Till 31 MARCH, 2000







A CONSPIRACY seems to be under way to postpone once again the holding of a referendum in Western Sahara, if the United Nations had stuck to its timetable, Western Sahara would have become a free country and thereby the last vestige of colonialism would have disappeared from the map of the world by now. Instead, the U.N. is missing deadline after deadline for holding the referendum.

The UN had promised the Sahrawis a referendum on independence or integration with Morocco which was to be held in 1992. The stalling tactics of the Moroccan Government coupled with the inactivity of the international community ensured that the process moved at a snail's pace. But with the appointment of the former U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, as the UN Secretary - General's Special Envoy to Western Sahara, the pace improved. Under his stewardship, the process of identifying those Sahrawis who are eligible to vote in the referendum has been completed. But in a blatant attempt to delay the referendum, Morocco has filed appeals challenging the electoral rolls.

Currently, according to the UN there are 86.386 eligible voters in Western Sahara, it has taken the UN almost 10 years to compile this list. Morocco, realizing that it has lost the political battle as most those identified are genuine Saharawis, is up to its delaying tactics again. Applicants whom the UN has deemed as bogus are appealing yet again; hundreds of thousands of Moroccans who have settled in Western Sahara after the Moroccan troops overran the territory in 1975, are trying to pose as genuine Sahrawis. Unfortunately, despite Morocco's filibustering tactics, the UN continues to play ball with its government.

The latest report of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the third week of February on the situation in Western Sahara, paints a pessimistic scenario for the long-suffering Sahrawis. Annan, instead of criticizing the intransigence of Morocco, said in his report that the UN "has no mechanism to impose on one of the parties to accept the result of the referendum''. According to many observers, the Secretary General was trying to use a clause in the mandate of the UN Mission for the Organisation of a Referendum in Western Sahara (Minurso) which allows it to act only with the agreement of both the parties to the conflict.

The impression gaining ground is that the UN is trying to sidetrack the referendum mechanism and instead find another way out. Significantly, the Secretary General report did not highlight the biggest achievement of Minurso so far - that of identifying over 86.000 Sahrawis eligible to vote in the referendum. The UN and the International community were very firm on the issue of the referendum in East Timor. Both Western Sahara and East Timor have similar histories, both having been occupied by outside powers in 1975. Observers feel that double standards are at play. While the Indonesian Government was virtually arm-twisted into meeting the aspirations of the Timorese people, the Moroccan Government is virtually being pampered by some important members of the international community, despite Morocco riding roughshod over human rights. A few months ago, Saharawis freedom fighters were brutally put down by Moroccan authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Saharawis have been languishing in desert camps since 1975.

Although on February 29 the Security Council extended Minurso's mandate till the end of May 2000 and instructed Backer to find ways to bring about a solution to the conflict speedily, there is a growing suspicion among the diplomatic community that the Security Council wants to put the referendum issue on the back-burner and force solutions that are unacceptable to the Sahrawis. It was at the insistence of Namibia, which is currently a member of the Security Council, that the February UN resolution on Western Sahara reiterated its full support for the settlement plan and highlighted the urgent need for a "free, just and impartial referendum " on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.

According to sources, France has been actively trying in recent months to influence the course of events in Western Sahara. French diplomats have been canvassing to delay the referendum process in order to help their long time friend, Morocco. They have been floating ideas such as granting the Sahrawis " political autonomy " in lieu of full independence.

The Moroccan King, Mohamed VI, who visited Spain in the first week of March, publicly floated this idea and asked for the support of Western Countries to this new and dangerous option. Ever since the East Timorese opted for freedom, the Moroccan authorities have been, fiery. The Moroccan King is planing to visit other West European countries like France , Italy and Portugal to campaign for the alternative. The recent visit of Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssufi to India had an even more devious intent - that of convincing the Indian Government to withdraw diplomatic recognition to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The Indian Government did not succumb to Moroccan blandishments and reiterated its principled support for the SADR and the UN sponsored referendum process.

The SADR government has been consistent in its stand that the only acceptable solution to the problem in Western Sahara is that of a referendum for the Saharawi people and that it is totally against the concept of "autonomy" within Morocco. The United States has apparently allowed France and Spain to play a more activist role in the politics of Maghreb. Washington did not support the Moroccan position in the recent Security Council deliberations but it has given the impression that on North African issues it would prefer to guided by France at this juncture.

The political leadership in European countries such as France and Spain apparently think that if a referendum as promised by the international community is allowed to be held, it will lead to political chaos in Morocco. The euphoria following the ascension of the King has long since dissipated as Moroccans face the harsh realties of day-to-day existence.

Recent statistics show that four million Moroccans live on less than a dollar a day and that half the population has no access to natal care. More women die at childbirth in Morocco than anywhere else in the Arab world. The literacy rate is lower than that of India. Many European government think that Morocco is already sitting on a powderkeg, and that if Western Sahara becomes free, the Moroccan King would lose his legitimacy. The turmoil that could follow, they feel, has the potential to trigger a refugee exodus to Europe.

But the West seems to be underestimating the Sahrawis and their will to survive and fight. Their slogan of " the entire homeland or martyrdom " is no mere rhetoric. Though considerably fewer in numbers, the Saharawi guerilla army had held the Moroccan Army in a military stalemate in the 1970s and the 1980s. Moroccan officials are also going round saying that the Saharawis have become diplomatically isolated. Western Sahara continues to remain a respected member of the Organisation of African Unity (OUA). The Algerian Government remains steadfast in its support of the Saharawi people and state. Sahrawi diplomats say that after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took power in Algeria, the bonds between the two people have been further strengthened.

Recent developments have, however, made the SADR leaders wary. They hope that the international community will not betray them again after having promised a fair and free referendum. The Sahrawi people have been waiting patiently for the referendum for more than 10 years. One spokesperson said: " What is the difference between East Timor, Namibia and Western Sahara ? If the UN is unable to make one of the parties accept the result of a referendum, then it should not have kept the Sahrawis waiting for ten years." The UN has already spent more than $437 Million in trying to organise a referendum in Western Sahara .

The stability of the Maghreb could be easily shattered if the Sahrawis are short-changed again . SADR officials affirm that the Western Sahara issue is one of decolonisation and must be solved in accordance with international law. "If any other solution is imposed, then the Sahara will become the Balkans of North Africa." Said a senior SADR official. The Polisario Front which spearheads the liberation movement in Western Sahara , has asserted that it would restart the war if the referendum is not held this year . " SADR is an irreversible reality and we have an Army that can fulfill our aspirations for independence ". Said SADR President Abdelaziz in a recent statement.

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