from the Western Sahara Campaign UK

5th June 2003

Basri confirms:  Referendum talks were just a smokescreen for Saharan autonomy plan

 In a just-published interview with Moroccan Arabic language weekly Al-Ayam, Driss Basri, Interior Minister of Morocco under the late King Hassan II, has added weight to widespread speculation that James Baker's involvement in Western Sahara was part of a United States strategy to make Western Sahara a province of the Kingdom of Morocco.

Discussing the 1997 Houston Accords, which at the time gave hope to the Saharawi people that their long-promised referendum of self-determination was about to be held, Basri says "Houston Agreement did not come as a way to find a solution to the issue of Sahara. It came as a starting point of an American plan. [At the end of which] the Sahara will enjoy wide autonomy, as is contemplated today, and it [Sahara] will preserve the American interests."

This chimes with a passage in the recent book "Peacemonger" by Marrack Goulding, a former UN diplomat, who wrote how he was asked in 1997 "to persuade James Baker III to accept an appointment as Special Representative and try to negotiate a deal based on enhanced autonomy for Western Sahara within the Kingdom of Morocco".  Initial progress towards the referendum ran into further delays when the UN leadership proposed just such an autonomy plan as an alternative to hearing 130,000 Moroccan-sponsored appeals against the referendum voter list.

Baker's latest autonomy proposals would still allow hundreds of thousands of Moroccan-paid colonists to participate in the so-called "referendum of self-determination", and also the deployment of Moroccan troops to fight any "secessionist attempts, whether from within or outside the Territory".   Especially after the bloody events surrounding Indonesia's "policing" of the East Timor referendum campaign, it is easy to imagine how this could be exploited to justify brutal repression of pro-independence Saharawis once they have returned.  Many Saharawi refugees fear a Moroccan attempt to wipe them out should they return, and do not trust the UN observer force to save them from this fate.

Even today, in King Mohamed VI's supposedly "liberal" Morocco, Saharawi human rights activists are serving heavy prison sentences for "threatening the territorial integrity of the Kingdom" - code for believing in their right to the referendum - and the state refuses to give details of the fate of over 500 Saharawis who "disappeared" in the hands of the security forces, many over 20 years ago.  A prominent Moroccan journalist, Ali Lmrabet, is serving 4 years for "insulting the King" and "undermining the territorial integrity of the Kingdom" after publishing articles and cartoons about corruption and an interview with a Moroccan who supports the Saharawis' right to choose independence.

He also confirms another thesis of Goulding's book, that Morocco was never serious about its commitment to a genuine referendum of self-determination for the Saharawi people, saying "I was for the referendum only in a tactical way".

It seems that he favours a return to his strategy of suffocating the Saharawi's referendum in red tape over the current approach of openly trying to replace it with autonomy.  While he avoids the question about his preferred solution, he claims that the current autonomy proposals could lead to Saharan independence and that this is the United States' aim.   However, it is difficult to take this at face value, given both the holes in the proposals detailed above and US oil company Kerr-McGee's controversial ongoing reconaissance contracts with the Moroccan government for Western Sahara's offshore oil fields.

Basri's was known as "King's Policeman" during his time Interior Minister under Hassan II, a period referred to as the "years of lead" and characterised by the imprisonment, murder and "disappearance" of opponents of the regime, including hundreds of Saharawis whose fate remains unknown to their families and friends over 20 years on.  His willingness to openly criticise the current regime's Sahara policy show his bitterness at being sacked by Hassan II's son, the current King Mohamed VI, in 1999 - probably the most popular thing King Mohamed has done - and his confidence that he retains some support in Morocco's elite military-business circles, the "makhzen".

"Basri has openly confirmed that Morocco has abused the peace process to consolidate its illegal occupation of Western Sahara" said Tim Braunholtz of the Western Sahara Campaign UK.  "The latest autonomy proposals would lead to bloody repression of pro-independence Saharawis in an "autonomous" Western Sahara, and because they allow Morocco to flood the referendum with colonists they cheat the Saharawis of their right to a genuine referendum of self-determination."

"Members of the UN Security Council should tell Morocco that, after 28 years of occupation and exploitation, enough is enough, and hold the referendum of self-determination that the Saharawi people have been waiting for since 1975."

For further information please contact

Tim Braunholtz, Western Sahara Campaign UK  on  0775 131 8982  or  0113 245 4786


Extracts from the Al-Ayam interview with Basri (emphasis added):

Al-Ayam: Was Driss Basri, in principle, in favor of the referendum?

Basri: No. I was for the referendum only in a tactical way. But, even if the referendum had taken place, we would have won it. But we had to do an extraordinary job, and our work was remarkable. Once, while Hassan II was playing golf, I expressed to him my consternations regarding the referendum. He replied: " Do you think we are devoid of common sense? We would not embark in a referendum if we are not sure we would win it? (.)

