7 OCTOBER 1996



Research Associate and Lecturer in international law, Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Brown University.


Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When I spoke before this Committee for the first time, in October 1992, I concluded, in reference to the 1975 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, that "It would be an irony of history and a tragedy of the first order if the credibility of self-determination as a legal right was undermined in one of the very cases that defined it.

And that "It would be an irony of history and a tragedy of the first order if at the end of the process of decolonization the last colony in Africa failed to reap the benefits of the experience of its continental neighbours."

Four years later, time has not healed, but deepened the wound in Western Sahara. The passage of time has had a corrosive effect on the parties, and on the credibility of this Organization; and a paralytic stalemate has gripped the situation.

Stalemate always engenders a perception of senselessness and pointlessness. For a third party, like the United Nations, these are the conditions for abandonment. And in this manner, the irritation of inconvenience leads nations to sacrifice the standards of justice and the kind of principles this Committee exists to stand for.

But this is not just a theoretical pity; it is a tragedy, because at stake is nothing less than the fate of a people and a territory.

In the gradual development of an international rule of law, as the international community struggles to transform the many positions of the weak as against the strong, the Western Sahara is the one case in which the international community has fortified the hand of the strong as against the weak. That MINURSO should have been decidedly handled to have this result, is a travesty of any concept of peace operations and a serious departure in the long-term evolution of such instruments as "peace-keeping," "peace-enforcement" or "peace-maintenance." (See further, Jarat Chopra, "The Space of Peace-Maintenance," Political Geography, Vol. 15. No. 3/4, March/April 1996, pp. 335-357)

In retrospect, the year "1992" may come to be remembered as a kind of 1917 or 1789 for the United Nations. Because in that year, three of the greatest experiments were conducted in international organization since the signing of the Charter - namely, the concurrent deployments of vast operations to Cambodia, Somalia and the Former Yugoslavia.

I warned in my statement before this Committee that "Unprecedented agreements have been concluded committing the Organization to a number of tasks more complex than it has ever faced before...[However], the tasks are being tackled not only without adequate resources but without adequate tools, without appropriate force structures and operational concepts, and it may be that the Organization is heading towards a disaster."

We now know that to have been true.

I added at the time: "It may be said that disaster has already begun in the Western Sahara" - the first operation in which all of the five permanent members of the Security Council were represented in the field. But power without will is impotent, and Member States have been unable to prevent, and in some cases have actively contributed to, disaster.

I would add now that the consequences of failure in Western Sahara may be greater than in Cambodia or Somalia. Although the Security Council declared Somalia a "threat to international peace and security" in order to justify enforcement powers within a state, in neither instance, after 'withdrawal' or 'retreat' by the UN, has continued conflict spread regionally.

In Western Sahara, we are not entirely sure of the overall implications of renewed hostilities between the parties. There are several scenarios, but the intelligence assessments by analysts in government or research circles that underwrite these scenarios are contradictory.

For instance, on the one hand, it is said that a war would be short, since Morocco is militarily stronger. On the other, it is said the conflict would be protracted because the tactics of the POLISARIO do not need to rely on the same kind of strength. Two decades of the conflict would tend to confirm the second of these possibilities.

It is also true that conditions in neighbouring countries have changed significantly since the ceasefire came into effect in Western Sahara properly in 1991. And it is not clear what impact more war in the desert might have on this unstable cocktail. Like "balkanization" or "Libanization," a term such as "Saharization" might enter the lexicon as a word referring to the spark that ignites a regional explosion.

In taking this chance already, Member States have played dice with the region. That is obviously an increasingly dangerous game at the current time.

At this stage, the mission in Western Sahara is virtually bankrupt. (See further, Jarat Chopra, "Quitting Western Sahara," Geopolitics and International Boundaries, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 1996) pp. 55-76) MINURSO had been deployed prematurely, according to a conventional peacekeeping tactic: it was hoped that the mere presence of the UN in the field might generate momentum in the peace process and lead to agreement between the parties.

This approach was relied on because there had not been enough willingness between the parties to sign a formal agreement before deployment of an operation; there was only a nod by each to former Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar that the terms of the settlement plan were acceptable.

But the terms were riddled with gaps and holes, which would have to be bridged and filled in the breach of the operation. For this, the UN was entirely reliant on the consent of the parties in the implementation of the plan. However, Morocco arrested deployment of the Mission in 1991 and regularly violated the ceasefire throughout 1992, which created an atmosphere of diplomatic hostility between the parties. Instead of fostering convergence, the positions of the parties at that point began to diverge.

Similarly, in the process of Identification, although there was never final agreement by both parties to the interpretation of the criteria for voter eligibility, it was proposed in March 1994 that Identification begin in fact as a means to generating momentum towards agreement on the unresolvable parts of Identification. Again, this tactic did not work: Identification has been halted.

Rather than serving as a catalyst for cooperation, MINURSO has divided the parties almost irreconcilably. The parties, it seems, have lost the capacity to discuss substance; raising any issue has meant automatic disagreement because of the approaches to the process as a whole they have developed.

The most effective manner in which to achieve any kind of consensus at this stage is to avoid what has not worked to date. Ensuring consent throughout the peace process required direct and comprehensive engagement by the parties, the Security Council, and UN Member States. Instead, there was only 'indirect' engagement.

Many countries and observers believe that direct talks represent the best avenue for reaching an agreement concerning the conditions for holding a referendum.

An OAU summit adopted in June 1983 a resolution urging the parties "to undertake direct negotiations." (Resolution AHG/Res. 104 of 11 June 1983)

In December 1985 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to persuade the parties "to negotiate." (UNGA Resolution 40/50 of 2 December 1985)

In 1988, both the Fourth Committee and the General Assembly passed unopposed resolutions calling for direct negotiations.

