United Nations Settlement Plan - From Stalemate to Failure

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), was set up by the United Nations to provide a comprehensive settlement for the last remaining colony in Africa. Occupied in 1975 by Morocco in clear contravention of international law, the Western Sahara remains a closed territory with a massive Moroccan military and secret service presence. The people of Western Sahara - the Saharawis - have consistently demanded independence under the< leadership of their national liberation movement, the Polisario Front.

The Moroccan invasion led to the forced exile of thousands of Saharawis into the Sahara desert in south west Algeria. They have remained there for over twenty years, living in extremely hostile conditions in tented refugee camps. The refugees' friends and families left behind in the occupied territory have to contend with an oppressive military and secret service which denies basic democratic and human rights.

MINURSO was created to honour the long-standing promise to all Saharawis that they would be able to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination. It has spent almost five years attempting to organise a referendum on the future of the occupied territory of Western Sahara at a cost of some $250 million. The Mission now appears to be inexorably moving towards failure. This is demonstrated by the latest recommendation of the UN Secretary General (8.5.96) to withdraw the referendum voter identification team and leave a token UN presence.

From the very beginning of the MINURSO operation, Morocco has used every possible manoeuvre to prevent the holding of a free and fair referendum. Unfortunately, in the face of Moroccan intransigence and frustration of the United Nations operation, the United Nations Security Council has consistently failed to react.

There have been many examples of accommodation of the wishes of the occupying power or failure to act against fundamental challenges to the operation of MINURSO. These have included:

Senior United Nations officials have spoken out about the way in which Morocco has been allowed to control what was supposed to be an impartial and independent process. Former Special Representative for the Western Sahara, Johannes Manz resigned because of the failure to confront Morocco s destablisation of the peace plan. Jean Luc-Held, formerly part of MINURSO s medical unit said in 1994 that the UN was "in a position of structural submission, unable to react ... the UN is frightened, those who work there are frightened."

Three months ago, the US diplomat Frank Ruddy, who was appointed by the UN to be MINURSO's Deputy Chairman of the Voter Identification Commission said: "During my time in Western Sahara, Morocco conducted ... a campaign of terror against the Saharan people. I had not seen the likes of it since I observed the apartheid government in South Africa in action against blacks ... Morocco did not simply influence the referendum; they controlled it, down to what days the mission worked. Morocco tapped UN phones, intercepted UN mail and searched the living quarters of UN staff, with impunity. More importantly, the Moroccan authorities disenfranchised Saharan voters right and left and substituted Moroccan ringers in place of bona fide Saharan voters."

Rather than challenge Morocco's behaviour, the UN has been inclined towards appeasement. Nowhere has this been more evident in relation to Morocco's demands over who should be entitled to vote in the referendum.

The original basis of eligibility for participation in the referendum was clearly established in UN reports and agreed by both Morocco and Polisario in 1990 and 1991. The UN chose the 1974 census of the Western Saharan population which had been carried out by Spain, the territory's previous colonists.

Morocco's tactic was to argue that it has tens of thousands of its own citizens not featured in the 1974 census who should be allowed to vote. It has relocated many of these people to camps in Western Sahara. Morocco has taken this action because it knows that if the question of independence were left to real Saharawis, then the vote would be conclusively for independence.

Instead of insisting on the 1974 census as the only reliable core list for voter identification, the UN has bowed to pressure from Morocco to broaden voter eligibility. For its part, Polisario has maintained that it could not accept a fundamental expansion of the electorate as this will lead to a manipulated referendum. Under these conditions, the future of Western Sahara would be decided by populations entirely unconnected with the territory.

The stalemate over voter eligibility and the inability of the UN to resolve it has inevitably led to a situation where the Secretary General is now advocating the withdrawal of the voter identification team of MINURSO. The Secretary General is unconvincingly expressing the hope that this action will create pressure on Morocco and the Polisario to resolve their differences, and that within the next six months, the voter identification operation can begin again. However, few observers believe that this is anything else than going through the motions and that the UN's prime concern is to avoid the blame for the failure of MINURSO. US Ambassador to the UN, Madelaine Albright admitted as much in her recent testimony before a Congressional Committee.

Although the Secretary General has recommended the retention of a reduced contingent of some 230 military observers, the reality is that this is nothing more than a token force and is in no way able to maintain the cease-fire. The irony is that the Secretary General claims the maintenance of the cease-fire as one of the real achievements of MINURSO, but the UN Mission neither created the cease-fire nor was its primary role to maintain it.

The raison d'être of MINURSO was the organisation of a referendum and the inability of the UN to achieve this can only lead to the conclusion that MINURSO has failed. The likely outcome of this failure is a return to hostilities, as Polisario has made it clear that a situation of No war, no referendum is completely unacceptable. The Secretary General of Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz has said recently that the failure of the political solution to the conflict can only have serious and unpredictable consequences. He has also said that if necessary the Polisario is ready and able return to arms to press its claim for the right to self determination.

The Western Sahara Campaign believes that the only objective assessment which can be made if the current recommendations of the Secretary General are followed through by the Security Council is that MINURSO has failed. The only obvious future for MINURSO under these conditions, is for it to become an observation exercise which has no hope of resolving the conflict and enabling the Saharawi people to exercise their rights to self-determination. MINURSO would become another UNIFIL (Lebanon) or UNFICYP (Cyprus) and effectively legitimise the continued Moroccan occupation.

The Western Sahara Campaign therefore would make the following points:

Author: Martin Hughes on behalf of the Western Sahara Campaign - 23.5.96

week 21
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