Al-Ayam: You participated in Houston [meeting], whereby an agreement was signed. An alarming agreement, as far as Morocco is concerned, for some tribes were left on the 'limbo'. What did induce you to sign an agreement that goes against the interests of Morocco?

Basri: This is a long story. But I'll summarize it in few words: Houston Agreement did not come as a way to find a solution to the issue of Sahara. It came as a starting point of an American plan. [At the end of which] the Sahara will enjoy wide autonomy, as is contemplated today, and it [Sahara] will preserve the American interests.

Al-Ayam: You speak as if you had nothing to do with Houston's [negociations]

Basri: I am answering the question: Why Houston [took place]? The issue was an American issue in this period and America has concerns in different parts of the world and it wants to show that it has command over many global issues. (.) The objective was to withdraw the issue of Sahara from the UN [agenda] and hand it to the Pentagon and the State Department. All things [meetings,negociations] that preceded were just pretexts. See, before we got to Houston, there was the meeting in London, and afterwards, the meeting in Lisbon and our negociators had given countless concessions. I told His Majesty the King : "This is the end". Furthermore, I have been saying, since 1990, to His Majesty that we did not have the UN as our interlocutor. The [indirect] interlocutor was The United States.

For more see: or original interview in arabic

Western Sahara

Western Sahara is a country on the NW coast of Africa, about the size of the UK.  It is between Morocco and Mauritania, and also borders Algeria; the Canary Islands lie c100 miles off shore.  Formerly a Spanish colony, in 1975 the International Court of Justice, having been asked to determine its sovereignty, ruled that decolonisation and independence should follow on the basis of a "free and fair expression of the will of the people".  The next day, Morocco invaded, and a war for independence followed.  The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 under a Settlement Plan which provided for a referendum on self-determination for the Saharawi; but, largely due to Moroccan obstructionism, this has still not been held.  The Saharawi population is now divided between refugee camps in the Algerian desert (c180,000 people) and the Moroccan-occupied territories (outnumbered by Moroccan settlers and troops).  Over 1000 Saharawi people "disappeared" early in the Moroccan occupation; over 500 are still missing. 

James Baker

James Baker III was US Secretary of State under George Bush senior.  He is a partner in the Carlyle Group, the controversial Washington-based arms and finance company.  He headed George junior's legal team in the battle over the Florida vote recounts, and spoke at the Lanesborough hotel in London with fellow Carlyle-ite John Major in an effort to win UK business leaders' confidence in the legitimacy of the Republican victory. 

In October 2001 Morocco signed agreements with TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee to explore for oil in Western Sahara's offshore waters.  Baker's law firm, Baker & Botts, recently assisted in a US$ 1.5 billion bond issue by Kerr-McGee.  In February 2002, the UN Dept of Legal Affairs ruled that any attempt to exploit Western Sahara's oil without the consent of its people would be illegal.

Baker & Botts founder member Robert Jordan also worked with Baker for Bush during the 2000 election controversy, and has since become US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Read more on the Guardian, Upstream Online and Centre for Responsive Politics websites..

The autonomy plan

The initial version of this plan, called the "Draft Framework Agreement", scrapped the existing voter list; legalised Morocco's presence in Western Sahara; envisaged a referendum in 5 years time in which anyone resident in the territory for a year could vote, thus allowing Morocco to move more settlers to the territory to guarantee a majority; and left returning Saharawis at the mercy of Morocco's brutal security forces.  It has been rejected by the UN Security Council three times.  In January Baker visited the parties with a revised version of the plans which provide for greater powers for the "Western Sahara Authority", especially in economic and legal matters, which Morocco has objected to.  However, on the core issues of a 5 year transition period under Moroccan rule - during which time Moroccan troops would be able to remain in the territory as they judged necessary for "national security" - and including Moroccan colonists on the voter list, these proposals are the same as the old autonomy plans.

Other scandals involving MINURSO diplomats:

  • Joseph Manz (UN Special Representative), Frank Ruddy (US Representative to MINURSO) and Admiral John Dryden (US Representative) all resigned in protest at the UN's pro-Moroccan bias in dealing with W Sahara.  No-one has ever resigned because of pro-Saharawi bias.
  • MINURSO staff passed confidential census lists of Saharawis, provided by POLISARIO, to Morocco in 1991, allowing Moroccan settlers to impersonate deceased Saharawis to try and get onto the voter list.
  • Francois Fall was dismissed for drug-trafficking in 1994; he was using the UN diplomatic bag to smuggle hard drugs out of Morocco and into the EU.
  • Yacub Khan, UN Special Representative to Western Sahara in the early 90s, claimed a substantial allowance for living in W Sahara, when in fact he didn't live there.

[Communiqués, lettres. documents][HOME]