A briefing to Africa Institute of South Africa on

Western Sahara


Presented by


representative of Sahrawi Republic in South Africa


Brief background


UN fact finding mission to Western Sahara


International Court of Justice ruling about Western Sahara


Morocco and Mauritania invade the territory.


Withdrawal of Spain as the former colonial power


Declaration of Sahrawi Republic by POLISARIO Front and the Sahrawi people.


Mauritania signs peace treaty with Sahrawi Republic


OAU admits Sahrawi Republic as a full member.


OAU adopts famous resolution of AHG104 that will be the base of UN Peace Plan calling for self-determination for the Sahrawi people.


UN Security Council resolutions 158/90 and 160/90 contain the Settlement Plan for Western Sahara, and referendum set for Jan 1992).


Cease-fire is declared, and UN mission MINURSO deployed


Morocco sends thousands of settlers to the territory and attempts to block the referendum process by forcing the UN to accept them as voters.


Start of identification of voters, a process later stopped by Morocco


James Baker takes over as mediator and signs Houston Agreements setting out protocols for the referendum, now rescheduled to Aug 1998


First voting lists published (more than 86 000 voters)


Failed negotiations in London and Berlin.


Tension mounting in region. Referendum has been delayed 12 times.


MINURSO mandate expires

Actual situation

After the publication of the list of voters by MINURSO in January 17, 2000, Morocco realised that it would lose the referendum. Consequently, Morocco reversed its position, now publicly stating that "no solution will be accepted outside Moroccan sovereignty". This is clearly at odds with all previous signed agreements of the peace plan put forward by the United Nations.

James Baker then invited the two parties to new negotiations in London and Berlin, where no progress was possible because of Moroccan intransigence. On the agenda were: the appeals process, repatriation of refugees and confidence-building measures. The Moroccan delegation said that they did not have a mandate to negotiate, so the talks collapsed.

In that period, a new pseudo solution called the "Third Way" suddenly appeared on the table. As the choice in the referendum was a 'yes-no' issue between full independence and full integration into Morocco, the so-called Third Way aimed to find another alternative.

The report of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed to endorse this concept, calling for the "government of Morocco as administrative power in Western Sahara to offer or support some devolution of authority to all inhabitants and former inhabitants of the territory that was genuine, substantial and keeping with international norms".

In other words, the Third Way seemed to endorse the continued occupation of Western Sahara, and at the same time appeared to condone Moroccan intransigence.

However, the UN was never mandated to look for a Third Way in terms of the peace plan. Such a proposal was not at any time part of the agreed and signed plan of settlement.

The Security Council appeared to acknowledge this fact. SC resolutions did not endorse the sentiments of the Secretary General, and made no mention of a Third Way; instead, they reiterated previous resolutions emphasising the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination.

POLISARIO strongly opposes the Secretary General's proposed Third Way deal. The POLISARIO position remains clear: no one but the Saharawi people themselves can decide their destiny, and the rights of Sahrawis should be respected and defended.

Moreover, the ceasefire of 1991 hinged on the promise of a referendum for the people of Western Sahara. It is clearly unacceptable to now &endash; a decade on &endash; try and move the goalposts and compromise the right to self determination of the Saharawi people.

Algeria and Mauritania as the neighbouring countries have also reiterated their support for the original peace plan.

James Baker is supposed to visit the region before the mandate of MINURSO expires on 30th April 2001. But as yet, there appear to be no plans for such a visit. When he started his new initiative in 1997 he has asked the parties the following questions:

1- Is the UN's peace plan applicable or not?

2- Which amendment should be done to make it applicable?

3- If it is not applicable what other option can be considered?

All the parties then insisted on the peace plan as the only acceptable solution. Now, with Baker too expressing support for a Third Way, it appears that he is reneging on his own deal. The credibility of James Baker and the UN is now at stake.

Why was a UN referendum a viable solution for Namibia and East Timor (after 25 years of Indonesian occupation), but not for Western Sahara?

Why has Morocco repeatedly reneged on agreements it has signed, refused to comply with international legality, and yet never been called to account by the international community?


The possible scenarios

The International Court of Justice has acknowledged that the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara is illegal. Keeping this in mind, along with the current stance of Morocco, only two scenarios are possible from the Sahrawi perspective:

1- Set the date of referendum now

No substantial obstacles remain in the way of a referendum.

Everything is ready and agreed as a result of the processes since 1991: a voters list has been drawn up, protocol on repatriation of refugees and liberation of political detainees and exchange of prisoners of war, code of conduct in the electoral campaign and protocol on the containment of troops have all been finalised.

Regarding eligibility to vote, there are still some 130 000 disputed applications needing to be resolved by the UN appeals process. There is no reason why this process (which has been ongoing, and was endorsed by all parties) cannot be completed in a matter of months.

There are agreements on every single aspect of the settlement plan, brokered and adopted by UN. The current stalemate is therefore not justifiable or permissible.

This is the best scenario for a lasting peace and for the interests of everyone in the region. It will guarantee future peace and stability and open doors for regional economic and political integration. Both Morocco and the Saharawi Republic need peace after three decades of war.

However, the problem remains that there is no political will in Morocco to cooperate with the implementation of the peace plan. Neither does there appear to be a political will within the governments of the EU and USA to pressurise Morocco to cooperate. Even the UN is not showing enough determination to stand behind its own peace plan.

2-Resumption of hostilities

In 1991, POLISARIO showed goodwill by accepting the cease-fire sponsored by the UN. The ceasefire was conditional on the start of a referendum process and the withdrawal of Moroccan troops from the occupied areas of Western Sahara.

Initially, the ceasefire was supposed to have been for only six months. Now it has been in place for almost ten years, and still no referendum is on the horizon.

POLISARIO has made it clear that the continued operation of MINURSO in Western Sahara is conditional on implementation of the peace plan as agreed.

The Sahrawi people have been very cooperative during this decade of UN involvement; they have shown both patience and cooperation. But that patience has now reached its limit.

There is a general sentiment among the Sahrawi population that the UN has betrayed them, while the international community is ignoring their right to live freely and not under Moroccan occupation.

With no solution in sight after a decade of waiting, and respecting all international conventions, the desperation, anger and frustration of the Saharawi people is becoming all too apparent. If nothing is done urgently to improve the current situation, a resumption of the war seems inevitable.



- After two years in power, King Mohammed VI of Morocco has brought nothing new to the table that could help to bring peace. If anything, tension and bitterness has increased. A tough stand on Western Sahara at this stage, coupled with Morocco's internal problems, can only make the situation worse.

- It took the UN merely six months to organise the referendum in East Timor, but after ten years, the wait in Western Sahara continues. This is a flagrant example of double standards, as also evident in swift reaction to the situation in Kuwait.

- War would have a devastating effect on Morocco, whose economy largely depends on sensitive sectors like tourism and foreign investment.

- The UN and the international community should press Morocco to abide by the resolutions that it has agreed to, rather then continually rewarding Moroccan intransigence. These powerful governments, but most of all the government of France, have a huge responsibility in pressing Morocco to move forward.

Documents, letters...] [Western Sahara Homepage]