By freelance journalist Ronny Hansen
Tindouf, Algeria, 3 July 1998
On the 3rd of July, Mr. Dunbar went on a five-hour visit to the Algerian town of Tindouf in order to have conversations with representatives of Front Polisario and to attend a reception at the MINURSO headquarters on the occasion of 4th of July, the American day of independence. During his brief visit, Dunbar met with M'hammed Khaddad, Polisario's coordinator with MINURSO and Brahim Ghali, SADR minister for the occupied territories. Mr. Dunbar also set aside some time for a short conversation about the peace process with Norwegian freelance journalist Ronny Hansen.
-We're approaching the next report by the Secretary General where he is supposed to propose a new timetable. What we see now is that the stakes are getting higher as we get closer to the actual referendum and as we are moving forward in the process. Since the identification process still seems to still be stuck on the issue of the so-called contested tribes; what, in your opinion, is needed to break the impasse?
- Well, I don't necessarily think there is an impasse yet. Clearly the issue of the H41, H61 and J51/ J52 tribal groups as we call them is one that remains to be resolved but we are moving ahead reasonably well with some problems. We're dealing with the remaining tribal groups that need to be identified and should finish that process some time in August. We should have it substantially complete at that point and I think there is probably going to have to be some kind of a global reckoning of where we stand in the process. One of the issues that need to be dealt with is what to do about the three groupings but that's only one of the issues. Other ones include what to do about the repatriation of the refugees in general and the acquiring of status of the UNHCR in the territory. It has to also to do with sorting out the problem of the status of forces agreement and the problem of people being able to visit freely both in the territory and the camps and to be able to use our facilities to make those visits more effective. So I think it is wrong to be too seized of just the issue of the three groupings, there are many other issues. I forgot to mention another one, of course is the process of appeals of the work of the identification commission. All of that needs to be put into perspective and I will hope that by the end of the summer we will be in a position to move rather promptly into the transitional phase before the referendum. Will we not to be in a position to move into the transitional phase before the referendum I will hope that we will have found another route to move ahead with the process or in the worst of all situations we will find a route by which the process might come to an end.
- Now clearly this issue of the contested tribes is holding up other parts of the process, isn't it?
- I don't think I really agree with that. I think other parts of the process are being held up for their own reasons and I do think that the position of the three tribal groupings should be placed in perspective. It is an issue that has stopped the process of identification before, but the difference now is that we have substantially finished the entire process of identification. That's what's important to keep in mind. So we now face a loose set of problems and to simply be fixated on the issue of the three tribal groupings is wrong.
- Could one now think of going to a phase of publishing the names of the non- contested tribes and open for appeals before the three remaining groupings could be identified?
- I think that's one of a number of options that could be
considered. Let me say a couple of more points about the groupings.
First of all it is important to bear in mind that A: they have a
status under the Houston accords and B: that status is different from
that of the other, normally referred to as tribal sub- fractions
although not sub- fractions in the case of the remaining H, I and J
tribal groupings and we did identify them, or are identifying them by
tribal groupings and not by sub- fraction, H, I and J. So they do
have a status and they have to be dealt with. There are a number of
ways of doing that that could be envisaged that I don't particularly
want to go into at the present time. The Secretary General made a
proposal for doing that in his January 15th proposal: that we proceed
with the identification of the 4000 members of those three groupings
who showed up on the date that the members of the groupings who were
in the census and therefore are eligible to be identified under the
Houston accords would be convoked and then perhaps to move on with
the remaining 8000 of the three groupings who showed up not on the
right dates. That idea having been found wanting by the Moroccans, I
think it is now important at least in discussion of the kind that
we've been having until now for one party or the other to say what
they want to do.
The POLISARIO remains convinced that the three groupings should not be identified and that's not what Houston says and that's what I constantly tell them. The Moroccans remain convinced that all 65.000 members of them must be identified and it is hard to see how that could happen. It is of course theoretically possible. The Moroccan position is a theoretically possible one in that it says that as long as members of those groupings are not encouraged by one of the parties they may come forward and present themselves for identification. A problem, and there are many problems with respect to the groupings, is that some tribes within those groupings are not comfortable with the experts, or sheichs [tribal leaders], who have been selected to be the people who give expert testimony in the identification sessions, so we've got a problem there. Basically it is a very difficult problem for the United Nations to make a proposal on and it needs to be done in the context of settling of a large number of issues in which the two parties are closely engaged.
- What sort of encouragement and incentives can the international community and its different actors offer the parties to feel safe and to be able to go ahead with the process?
