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Press release

12 May 2000


James Baker in London talks to avert a new war


Former US secretary-of-state James A. Baker II will be in London from 14 May to chair talks between the Govenment of Morocco and the Polisario Front in attempt to break the stalemate over the holding of a United Nations referendum to determine the independence of Western Sahara.

The meeting will take place at Lancaster House. The Polisario delegation will be led by Mahfoud Ali-Beiba, member of the National Secretariat and include Brahim Ghali, M'Hamed Khaddad, Boukhari Ahmed, Rhadi Sgheir Bachir and Brahim Mokhtar, Polisario London representative.

On 28 February last, the UN Security Council mandated Mr Baker, now the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, to "explore ways and means to achieve an early, durable and agreed resolution of their dispute."

Following this request, Mr Baker toured the region from the 8 April. After meeting President Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary-General of the Polisario liberation movement, and Moroccan Kind Mohamed VI, Mr Baker declared the UN Settlement Plan to be "very much alive but it is in the ditch." However, he also reminded journalists of the success of his previous negociations in 1997.

Since Mr Baker's appointment that year, the UN MINURSO Mission has made substantial progress towards the holding of the referendum. The UN Identification Commission completed the interviews of over 198,000 applicants presented by Morocco and the Polisario. On January this year, the UN published a list of 86,383 Saharawis they found eligible to vote. A figure similar to one predicted by Baker 1997.

Despite agreeing to the UN Settlement Plan, signing the Houston Accords, and the Identification and Appeals Protocols, all of which established in great detail the criteria for voter eligibility, Morocco protested at the outcome of the identification process.

In a statement, the Moroccan Government said that they would not allow the referendum to go ahead unless "all Saharans" are included in the referendum.

Of the tens of thousands of rejected applicants, the majority lived in Morocco. Principally, these applicants had been unable to prove that they were present in Western Sahara in 1974, prior to the Moroccan occupation; a direct descendant of the above; or have lived in the Territory for a number of years subsequently. A 1974 Spanish census of the territory counted 73,497 Saharawis.

UN officials had long complained to groups like Human Rights Watch (October 1995) of the attempts by the Moroccan authorities to gerrymander the identification process. In a leaked letter dated January 1998, the King of Morocco, Hassan II, instructed all his provincial governors to train Moroccan applicants so that they would be successful in their interviews.

On publication of the voting list, Morocco has promoted the appeals of 139,000 appellants, more than the number rejected by the UN.

Under the terms of the Appeals Protocols (S/1999/483/Add.1) appellants must prove that the Identification Commission "was not aware of the subsequent circumstances or developments or any facts cited in support of the appeal" (Article 21di). The UN has to decide the admissibility of each appeal "on the basis of documents filed and awailable" (Article20). Witnesses are asked to provide "a summary of the evidence" (Article7).

Despite the stalemate, the United Nations has been working behind the scenes in recent weeks to establish which appeals are admissible for a hearing. The Western Sahara Campaign UK believes that the most of the appellants will be rejected by the UN.

What prospects are there for the London meetings? Both Morocco and the Polisario have made renewed committments to the existing UN Settlement Plan. In a speech to the Moroccan Chamber of Representatives on 26th April, information minister, Larbi Messari said he wanted to put an end to media interpretations...to counteract what has been circulated about a "third solution", "fourth solution" or "extended self-rule".

Messari was commenting on criticism for banning the publications of two newspapers (Le Journal & Assahifa) for carrying interviews with the Polisario President.

On 31 March, President Clinton wrote to several members of the Congress, reiterating US committment to tghe implementation of the existing Houston agreements. Equally, the British minister of state, Keith Vaz, said in a parliamentary debate on Western Sahara (4 April) that "we continue to believe that a just solution to the problem depends on the people of Western Sahara having the right to express their will at the ballot box."

However, since last September, hundreds of Saharawis have been brutally beaten and attacked by Moroccan forces for participating in peaceful demonstrations. On 8 May, four Saharawis disappeared from the town of Smara in Western Sahara.

Perhaps, with these concerns in mind, the Security Council has asked Mr Baker to find a solution to "existing" but also "potential obstacles". Most especially, as Kofi Annan noted in his report of 17 February (S/2000/131), no mechanism exists to enforce the result of the referendum.

Should the UN prove unsuccessfull, President Abdelaziz has warned that the Polisario will resume hostilities against Morocco if the referendum is not held this year. Janes Intelligence Review (April 2000) has quantified the Polisario's capacity to return to war and the possible repercussions for the regional peace.

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