The Washington Times, July 3, 1997

Western Sahara's difficult path

by Gilonne d'Origny

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III has gotten involved in Western Sahara, and with him the tacit authority of the United States. Appointed in March as the special envoy of the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Mr. Baker is meeting with the parties in London and Lisbon to discuss ways of making a tortuous peace process finally work. He has been instructed to help Morocco and the Polisario to implement the U.N. and Organization of African Unity (OAU) Settlement Plan. After visiting the region in April and canvassing opposition positions, it is now his move. What can Mr. Baker do under the circumstances ?

Earlier peace proposal
One peace proposal first made in 1993 by Jarat Chopra, expert in peace operations and lecturer at Brown University, has received increasing support and finds here a second chance to be considered. Missing from the process in Western Sahara has been an honest guarantor for the provisions agreed upon by the belligerants. The notion of a contact group of states, representing the political configuration of factors affecting the conflict, may be able to fulfill this role.

Earlier experience
However an earlier experience in 1994, still an untold story, illustrates the necessity of U.S. engagement. Indeed, according to Gare Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, "more prominent U.S. involvement could enhance the likelihood of peace in Western Sahara. Sometimes, a strong American commitment can be more effective than a whole peacekeeping operation."

The UN peace plan
To resolve two decades of war, the U.N. and OAU proposed holding a referendum in which indigenous Sahrawi would choose either sovereign independence or integration with Morocco.Disagreement over who should vote has led to diplomatic gymnastics and undermined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the U.N. mission for the referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso), deployed since 1991. Something has been needed to ensure free and fair implementation of each successive stage of the peace process, including the conduct of the referendum, the acceptance of its result and the final transfer of power to the newly elected authority.

Joint monitoring commission for Western Sahara
In 1993, an unofficial bipartisan delegation from the U.S. visited the region, under the leadership of the late Angier Biddle Duke, former Ambassador to Morocco and White House Chief of Protocol. The group met with the parties, neighboring countries and former Spanish colonial officials. At the end of the mission report, published by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Mr. Chopra, the author and delegation member, introduced the idea of a joint monitoring commission for Western Sahara of the kind that helped Namibia win its independence. This would need to be composed of the parties, neighboring Algeria and Mauritania, interested states like Spain and France - the former colonial powers in the area - and disinterested support from such traditional peacekeepers as Canada and the Scandinavian countries. Above all, individual interests and impartial good will cannot combine to form a coalition without the unitying influence of American authority.

An intiative for Western Sahara
Considering the general application such a so-called "peace maintenance" mechanism might have, and in the wake of the Middle East accords, in early 1994 some Norwegian diplomats agreed to explore the possibility of an initiative for Western Sahara. The reaction of Ahmed Senoussi, Morocco's representative at the U.N., was to question the substance such direct talks would have. The Polisario representative in Washington, Mouloud Sais, explained why previous indirect talks had failed.

International conference proposed
In the meantime, in April, at a public meeting in Madrid, the president of the Polisario, Mohammed Abdelaziz, proposed an international conference of the likely states that could constitute a joint monitoring commission for Western Sahara. To this effect, he wrote on April 30 to then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and suggested that the U.N. pursue the idea. Mr. Boutros-Ghali's reply accepted the proposal as a way forward and promised to contact the relevant governments. Such an exchange created the impetus for some U.N. member states to consider participating.

Meeting of experts
In May 1994, a meeting of experts was convened at the Norwegian embassy in Washington to further assess the feasibility of a joint initiative. This included, among others, Chester A. Croker, former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs and architect of the Namibian process, who also accompanied Mr. Baker on his April visit earlier this year. At that time it became clear that Norwegian integrity needed to be matched with American influence over the parties.

Missed opportunity
Shortly afterwards, Morton Halperin, in charge of democracy and human rights at the National Security Council, was privately approached. While he was unwilling to assume responsibility for a U.S. position, he advised that should Madeleine Albright, then representing the U.S. at the U.N. and a Clinton administration cabinet member, chose to pursue this, she would not be challenged by the foreign policy apparatus in Washington. However, Western Sahara got lost in the shuffle of the American agenda between its preceding withdrawal from Somalia and intensifying engagement in Bosnia. It was a missed opportunity since Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, officially visited with President Clinton in May 1994. This could have formalized cooperation in resolving the conflict had there been a positive signal for the United States.

Another initiative
Since then, a new secretary-general has taken office at the U.N., and a high profile politician and diplomat is serving as special envoy to Western Sahara. At the end of 1996, both the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council passed a resolution calling for direct talks between the parties within the framework of the Settlement Plan. At the beginning of 1997, Solomon Gomes, deputy permanent observer at the OAU mission to the U.N., suggested the establishment of a Friends of Western Sahara group. Non-government organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and the Canadian Lawyers Association for International Human Rights, have supported the notion of a contact group as guarantor for transparancy and accountability in the process. The architectural plans for peace are evident, but lacking political will may ruin the parties unless this second opportunity is seized.

(Titles by ARSO)

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