- I think basically it is a question of the security council that now considers this problem monthly, encouraging the two parties to move forward, taking note of problems and if the problems are really grave, demanding that action be taken to resolve them. Simply remaining seized of the question and helping us, the UN, with suggestions or accepting or rejecting our suggestions. I think it is very important to have that regular kind of dialogue in the Security Council and that is what's been happening. Of course, as you said at the beginning of this discussion, we're about to face a very major Security Council resolution in which the mandate of the MINURSO will again be considered. As you know, because of the fact that the process is moving forward to a «moment of truth», the mandate of MINURSO has been kept very short to guard against the eventuality that things will not go well in the process, but both parties are very keenly conscious of the importance of the security council to their activities and to others of course, they are our funders. I think that's essentially what they can be doing, not to speak of the fact that the international community has very generously contributed to supporting MINURSO's specific activities on the ground, and providing that the process is going well I hope that they will continue to do so.
- Let's speak about what's going on outside the UN for a moment. There is some talk in the area about American incentives for Morocco; there's talk of oil exploration etc. off the coast. Is there any other sort of incentive, you think, that can be offered to the parties to dare to go ahead? Because obviously if the parties insist on a referendum to be held, and not to talk about a third option one party will somehow lose, it will lose prestige, it will lose resources.
- That's kind of a mixed up question. I wasn't aware of..... I
know that the United States remains very interested in Morocco and
has a very close relationship. I know there have been periodic
efforts to explore for oil. Your question seems to say that the
United States might offer... ask Morocco to somehow make the process
go forward in return for oil exploration if that's what you're
meaning, I don't think that is the case. Oil will be explored for
whatever... - I'm happy to say that American oil companies will look
for oil off the coast of Morocco whether or not there is a settlement
in the Western Sahara. That'll be settled entirely on economic
grounds in my opinion.
The only political ground we would enter into would be the United States somehow, as it has done with Iran and a few other countries, sanctioning companies that dealt with Morocco and that is simply unthinkable in the context of the excellent relations that exist between the United States and Morocco. So I don't see that as a too much of an option. The United States obviously is, my understanding is very anxious to see this problem solved, has a regular dialogue with the Moroccans and I think would certainly press for any sort of solution to the problem that seems reasonable to them.
- When James Baker came here at the beginning of his mandate to ask the parties what they wanted, they said, «We want a referendum, no talk of a third option». But it now seems that both parties are getting increasingly nervous as we approach, as you said, the «moment of truth», because obviously one party will lose.
- Right, well, I think that is a question that clearly will need
to be posed again and if the answer is that both parties remain
firmly committed to a referendum then there will have to be certain
engagements made, in my opinion by both parties to ensure that that
process goes forward. By this I am speaking of full engagement of the
UNHCR, prompt declaration of the transitional period, regularizing of
the status of forces between the United Nations and the three
countries involving Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania and with the
POLISARIO, free access to the territory and to the camps via the UN
of interested outside observers as well as officials of governments
interested in the problem.
A lot of things would have to be made very specific in my opinion and I think that in making things specific it will be possible to determine, to test and be sure that each of the parties is fully committed to a prompt implementation of the referendum scheme. I would add on that if we find that if the parties are not committed to such a set of engagements then that is no great sin. There would be a possibility to then consider other ways of solving the problem.
- Many view the United Nations' handling of the Western Sahara conflict as something of a test case for the organization's abilities in conflict resolution and that the organization therefore has a great deal of prestige and credibility at stake in the Sahara. What are the wider implications of UN success- or failure- in the Western Sahara?
- I think that is a very good question. As we say in American
slang; the MINURSO is something that has «grown like
topsy». This, in the world view, is a very small problem in two
senses. I'm sorry to say that the number of refugees and so forth
here is small by comparison to numbers of refugees elsewhere. That
doesn't make it any easier for the small number of people who are
refugees but on a world scale it is rather small. Also, I'm happy to
say it does not involve active combat or active atrocities being
committed against civilians. There is not loss of life, there is not
starvation, there are not the usual things that accompany UN
peacekeeping operations, and everybody therefore has a tendency to
say, «well, this is very easy, this should be solved».
Well, it isn't very easy. There are vital interests of both sides at
stake no matter whether these are large or small on a world scale,
and the UN is not in a position simply to dictate an outcome. That is
not the role of the United Nations in the world in 1998 and I don't
think the United Nations is in any way interested in achieving such a
role. Therefore the United Nations has to act as a broker and
therefore there has been a great deal of delay in moving ahead with
Now, you're entirely right to say also that the way the thing is set up that it's a winner- takes- all situation really raises the stakes and raises the ante in dealing with the problem and has therefore made it, frankly, harder to solve.
Now, with respect to the credibility of the United Nations, yes, it would be very nice to have a success here. It's a somewhat ironic situation because it has taken a long time because of the way that the process of identification went for the United Nations to be able to show to both parties what the «demographic facts on the ground » are, to quote an Israeli statesman, and so this process has dragged on for a long time. One could question, if one were looking back, when it stopped the first time at the end of 1995, whether the UN should have continued to be present and one equally certainly is going to question at the end this summer or early fall when there is going to have to be a reckoning whether the UN should continue to be present if there does not seem to be a clear and quick way forward.
