14. - 16.09.97 Houston negociations: Agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front
After 3 days of talks behind closed doors in Houston, the UN Special Envoy Mr. James Baker III announced on September 16 that the parties involved in the conflict came to an agreement that laid the groundwork for an end to their dispute over Western Sahara by agreeing to a code of conduct governing a referendum that would decide the fate of the territory.The U.N. mediator said the accord would be presented to the United Nations to decide whether a referendum could be held, and when. At issue is whether Western Sahara is incorporated into Morocco or becomes independent, as supported by the Polisario Front. "We have agreed upon pretty much everything that is necessary for the United Nations to reinstitute the (referendum) process", he told.
Baker, who described the Houston talks as "fairly difficult", said the issue of who would vote had been decided, but it was a "very, very complicated issue". "It depends on tribes and tribal groupings and a whole host of other things. I can tell you that I would estimate we would probably see a total electorate in this case of something in the neighborhood of 80,000 voters, " he said. In his opinion the vote could take place in "10 or 11 months", and he affirmed that both sides had agreed to give the United Nations "all the authority that it deems necessary in order to organize and conduct a free and fair referendum." He said also there was no guarantee that everything agreed to in this latest round of talks would be fully implemented. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, " he added.

The agreement concerns following points:

1. Transitional period
The two sides recognize the authority of the UN during the transitional period in order to allow the organization of a transparent, free and fair referendum. The agreement is included in a declaration about the function and presence of the UN in the period between the end of voter identification and the vote.

2. Code of conduct during the electoral period ( 3 weeks)
This agreement includes the possibility for both parties to have an equal access to the medias and warrants freedom of speech and movement during this time. International observers will be allowed to watch the electoral campaign as well as the members of the Polisario support committee, in which the international solidarity groups will be present.

3. Voter identification ( 8 - 10 months)
This point is matter of an other agreement setting the conditions of the resuming of the voter identification and the appropriate criterias. Morocco renounces to present global lists. The members of the contested tribes can participate to identification but only as individuals without beeing convoked. The Polisario accepts oral testimonies as identity evidence. This formula is supposed to bring a total electorate of something around 80'000 voters. The identification process could be resumed in 4 - 6 weeks.

4. Agreement on confinement of Moroccan and Saharawi troops.

5. Agreement on release of POWs and political detainees.

6. Agreement on return of the refugees actually in the camps near Tindouf.

Comments and reactions

Polisario Front
Mr A. Boukhari, Polisario Representative at the UN said the agreement gives a new dynamism to the referendum and he reaffirmed the will of full cooperation of the Saharawi part in order to realize a fair and free vote. He repeated that the referendum will decide if Western Sahara will be independent or a part of Morocco.
President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic SADR and Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz said that agreement reached with Morocco laid the ground for resolving the Western Sahara conflict and ending a colonial situation of injustice and suffering lasting 23 years. "Hope is now permitted..." He appealed to the international community "to support the implementation of these agreements.

Mr Filali, who led the Moroccan delegation, told the Maghreb Arab Press (MAP):" I believe, based on what has been decided since the first meeting and after the conclusion of this round, and also on the basis of the declarations made by both sides, that Morocco can look with optimism at the future of its territories". Commenting on the talks during this round, Mr Filali said they were not easy because there were some tense and difficult times. "However, I believe that despite everything, we have reached a logical compromise which will enable the organization of this referendum, because this is what we wanted, and because this problem, which has lasted for more than 20 years, must end..."

United Nations
"The Secretary-General is extremely pleased that, through the good offices of his Personal Envoy James A. Baker III, the parties to the dispute in Western Sahara have reached agreement on issues that have held up the implementation of the Settlement Plan for nearly two years. The Secretary- General congratulates the parties and expresses his high appreciation to Mr. Baker for his skill in achieving an agreement on these difficult and complex issues. The Secretary-General looks forward to the parties' cooperating with the United Nations in fulfilling the commitments they have made so that the Settlement Plan can be implemented."

TheAlgerian government exprimed its satisfaction calling the agreement of "major importance" and affirmed its will to support its application.

The Spanish government declared also to be happy about the agreement and underlined that it gives a real perspective of solution.


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