute. For his father, King Hassan II, the seizure of Western Sahara from Spain became a blessing and a curse. It was arguably Hassan's greatest achievement and yet Western Sahara soon became the greatest challenge to the consolidation of the post-colonial Moroccan state. Over a decade into his rule, Mohammed VI has yet to find a way to make good on his father's conquest and legacy in the contested Western Sahara.
The immediate history of that legacy dates back to October 1975, when Spain, which had ruled the Territory since 1885, cut a deal with Morocco rather than face a messy colonial war with its southern neighbour which was determined to seize the Territory. With strong backing from France and the Reagan administration, Morocco was able to occupy roughly two-thirds of Western Sahara but was unable to crush Polisario, given the independence movement's ultimate safe haven in Algeria. In 1988, the UN Security Council, building off the work of the Organization of African Unity, stepped into the conflict on the premise that both Hassan II and Polisario were willing to hold a referendum on either independence for Western Sahara or its integration with Morocco. A mission was dispatched in 1991 to monitor a ceasefire and organize the vote, but wrangling over the electorate took years to resolve. Then, in July 1999, Morocco's ostensible consent to a self-determination referendum died along with King Hassan II.
The current positions of the two parties, and thus the logic of the impasse, are fairly straightforward. Morocco sees Western Sahara as an integral part of its territory and so demands a solution that respects its claim of sovereignty. This position rules out a priori the key demand of Western Saharan nationalists: a referendum on independence. Polisario's view, which corresponds with international legality, is that Western Sahara is a non-self-governing territory under foreign occupation and awaiting self-determination.
These mutually exclusive positions are reinforced at the regional and international level. While Morocco's closest ally, France, and supporters like the United States and Spain, do not formally recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, they nonetheless feel that Morocco's forced withdrawal from the territory would destabilize a key Middle Eastern and African friend. Western Saharan nationalism is strongly supported by North Africa's most powerful state, Algeria; Polisario's state-in-exile is recognized by the African Union as the legitimate government of Western Sahara; and Polisario receives significant backing from key G77 countries and trans-national civil society activists.
Since 2000, the United Nations has been attempting to find a solution balancing the conflict's two main buzzwords: sovereignty and self-determination. The main problem has been the Security Council's lack of will rather than any paucity of inventive solutions. For seven years, the conflict tested the imagination and patience of James Baker, who served as the UN secretary-general's personal envoy to Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004. Baker lost Morocco's confidence in January 2003 when he proposed a solution that allowed for a referendum with the choices of integration, autonomy or independence. The following personal envoy, Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum, lasted only three years before being unceremoniously fired by the secretary-general. He lost Polisario's confidence by suggesting that the independence option, though admittedly backed by international law, should be taken off the table because the Security Council would not force Morocco to allow or accept it. The current UN envoy to Western Sahara, former U.S. diplomat Chris Ross, appointed in January 2009 by Ban Ki-moon, is attempting to avoid a similar fate by navigating the non-existent interstice between Morocco and Polisario. Having held several meetings to discuss new proposals issued by the parties in 2007, there has been no headway and Ross' next move is not yet clear.
The current mandate of the Security Council is to find a mutually acceptable political solution that will allow for self-determination. This mandate has left many observers scratching their heads. How can the parties reach a compromise on the key issue of self-determination when UN decolonization practice has traditionally offered a plebiscite on independence? Morocco rejects the independence option and wants its autonomy proposal accepted as the basis for negotiations (thus ruling out independence). Polisario has expressed willingness to talk about power sharing but only in the context of post-referendum guarantees (where independence is still an option). Unlike the generic claim of self-determination often uttered in separatist, ethnic or nationalist conflicts, self-determination has a very specific and clear meaning in the case of Western Sahara given its international legal status as Africa's last UN recognized non-self-governing territory. To a certain extent, the United Nations' hands are tied in Western Sahara, and so it is either up to Morocco to accept the independence option or up to Polisario to give away one of its best cards.
The parties, however, are not the only problem. The Security Council is as guilty as the parties for the current impasse. Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations offered unconditional rhetorical and material support to the UN peace process - until the personal envoys actually needed the Council to flex its muscle. Baker and Van Walsum were as much undermined by the parties' refusal to redefine sovereignty and self-determination as they were undermined by the Security Council's refusal to bring pressure to bear at crucial moments. In 2004, the Security Council refused to send a strong signal to Morocco that some form of a self-determination referendum would be necessary for peace and supported instead an undefined mutually acceptable political solution. In 2008, the Security Council refused to support Van Walsum when he came to the conclusion that the independence option had to be suspended. The Council asks the personal envoys to work miracles but refuses to recognize that it holds the magic wand of praise and censure.
The Secretariat under Ban Ki-moon does not seem to recognize, or is unwilling to admit, the tough choices facing the UN venture in Western Sahara. As early as December 1995, Boutros Ghali admitted to the Council that the differences between the sides were irreconcilable and surprised everybody by admitting that he never believed that the referendum would happen. He understood that there were really only three options on the table: force a solution on the parties, withdraw or keep pressing for negotiations. Consistently, the Security Council chose number three. For the Obama administration, these choices remain fundamentally the same and dismal in their prospects.
No Council member is willing to force self-determination on Morocco. France could veto such an attempt, the U.S. and the UK would oppose it more subtly, and Russia and China would resist for their own domestic reasons. A referendum without a negotiated final status agreement also has the potential to become a humanitarian disaster, should either side refuse to recognize the outcome. The United Nations learned this lesson the hard way in East Timor when Indonesian forces violently refused to recognize the independence of the former, prompting an intervention-weary Security Council to dispatch peacekeepers. If similar events were to accompany Southern Sudan's 2011 bid for independence, Western Sahara's prospects for a referendum would become all the more dim. Additionally there is the question of whether 300,000 Sahrawis, almost half of whom have lived as refugees in Algeria since 1976, heavily dependent on international aid, can construct a stable state in a territory the size of Great Britain. Polisario and its supporters still need to convince the P-5 that independence will bring peace rather than instability.
Unilateral U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which looked like a possibility in the final years of the George W. Bush administration, would prove equally fruitless. It will be against international law and it will not change the attitudes of Algeria, the African Union, or international solidarity networks supporting self-determination. Most importantly, it will not affect the Sahrawi nationalist movement, which has become quite immune to Washington's hypocritical support for self-determination, backing it in the case of secession (Southern Sudan and Kosovo) while opposing it in the case of decolonization (Western Sahara and East Timor). Indeed, formally recognizing Morocco's claim might only convince many Sahrawis that the only path to secure their national rights is through violent means. Morocco and its backers have yet to make a coherent argument as to how a unilaterally implemented autonomy proposal provides for a durable peace.
The only person who has ever seemingly taken option two seriously was John Bolton, during his brief stint as the US representative to the United Nations. Security Council withdrawal could take one of two forms: either a suspension of diplomatic efforts or a full withdrawal of the UN referendum mission and its peacekeeping forces. Combined with behind-the-scenes pressure on both sides to compromise, the softer option could signal to them that it is time to stop performing to the international community and time to start talking to each other. A full withdrawal of the UN mission seems unlikely because it would be highly controversial; it would imply international indifference to renewed armed fighting between Morocco and Polisario.
So option three wins by default. Until Western Sahara becomes a crisis, either by chance or by choice, endless mediation seems safe because it does not fundamentally alter the equation. Yet that is the very problem in Western Sahara. The UN keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Anna Theofilopoulou is a former UN official who covered the Western Sahara conflict from 1994 to 2006. She was a member of James Baker's negotiating team. Jacob Mundy is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He is co-author of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution.