This week Mr. James Baker III, the Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for the Western Sahara, undertakes a visit to North West Africa, in an attempt to overcome the impasse that has been hampering the implementation of a solution to one of the world's longest running conflicts.
Mr. Baker's mission is both colossal and of the utmost importance. He will be trying to solve a problem that has been on the UN agenda since 1963, in which both parties involved have invested a great deal, including thousands of their own peoples' lives. Above all, his mission concerns the fate of the Saharawi people.
The following is an attempt to sketch a scenario of Mr. Baker's encounters with the parties and what they are likely to tell him. The options to be considered are also briefly outlined.
Mr. Baker's first stop is in Morocco where he will be told that the Western Sahara is historically Moroccan and that Morocco will never accept anything short of sovereignty over that Territory. The Moroccans are also likely to remind Mr. Baker that their Kingdom has always been a good friend to the USA and draw his attention to their "help" in the war against terrorism. They will stress the fact that they have signed deals with the Texan oil-firm Kerr-McGee to prospect for oil off-shore Western Sahara. They will also explain that Morocco is going through a difficult phase in its domestic and international relations and is in dire need of its friends' support.
While he is in Rabat, Mr. Baker could also confer with his old friend and confidant Margaret Tutwiler, the US Ambassador to Morocco who has been trying tirelessly to strengthen American and Moroccan ties.
During his meetings with the Frente Polisario, the Saharawi leadership will explain to Baker that the Western Sahara issue is a de-colonisation issue, and that the Saharawi people have the right to self-determination according to the UN doctrine. They will remind him of the International Court of Justice's verdict, the long list of UN resolutions and the recent opinion of the UN under-secretary for legal Affairs. They will also mention that the Saharawi side has fully cooperated with the UN and has made vast compromises to help the UN succeed in its efforts to solve the problem. They will express their astonishment regarding the lack of pressure on Morocco, which has violated the Houston Accords signed under Baker's auspices in 1997. The Saharawi leadership will reaffirm that the only viable and legal solution to the conflict is the UN/OAU Peace Plan, which was agreed by both parties and endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Whilst in the region, Mr. Baker may meet the UN mission (MINURSO) staff who might inquire about when they will be allowed to complete the task they have been entrusted to accomplish for the past 12 years. They could well show him the referendum plan, the computerised voters' lists, the police staff and the empty ballot boxes.
What we are not in a position to predict, however, is what Mr. Baker will be telling his interlocutors. But we know that there are only two paths for a solution to the conflict. One is the simple and legal way; the other is to embark on an uncharted path, which is tricky and fraught with danger.
The simple and legal way is to revive the UN/OAU Peace Plan and to explain in no uncertain terms to both parties that the international community will not tolerate any violations or delaying tactics. Therefore, MINURSO must be given the necessary mandate and its staff and budget ought to be increased immediately. The referendum date must be fixed and the Territory put under UN control. This is no fiction and could well be achieved if there is will and courage.
The other way is the one preferred by the Moroccan regime, which is to continue wasting UN efforts and means with the illusion that another solution is possible. The Moroccan regime's aim, or rather wishful thinking, is that the UN and the Saharawi side will eventually be exhausted and accept Morocco's occupation as a predestined fact.
Morocco's expansionist and intransigent attitude is dangerous and could lead to the destabilisation of the region. Given the current international situation and the threats to peace and security, a just and lasting solution leading to full independence of the Western Sahara will not only be welcomed by the peoples of the Maghreb region but will also give a huge boost to UN's credibility.
Should Mr. Baker accomplish his mission in finding a just solution to the issue of the Western Sahara, he would have succeeded where many have failed and this would make him a real candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize.