A briefing document compiled by Martin Hughes

There has been considerable activity at the UN over the past three months on Western Sahara. Two separate reports in November and January have been presented to the United Nations Security Council by secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and two new Security Council Resolutions have been passed: 1033 (1995) and 1042 (1996).
It is now four years since the original date set by the UN for a free and fair referendum on the future of the occupied territory of Western Sahara. The latest reports, new additions in a long series, do not provide any positive strategy for realising the long-promised referendum.
This edition of Western Sahara Briefing summarises the main developments in diplomatic activity and the contents of the reports and resolutions. It also gives the WSC's views on how the current deadlock may be broken.


The background to the latest developments was the attempt by the secretary general last month (December 1995) to bring matters to a head.
In a move which would have effectively given the green light to Morocco to register the claims of thousands of Moroccans to participate in the referendum, secretary general Boutros-Ghali had proposed that voter identification need not involve representatives of both parties. This fundamental revision of the rules for voter identification was contained in a report dated 24th November 1995 (S/1995/986).
The identification rules had been established in the original Settlement Plan, which had been agreed by Morocco and the Polisario Front. The reaction of Polisario to the secretary general's proposal was one of complete opposition: the new procedure would create conditions where a Moroccan-nominated representative alone could vouch for the claims of individuals to join the electoral roll.


After receiving the draft of a new Security Council Resolution on Western Sahara from New York in early December, the Western Sahara Campaign presented its views to the UN, the UK Government and London-based Embassies of Permanent Representatives to the Security Council.
In its submission to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, which was faxed to the President of the Security Council in New York, the Western Sahara Campaign made the following points:
1. The history of the Settlement Plan has been one of continued accommodation of the wishes of the occupying power. One clear example was the decision of the United Nations in 1991 to ignore Morocco's transfer en masse of around 40,000 people into the territory (a violation of paragraphs 71 and 72 of the Settlement Plan). The objective of the implantation of these settlers was to "pack" the electoral register with Moroccan citizens. Since that time, Morocco has been consistently pursuing a strategy which seeks to add large numbers of its own citizens to the electoral roll for the Western Saharan referendum.
2. There have been a whole series of errors by the United Nations Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO). These have been presented in evidence given before US Congress by the former Deputy Chairman of the Voter Identification Commission, Mr. Frank Ruddy, and also more recently by an independent report of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. According to these informed sources, the catalogue of errors have included: 3. The secretary general's proposals will compound the flaws in the identification process to date, and they will create new conditions where voter identification can take place purely on the oral evidence of a Moroccan-nominated tribal leader. The introduction of such a procedure given the history of the voter identification process will represent a complete capitulation of the UN to Moroccan demands and will end any prospect of a free and fair referendum.
4. The implementation of such a process of voter identification will inevitably lead to the weaker party to the conflict (Polisario) withdrawing from the Settlement Plan, with all its attendant implications for an already unstable region. This will not be a course of action which Polisario will follow lightly as evidence to date suggests that Polisario has cooperated willingly with the UN, despite the very real problems with the Settlement Plan.
5. Conditions which allow the enfranchisement of such a large number of Moroccan citizens with no or questionable ties to the territory will effectively lead to the domination of the referendum by Morocco. Such an outcome would not only be perverse, but would represent a complete failure of the UN to carry out its long standing promise to the Saharawi people to decide their own future.
6. Given the settlement of recent conflicts it is clear that the international community is failing to recognise the essential elements required in successful conflict resolution, namely ensuring that parties enter dialogue and resolve matters together. The UN has not been able to achieve this in Western Sahara, and instead has chosen to back the stronger power in a misguided attempt to hold a referendum to meet its obligations.