Morocco could not accept the term "negotiation" but nevertheless "direct talks" of one kind or another were held throughout this period.

Meetings were held at the highest levels in Bamako in 1978, in Algiers in 1983 and in Lisbon in 1985.

In 1986 in New York, indirect talks were held through the UN.

In July 1988, secret discussions were held in Taëf, Saudi Arabia. These represented the emergence of the Moroccan tactic of presenting talks as being between two sides of a Sahrawi divide, insinuating therefore that the Western Sahara conflict was an internal Moroccan issue.

In January 1989, the highest level meeting occurred in Marrakech. This was a "direct discussion" between senior POLISARIO representatives and His Majesty the King himself.

Talks were never reconvened with the POLISARIO and once the UN was fully seized of the issue, indirect talks through the Special Representative became the sole repository of consent.

Although Pérez de Cuéllar managed to arrange a meeting in Geneva in June 1990 of tribal chieftans, he was unable to convince the parties to meet directly. Morocco would not meet with the POLISARIO and the Secretary-General had to shuttle between the delegations at UN headquarters in Geneva. Thereafter, outstanding issues such as identification were addressed through "indirect talks."

This was an inadequate means of ensuring agreement and exacerbated entrenched stalemate positions. The alternative was to foster "direct talks" between the parties.

On the insistence of the United States, the parties met in July 1993 in El Ayoun. The UN brokered the conditions of the meeting, which was to be between senior POLISARIO officials headed by the organization's number two, and a delegation of the Moroccan Government under the leadership of the Kingdom of Morocco's Permanent Representative at the UN, His Excellency Ambassador Ahmed Snoussi.

At the meeting, however, a Member of the Royal Consultative Council for Saharan Affairs arrived as Chief of Delegation, with Ambassador Snoussi only his advisor. Moroccan press reports presented the meeting as being between two groups of Sahrawis. Issues of substance were reduced to a Moroccan invitation to the 'other Sahrawis' to integrate into Morocco. The parties agreed only to meet again.

The second and third attempts failed altogether. In New York in October 1993 the POLISARIO refused to meet with the Moroccan delegation since it included Brahim Hakim, a POLISARIO defector. Although there had been a written "Memo of Understanding" for the meeting, an additional provision was included late which Morocco could take advantage of: Paragraph 7 stated that "The composition of each delegation is deemed to lie within the exclusive competence of each Party and would not be open to any objections by either side."

In January 1994, Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali invited the Secretary-General of the POLISARIO to a secret meeting with the Moroccans in Geneva. It was intended that the parties would be left alone to talk. However, the Moroccan delegation was composed of Ambassador Snoussi and General Khadiri, in charge of police intelligence. The highest authority in the POLISARIO could not meet in such a diplomatically asymmetrical manner, but suggested a meeting with the Moroccan delegation's counterparts who happened to be in Geneva. This was refused.

Another round of 'secret talks' without witnesses was resorted to at the end of summer 1996. On 6 September, the Secretary-General announced that direct negotiations were underway between the parties. Delegations met in Geneva, and then talks were held in Morocco between a POLISARIO delegation and the highest authorities in the country, including His Majesty the King and Interior Minister Driss Basri. Predictably, the meetings resulted only in a restatement of the parties' positions, in a kind of 'dialogue of the deaf.' This should signal the failure of secret or 'closed direct talks.'

A new concept for the process and the parties short of hostilities is 'open and direct talks.' The Secretary-General finally proposed this to the Security Council in January 1996, (UN Doc. S/1996/43 of 19 January 1996, paras. 11 and 31) and the Council nodded its approval (UNSC Res. 1042 of 31 January 1996, para. 6).

To this effect, in my last statement before this Committee, in October 1993, I suggested the idea of a joint monitoring cell, to be composed of the parties, the UN and OAU, and a contact group including the United States, France, Spain, Algeria, Mauritania and other interested member states. This would represent the constellation of political factors affecting the peace process and foster political will through confidence and leverage. It would integrate decision-making and implementation, and could stop the international community quitting Western Sahara.

Regardless of such a concept, based on the reasons for failed talks to date, we can determine the ingredients for a successful framework. These include the following.

1. Talks need to be both "open" and "direct," and should be understood to be between the parties, the Government of Morocco and the Frente POLISARIO.

2. The talks should be convened in the presence of Member States, particularly from the Security Council. Member States would preside at the talks and participate in their capacity as "active observers."

3. The number of members in and list of each delegation participating in a meeting should be agreed to by both parties in advance. A party or Member States should be able to suspend a meeting with delegations not composed in good faith.

4. Given specific problems in the past, it may be agreed that private individuals may be chosen by each of the parties and Member States to be present at the meetings. While these "passive observers" may be present, they should not participate in discussions.

5. At the discretion of Member States, "individual petitioners" may be called to address the meetings in their own capacity

6. In order to ensure the talks are meaningful and constructive, an agenda with a limited number of items should be established prior to the meetings.

7. The parties should provide full support and cooperation in ensuring the orderly and proper conduct of meetings. They should act in good faith when hearing or making presentations and avoid undue provocations - including the display of symbols representing the delegations.

8. The parties should show moderation and self-restraint in their statements to the media. Public statements must not misrepresent the conduct or results of the talks.

9. Finally, following each meeting, Member States would report the results to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council

Let me conclude, Mr. Chairman, by urging this body in its deliberations to explicitly reaffirm the call by the Secretary-General for direct talks as a means of breaking the stalemate in Western Sahara.


Thank you.

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