NATIONAL HERALD, New Delhi , April 22, 1999


Western Sahara Progress towards referendum


By Jagdish P.Sharma


It is heartening to learn that the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has been extended upto April 30,1999 to allow for an understanding to be reached among all concerned on detailed modalities for the implementation of the voter identification process.

The UN Force is playing a commendable role in maintaining peace in the disputed Western Sahara region by allowing both the involved parties, the kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, to work towards a referendum on the territories future. In a unanimous resolution last year, the UN Security Council called on Morocco and the Polisario National Liberation Front to allow the UN refugee agency begin work to repatriate voters ahead of the vote, expected by December 1999.

Besides, the visit of the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Alayoun, the capital of the occupied Western Sahara, in November 1998 had put the long detailed referendum process on track. The long-planned U.N. sponsored referendum for Western Sahara had to be postponed frequently owing to the stonewalling tactics adopted by the Moroccan government in the last five years. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 after the Spanish colonialists had withdrawn from what was then known as Spanish Sahara.

Western Sahara represents one of the last problems of decolonisation in the world today. Originally this territory was known as Spanish Sahara on account of it having been a colony of Spain since 1884. Spain had promised the country independence, but pressure from Morocco and the US forced the Spanish government, in the midst of its own delicate transition to democratic rule, to capitulate. On November14, 1975 Spain entered into a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania, the northern and southern neighbours of this econimically prosperous desert region. Accordingly this territory was partitioned between Morocco and Mauritania and within three years, came under exclusive Moroccan control. This occurred despite the landmark October 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice that upheld the right of the people of Western Sahara to self -determination.

The US pressure was due to its cold war premise and concern about the likely prospects of an independent Western Sahara under the left -leaning Polisario Liberation Front and also to boost the political fortunes of Moroccoís pro-Western monarch, King Hassan II. Moroccan forces invaded the territory but initially suffered heavy losses to the Polisario Front. Mauritania was defeated outright and withdrew. Morocco succeeded in conquering virtually the entire territory, including the former Mauritanian sector. The US blocked enforcement of the 1975 UN Security Council resolution demanding Moroccoís withdrawal and recognising Western Saharaís right to national self - determination. The region remains occupied today, with most of the indigenous population (known as Saharawis) exiled in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria.

King Hassan II of Morocco has made the conquest of Western Sahara an issue of national Pride. Besides, this region contains some of worldís richest phosphate deposits, uranium and oil off its 1,200 km of coastline, as well as finest fishing grounds. In 1996, the two parties did reach a ceasefire agreement in the Western Sahara. According to the then UN plan, a referendum was to be held the following year on the future of the former Spanish colony. But it could not be accomplished owing to the conflicting postures on who should be entitled to vote in the proposed referendum on the total independence of Western Sahara or integration of the territory into Morocco.

The Polisario or the Western Sahara Liberation Front defended the last Spanish colonial census of 1974 counting 73,000 Saharawis and objected to the participation in the referendum of Moroccan citizens who had been "transferred" into the territory as a result of the Moroccan-sponsored famous "Green March" of 1975 and 1991. Over 145,000 potential voters have been identified to take part in the proposed referendum, but the Moroccans still insist on pressing the claims of another 65,000. They have apparently started their referendum campaign and anticipate the vote-taking place in December 1999. Others are less sanguine, which puts the ball in the court of James Baker, the former US Secretary of State.

In fact, during the debate, President Nelson Mandela of South Africa linked Western Sahara and East Timor as two issues long overdue for resolution and Ghanaís Jerry Rawlings expressed the unacceptability of an African country behaving in a colonialist way. Moroccan Foreign Minister Abdellatif Filali had another way of looking at it. He refererred to "Saharawi brothers who have been waiting for more than 20 years to return to their homeland, Morocco".

To the Algerians, the latest UN initiative under Kofi Annan was meant to give impetus to the delayed peace process signed between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan government. A UN- brokered ceasefire has been in place for the last seven years with the UN peace- keepers ensuring that it is not violated. Morocco, along with the government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which is a member of the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) and is recognised by about 80 countries, including India, had agreed to a referendum to be held under UN auspices. Many deadlines for the referendum have come and gone and the latest one has been set for December 1999. Morocco is already trying to wriggle out of its commitment. However, this time it may not succeed owing to strong world pressure, particularly the UN and US attitude.

After Kofi Annan took over as Secretary-General, Minurso was galvanised. Annan was determined to accelerate the process towards Saharawiís self-determination. In March 1997, Annan appointed James Baker as his personal envoy to Western Sahara. Baker used his diplomatic skills and his international stature to make Morocco agree to a proposal on voter identification and a code of conduct guaranteeing the UN the authority to oversee a fair and free referendum. Since the Houston agreement, the peace process has made significant progress. Most people who are eligible to vote in the referendum have been identified.

The UN Secretary -General has warned Morocco that if it continues its stalling tactics, he would ask the Security-Council " to reassess the situation and viability of the mandate of Minurso". The Saharawis have threatened that if Morocco reneges on its commitments again, they will re-ignite the war which forced King Hassan of Morocco to deploy on a permanent basis tens of thousands of soldiers on the arid sands of the Sahara. Mohammad Abdelaziz, SADR President, has also stressed "that the Polisario Front would abide by and respect the Saharawi peopleís choice under the condition that the referendum is fair, free and democratic by allowing only Saharawis to vote".

A permanent peace in Western Sahara is the necessity of the hour. It would provide Socio-Political and economical stability not only to Morocco and Western Sahara region but also to the whole Arab-Maghreb region. The ongoing occupation of Western Sahara and the prevailing conflict would only contribute to the impoverishment of the Moroccans and add to the sufferings of the Saharawi people by pushing them into refugee camps in neighbouring countries. In addition to aggravating the tensions in the region, the conflict there would further contribute to the waste of precious human and natural resources which could be gainfully development of the region as a whole.

Speakers at a recent seminar in New Delhi urged the international community to realise the centrality of the peace process in Western Sahara.They urged the world community to give political, moral and humanitarian assistance to the struggling people of Western Sahara. An independent Western Sahara would strengthen the aspirations of the neighbouring people and promote harmony in the Arab-Maghreb region. They also urged the Indian Government to contribute actively to the cause of a permanent peace in Western Sahara as this will strengthen the forces of peace and progress everywhere.

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