The draft resolution which was being considered by the Security Council in December contained three possible courses of action.
The first course of action, proposed by the USA, France, UK and Argentina endorsed the report of the secretary general. A second, proposed by Morocco also endorsed the report but stressed the need to continue consultations with Morocco and Polisario. The third, proposed by Polisario, called for continued consultations on previously agreed methods of voter identification.
The Western Sahara Campaign was particularly concerned by the role which the UK played during this period, as it appeared that action was being taken to favour the Moroccan position. The announcement this month of the second visit to Morocco in twelve months by Prince Charles indicates the growing economic interest of Britain in Morocco and goes a long way in explaining the British position at the UN.
It was also significant, even ironic, that the Argentinian and British positions at the UN Security Council were the same. There are very close parallels between the Argentinian invasion and occupation of the Falkland Islands and the Moroccan invasion and occupation of Western Sahara.
In the event, the outcome of lengthy discussions within the Security Council was that the secretary general had to effect somewhat of a climb-down. Instead of endorsing the November report, the Security Council decided in its Resolution 1033 (December, 1995) to "welcome" the report as a useful "framework". This climb-down was the result of concerted lobbying by Polisario and the very strong protests of the government of Algeria.
Before the resolution was passed, in a move which looked like an attempt to save face, Boutros-Ghali announced that he would be sending a new envoy (Chinmaya Gharekhan of India) to Morocco and Algeria for more consultations. No such course of action had been proposed in the draft Security Council Resolution, but the fact that Gharekhan would be sent on the mission appeared in the final resolution which was passed on 19.12.95.
For its part, the Polisario later expressed its anger that Boutros-Ghali's original report had been tabled in the form that it had been. The leader of Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz described the report as "biaised towards Morocco" and "as if Morocco had drafted the proposal and Boutros-Ghali signed it".


Chinmaya Gharekhan duly visited Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria during the early part of January. Given the background to the decision to send him on his mission, it was hardly surprising that he was able to achieve very little.
Gharekhan's mission was undertaken against the backdrop of deteriorating relations between Morocco and Algeria, the former accusing the latter of interfering in the Western Sahara conflict. Morocco also took steps to try and suspend the Arab Mahgreb Union, a fledgling economic union which comprises Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Mauritania.
The latest report of the secretary general, presented to the Security Council on 19.1.96, revealed the following:
1. Both Morocco and Polisario have indicated that they want to see a free and fair referendum, but both have also made it clear that they will not make any new concessions on voter identification.
2. Polisario reiterated its position that the processing of applications of tens of thousands of Moroccans belonging to tribes not represented in the 1974 Spanish Census is not acceptable, and any moves to do so will lead to Polisario's withdrawal from the whole process.
3. Polisario stressed the need to have more transparency in voter identification activity and for measures to restore confidence in the process.
4. Morocco was not willing to participate in either direct or indirect negotiations with Polisario.
5. Algeria sees the whole issue as one of decolonisation and believes that dialogue between Morocco and Polisario is essential.
6. The UN finally agreed that it would show lists of voters identified to date to Morocco and Polisario to respond to the criticism which has been levelled at MINURSO for some time that it is not operating in a transparent way.
To move matters forward, it was reported that Polisario has agreed to continue with the identification of all applicants whose tribes are represented in the Spanish Census. The UN, however, is insisting that it will process all applications it receives.
The outlook for completing identification is therefore not positive. The UN believes that it will take a further 6 to 12 months, but given unresolved problems and past experience, this looks wildly optimistic.
The main areas for hope include the UN's decision, reflected in the very latest UN Resolution 1042 (1996), to open up the identification process. The UN intends to reveal who has been identified to date as eligible to vote in the referendum, something that should have happened from the outset. Another hopeful sign is that there is continuing recognition that dialogue between Morocco and Polisario would be helpful. The problem here, though, is that Morocco does not want to enter dialogue, and leading powers at the UN do not seem to want to bring pressure to bear on Morocco to do so. Resolution 1042 talks of "encouraging" Morocco and Polisario "to consider additional ways to create confidence between themselves." Even this weak formulation was only reluctantly agreed to by the US, the UK and France.
The report ends with a recognition of a key dilemma for the UN. All the indications are that a withdrawal of MINURSO would be very negative for peace and stability in North West Africa, yet Boutros-Ghali has still posed the need to consider the withdrawal option if no progress is made. In the meantime MINURSO's mandate has been extended to 31st May, 1996 with 15th May set as the target date for a new report on the situation.


The Western Sahara Campaign was created to campaign for a just settlement to the Western Sahara conflict based on the inalienable right of the Saharawi people to exercise a free and fair vote on their future.
We share the view of the government of Algeria that fundamentally the conflict revolves around the question of decolonisation of the territory. Western Sahara was indisputably a Spanish colony until 1975, and has been a Moroccan colony since the Moroccan invasion.
We also share the view of the Economist magazine, which in a leading article this month correctly identified Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara as an "ugly little theft" and a kind of "imperialism (which) goes against the grain."
The Western Sahara Campaign has questioned for some time the ability and determination of the UN to deliver a free and fair referendum. Along with former MINURSO staff and other non-governmental organisations, we have criticised the lack of will of the powerful UN member states to tackle concerted Moroccan obstruction of the Settlement Plan.
In short, MINURSO got it wrong from the beginning, has compounded its errors along the way and is now powerless to break a long-standing stalemate. What can be done? The following areas should be examined to try and break the deadlock and get the process back on track:
1. Bring real pressure to bear on Morocco to begin negotiations with Polisario. The Western Sahara Campaign argued back in 1994 that leading UN member states needed to re-build confidence in the Western Sahara settlement plan. No progress will be made while there are no direct negotiations between the two parties.
Positive developments in South Africa and the Middle East indicate that it is only when parties in conflict enter into direct negotiations that real progress can be made. The problem is that Morocco refuses to enter into dialogue. This is not surprising given the history of the settlement plan to date: Morocco can get what it wants without sitting down with Polisario.
2. At the same time, to revitalise the UN plan, leverage is required on both parties to make the plan a success. The plan will fail if it is imposed on either or both of the parties (an imposed solution has been put forward as an option by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in March 1994 and again in November/December 1995).
Leverage will only come if a group of UN member states are able and prepared to actively engage in the Western Sahara Settlement Plan. In this respect, the Western Sahara Campaign supports the idea of using the model used in Namibia of a Joint Monitoring Commission. This was comprised of a group of states which was able to arbitrate and problem-solve in the lead-up to Namibian independence. In the case of Western Sahara such a body could include the USA, France, Spain, Algeria and Mauritania as well as the two parties, the UN and the Organisation of African Unity. It could be the only chance left to rescue the UN plan and inject the key missing ingredients of confidence and leverage.
3. Withdrawal of MINURSO or its reduction to a token force are not options. It is invidious to continue posing these options, when the UN knows that the failure of MINURSO will destabilise the whole Mahgreb.
The conclusion of the latest report of the secretary general concedes this important point. While reduction of the MINURSO force might save the UN's face and satisfy the wishes of key Security Council members looking to save money by disengaging from Western Sahara, such an outcome would have the effect of collapsing the Settlement Plan and be a betrayal of promises made to the Saharawi people. It would amount to an international sanction of illegal occupation and colonisation.
At the end of the Cold War, many had high hopes for the UN. The Western Sahara operation should have been straightforward, given the history of the situation. It certainly was less complex than Somalia, Angola or former Yugoslavia. The UN had an opportunity to achieve an early success in its post Cold War role and build confidence; all that Western Sahara seems to have proved is that the UN is unable to practically enforce its political decisions in the field.
An inevitable conclusion is that the worlds remaining superpower must engage itself more fully to ensure the whole process does not break down.
4. Very serious questions remain about the operation of MINURSO. Despite evidence to the contrary, the UN denies that it has made any fundamental errors and has failed to address criticism.
At the time of the presentation of evidence to the US Congress by former Deputy Chairman of the MINURSO Voter Identification Commission, Frank Ruddy, and again following the publication of the report of Human Rights Watch, the Western Sahara Campaign argued for:
Unfortunately, the UN has been either unwilling or unable to address the flaws in MINURSO's operation. It has also taken steps to prevent its staff and former staff from speaking out. This is not surprising, given the potential embarrassment of the MINURSO operation for the UN in its role as the world's peace-maker and peace-keeper. This does not mean that the experience of the past 4 years should be forgotten or ignored. It may be that an independent review by eminent international jurists will be the only way that there will be a thorough, honest and transparent investigation into MINURSO.

For further information please contact Martin Hughes on + 44 1280 821184 (telephone), +44 1280 821784 (fax).

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