What more can be done to resolve the problem in Western Sahara?

Mr. (Carne) Ross, Undersecretary General Miyet, and I have be trading opinions for six months and it is clear that Mr. Ross has no intention to propose or agree on any kind of political settlement or compromise, regardless of arguments to the contrary. It is time to quit deluding ourselves and allowing the refugees to be used as hostages in an effort to advance the cause of a few thousand Polisario rebels. Rather, we should reach out together for a common middle-ground solution.

There are two absolute realities that we should not fool ourselves about. First, Morocco will never leave its Saharan territories, and the UN Security Council will never force Morocco to do so. This fact is grounded in an agreement between the US and Morocco and supported by the actions of the UN Security Council over the past two decades to not impose solutions on the parties. Even when the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy James Baker threatened such a move, he was rejected by the Security Council, and consequently resigned.

Second, it is the policy of three US administrations to support a negotiated political compromise that is based upon a sovereignty/autonomy arrangement, with a confirmatory referendum to be conducted after such negotiations. The US also supports the efforts of the UN Personal Envoy in this regard. These are the facts. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently. Let’s deal with the reality of the situation.

The “winner-take-all” referendum approach was largely abandoned more than a decade ago in favor of the UN Security Council’s injunction to the parties to find a “mutually acceptable political solution” that would somehow conform to the general legal principle of respect for the concerned population’s “right” to self-determination.

For its part, Morocco has formally offered a compromise solution, to grant the territory broad autonomy to govern its own local affairs, which is consistent with the directives of the UN Security Council to cooperate in the search for a viable political solution. Morocco has compromised on its original goal of simply incorporating the territory into the remainder of the country — a significant concession to peace-building. The Moroccan initiative resonates with the first proposal made in 2001 by UN Personal Envoy James Baker, whose initial suggestion about how best to resolve this issue was based on the same general formula — a broad autonomy for the region under Moroccan sovereignty. The details were to be negotiated by the parties and the agreement would then need to be put to a vote of the concerned population in the interest of gaining the kind of popular approval that would help sustain the arrangement and at the same time meet the basic criteria for self-determination.

Unfortunately, the Moroccan initiative has not been taken up seriously in the UN-sponsored negotiations ongoing since 1997, although it has won the endorsement of many in the international community and the Security Council as “serious, credible and realistic,” to use the phrase often repeated by the chief diplomats of the last two US administrations. Nevertheless, little has been done since its introduction to induce either the Polisario Front or Algeria to do more than snub the effort while they play for more time. More time for what, one might reasonably ask.

With the growing unrest in North Africa, one would think that both the parties to the conflict as well as the larger international community would act to bring greater stability to the region. The exploding powder keg in the Sahara/Sahel now demands that everyone do their best to bring this to a fair-minded resolution before it contributes more than it already has to the growing danger and chaos of the region. But somehow, that seems not to be the case — at least not yet.

The Polisario refugee camps, with their uncounted population of increasingly hopeless young people (Algeria and the Polisario won’t allow a census to be taken), are being targeted for recruits by a widening network of terrorist and criminal gangs. The international community and especially the major powers in Europe and the US have finally started to recognize the danger that this ungoverned space represents to regional security. Yet little to nothing seems underway to break the Western Sahara deadlock despite clear evidence that it is a major factor contributing to the lack of regional cooperation required to address the rapidly deteriorating conditions.

Both the eroding security situation in the Sahel/Sahara and the future economic and social development of the region are being blocked by the lingering Western Sahara issue. If the Maghreb is going to find its way to a more stable, progressive, and prosperous future following the Arab uprisings, Morocco and Algeria, the most stable states in the region, will need to provide a high degree of joint leadership and cooperation. Sadly, that remains lacking, largely because Algeria is not willing to play its obvious role in crafting the compromise required to resolve the Western Sahara issue. Former Undersecretary General Miyet is correct when he notes that neither the US nor France nor other important members of the international community have been willing to compromise their good relations with either Algeria or Morocco to take any decisive action to break the deadlock on Western Sahara. In the past, clearly, none have judged the Sahara problem to be of sufficient strategic importance to the region to merit such steps. The common view was that the status quo was acceptable and that neither Morocco nor Algeria was substantially disadvantaged by allowing it to continue.

Former Personal Envoy Peter van Walsum seemed annoyed by this laissez faire attitude in the Security Council, as stated in his last report to the Secretary General before his contract was allowed to lapse a few years ago. He pointed out that its hands-off attitude left tens of thousands of refugees in limbo in the most miserable conditions in some of the world’s worst refugee camps isolated deep in the Sahara. He specifically rejected as unrealistic any independence for the territory and urged Algeria and Polisario supporters to instead turn their attention to the need for a compromise to address the humanitarian disaster that the refugees had to face in their daily lives. Those remarks — insightful, courageous, and realistic as they were — nevertheless brought his mandate to an end without provoking any new thinking or action on the issue.

Today, the question is whether, in the aftermath of the Arab uprising and their still evolving consequences for the Maghreb and with the situation in the Sahel getting worse, can the US, Europe, and other international powers continue to maintain the status quo on Western Sahara without attention to the important strategic consequences for the region.

Time will tell. The United States has recently launched a strategic dialogue with the Kingdom of Morocco and a series of regular meetings with Algeria. Clearly, these two nations have the potential, when working in concert, to make a very substantial contribution to stabilizing the Maghreb and the Sahel. And that goal has very definite strategic consequences not just for the region, but for Europe and the US as well.

One can hope that enhanced relations between the US and Morocco, as well as between the US and Algeria, might feature an intensified dialogue with both about the need to resolve the problem in Western Sahara in the best interests of all concerned. Does the US risk much by taking a more engaging stand in favor of the political compromise it says it wants to see on this issue? Or is it a greater risk today by allowing this problem to metastasize and aggravate further the security problem in the Sahel that is beginning to threaten the entire Maghreb region?

Now is the time for Mr. Ross to join with those in the international community who believe a winner-take-all solution will not work for the Western Sahara, but rather a political compromise between the parties is the only way forward. We should do it for the tens of thousands of refugees who remain in the camps and deserve the right to come home to Morocco and contribute to building the Saharan region into an autonomous governing province within the Kingdom of Morocco.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.