So I think in judging the success or failure of the United Nations it would be possible to say that perhaps it's been here too long already. But as long that it is here it has now finally managed to work the situation into a point where it is clear what the demographics are. If a reasonable timetable can not be established with serious engagements taken by both parties to make that timetable work then I think that the UN should quickly look at how it could be helpful in seeking any sort of solution to the problem. If found it couldn't be helpful there I think it would be a success for the UN simply to say, «We've done what we can, we are cutting our very considerable losses because the spending on this has been large», and leave. I think with that to happen it would be an important step, maybe not forward, for the UN, but at least would be a step for which the UN could be given full marks for having realized that it was not possible for it to go further and that it needed to shift it's resources elsewhere.
- How much is the UN willing to spend and how long is it willing to be involved in this process before it says « All right, we've had enough, this is just too silly, this is just dragging on for too long and we say that you need to find a third solution. If the parties continue insisting on a referendum but do not show enough cooperation to make it happen, then could the UN make a unilateral decision based on that?
- I think the UN is quite capable of making unilateral decisions.
I think that what needs to be determined is a reasonable timetable,
and I guess I would attach the adjective prompt to it, if the parties
decide that they want to pursue a referendum option. There has to be
a timetable, as was established before [but] it was not adhered to.
What our task in the UN is going to be is to find ways in which the
parties will be obliged to adhere to a new timetable that would be
set up. So perhaps there would be circuit- breakers, and this is
really speculation, which I should really not do; that if engagements
are not met at an early point then the process would be broken
I would not want to venture to give a timetable for how long it would take if the parties and we were able to reach agreements that were satisfactory to the three of us on all these subjects, but I certainly would want to see a referendum happen in 1999 and I would hope in the first half of 1999. That would be my personal guess for what I would like to see come out of the intensive efforts at the end of the summer and if not, if that were not to be possible to establish a reasonable timetable, then I would like to have come out of the discussions a knowledge of what the UN role would be, if any, in the effort to seek another solution. I do see immediate roles for the UN in such a scenario, particularly for the UNHCR because the refugees would have to be repatriated. One point that I use a lot, and it's not as simple minded as it sounds is that if the refugees do not come home there will never be a solution, no matter what sort of political action might take place in the territory or wherever. If the refugees do come home, there will be a solution no matter what sort of action takes place anywhere, so it's clear that the refugees have to come back. That would seem to me to involve some United Nations effort in the field of demining and helping with security, but that's really deep blue speculation. The key point is that a reasonable timetable needs to be established and it needs to be one that must be adhered to or the process stops very quickly and if it doesn't happen it needs to be a clear indication of what the UN's involvement would be in a non- referendum solution.
- Those two issues, the return of the refugees and the issue of demining seem to me, to be the two issues that are in fact moving slowest now or have come the shortest until now. We have seen no repatriation plan from the UNHCR as far as I know and the Swedish deminers are held up in Layoun.
- Well, they're not completely held up, there's a lot deminers can do until the issue of the status of forces is sorted out. The progress has not been great on getting the UNHCR involved in the territory, but the UNHCR is doing its work here in the camps and in Mauritania. I think there has been a great deal of planning done by the UNHCR for the repatriation. If there is not a formal plan issued there are some understandings that must be reached and reached quickly in both areas if this is going to go forward, so you're right.
- Is there a little conflict of interest between the POLISARIO and UNHCR in that the POLISARIO and most refugees say «we want repatriation on this side on this side of the berm», while the UNHCR says «we go once, we go straight to your homes, and that's it»?
- POLISARIO has not said to me that they want repatriation on this side of the berm, the settlement plan says 80% west [of the berm] and that's what UNHCR and I want to stick to. It's a question of both encouraging the refugees in that direction and preparing the ground for them in the territory so that they will come back and live in that way.
- Any new high level negotiation between the parties on the horizon? There's been talk of a Houston II - meeting?
- Well, something is going to happen at the end of the summer, but I wouldn't speculate on what it would be.
Charles Dunbar was appointed by UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan as his special representative for Western Sahara in early '98 and assumed his responsibilities at the beginning of February. Mr. Dunbar is the President of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs and has served for more than 30 years in various capacities at the US Department of State. Mr. Dunbar has worked in the US embassies in Tehran, Kabul, Rabat, Algiers and Nouakchott and speaks Arabic, French and Persian. As a result of his service in Rabat, Algiers and Nouakchott, Mr. Dunbar became the leading United States government expert on the conflict in Western Sahara.
Ronny Hansen is a Norwegian freelance journalist, translator and consultant in international affairs, language and cultural issues. He has written for a variety of Norwegian newspapers and magazines, mainly on North African and Latin American issues. Hansen has since 1992 been on four visits to Algeria and Western Sahara and has written extensively on the issue. Hansen has studied Development studies, Arabic, Spanish, and Middle East Affairs in Oslo, Cairo and Jerusalem, respectively. Ronny Hansen has worked with humanitarian and development NGOs in both Latin America, North Africa and South East Asia and recently finished his tenure as director of the «Norwegian Students' and Academics'International Assistance Fund» (SAIH).