Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The United Nations' Failure in Resolving the Western Sahara Conflict

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The United Nations' Failure in Resolving the Western Sahara Conflict

Article excerpt

THE continuation of the little-known Western Sahara conflict(1) in the Maghrib region, although minor compared to the more tragic wars in Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, is nevertheless an obvious example of the failure of the United Nations (UN) in the peaceful settlement of disputes. The Western Sahara remains to this date the UN's last decolonization problem in Africa. This article reviews the main reasons that have prevented the denouement of this long-lasting conflict.


The planning and attempted execution of the UN referendum for the Western Sahara (also referred to as the Territory), stalled due to grave difficulties both political and in the disputed Territory itself, has its origins in a series of efforts undertaken by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The OAU envisioned the withdrawal of the armed forces of both the Moroccan government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO) from the Western Sahara, the emplacement of a neutral, interim government, and a referendum of self-determination in which the choice presented to the voters would be between independence or integration with the Kingdom of Morocco.(2)

After some strenuous diplomacy, the OAU succeeded in getting Morocco's King Hasan II to subscribe to the concept of a plebiscite. Its efforts, however, were destined to advance no further due to a number of factors: the lack of experience of the OAU in successfully conducting similar referenda elsewhere in Africa, the refusal of Morocco to negotiate directly with the POLISARIO, and the pro-Sahrawi sympathies of an increasing number of OAU member-states. Those states recognized the POLISARIO's state-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), proclaimed by the POLISARIO on 27 February 1976. The matter was further complicated between 1982-84 by the divisions in the OAU between those African countries favoring the POLISARIO and those taking Morocco's side and temporarily boycotting the OAU.

The complete collapse of the OAU was only headed off by the agreement of the POLISARIO-SADR delegation not to take its seat as a full OAU member, a position it had been awarded in February 1982 in a controversial move by the organization's secretary-general, Edem Kodjo, of Togo.(3) After the OAU's summit meetings in 1982 and 1983 were delayed or canceled de to the boycott, the 1984 summit, held in November of that year, took a different turn. At that conference, the SADR finally took its place as an OAU member. Morocco, carrying out the threat it had long articulated, resigned from the OAU in protest. Thus, the organization's referendum plans were stymied by the absence of one of its most important members.(4)

Renewed activity occurred in the spring of 1986, after the UN General Assembly had passed Resolution 40/50 in December 1985, by a lopsided margin of 96 votes in favor and 7 against, with 39 abstentions. The resolution endorsed the broad outlines of the OAU strategy for defusing tensions in the Territory and conducting a plebiscite "without any administrative or military constraints."(5) The General Assembly also urged the UN secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, to use his good offices to bring Morocco and the POLISARIO together and to start serious preparations for a referendum. Perez de Cuellar began a series of "proximity talks" at UN headquarters in New York, whereby the two protagonists could exchange their views without the necessity of meeting face-to-face. These talks accomplished little as the attitudes of the two parties were not reconciled to the degree necessary for further progress.(6) They ended in failure in May 1986.

After a further resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 1986(7) urging the secretary-general to persevere in his efforts to organize a referendum, the United Nations and the OAU eventually decided that a joint UN-OAU Technical Mission be sent to Morocco and the Western Sahara to gather information and to assess the problems inherent in a referendum on self-determination. …

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