Saharan Stasis: Status and Future Prospects of the Western Sahara Conflict

By Dunbar, Charles | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Saharan Stasis: Status and Future Prospects of the Western Sahara Conflict


Dunbar, Charles, The Middle East Journal


The nine-year United Nations effort to hold a "winner-take-all" referendum in Western Sahara is stalemated by fundamental differences as to who should be allowed to vote. The United Nations is pessimistic that such a vote can ever be taken, and the Secretary-General's Personal Envoy, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker has begun a series of meetings with Moroccan and Polisario Front representatives to see if a solution can be found. The Polisario insists that no solution other than a "winner-take-all" referendum is acceptable, while the Moroccan Government demands that everyone it considers to be a Sahrawi must vote.

The protracted United Nations involvement in the dispute between Morocco and the Polisario Front1 over Western Sahara has been frustrating for all concerned. After nine years and expenditures approaching $500 million, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) has managed to accomplish in the Sahara what has taken similar UN missions elsewhere only a matter of months. Apart from successfully monitoring a very durable cease-fire, the sum total of the substantive work of MINURSO has been to develop a preliminary list of eligible voters totaling 86,381. More than 133,000 appeals against MINURSO's eligibility findings, mostly on behalf of applicants found ineligible, have been filed.2 If, as the Moroccan Government is demanding, the cases of the vast majority of those denied eligibility to vote are heard individually, the UN has said the appeals process could take as much as two years to complete.

In his last three reports to the Security Council on Western Sahara, UN Secretary-- General Kofi Annan has bluntly expressed his frustration. Having noted his "doubts about the possibility of achieving a smooth and consensual implementation of the settlement plan" and concern at the lack of an enforcement mechanism should one side refuse to accept the results of a vote, he asked his Personal Envoy, former US Secretary of State James Baker, "to consult with the parties and. . explore ways and means to achieve an early, durable and agreed resolution of their dispute."3 He emphasized that Mr. Baker's mandate included exploring "other ways of achieving an early, durable and agreed resolution" of the problem4 but said that Baker, following his second meeting with Moroccan and Polisario representatives in London, had "pointed out to me, as he did to the parties at the end of the consultations, that the meeting, instead of resolving the problems, had moved things backwards."5

Annan's pessimism is understandable. Neither side has shown any disposition to discuss anything other than the "winner-take-all" referendum that the Secretary-General doubts can succeed. Instead, Moroccan Government spokesmen, outraged because a very low percentage of the 176,533 candidates it presented were found eligible to vote, have asserted that, unless "all Sahrawis" are allowed to vote, there can be no referendum. Meanwhile, their charges that MINURSO had not been impartial in the voter identification process have become increasingly pointed.6 Dismayed at the large number of appeals filed on behalf of Moroccan voter applicants, Polisario Secretary-General and Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic President Muhammad Abdelaziz has asserted publicly that the UN could hold the referendum in 2000 and that if it could not, it should "admit failure and withdraw from Western Sahara."7 Since then, the Polisario has criticized the Secretary-- General's pessimism, insisted that "this problem is neither by nature nor scope insurmountable, and said it will entertain any proposal by the United Nations which permits the start of the appeals process."8

That having been said, there have been some signs, both before and since the Secretary-General's call to Baker, that the stalemate might be ending. Arduous negotiations between the Moroccan Government and the UN in the spring of 1999 produced agreement to proceed with the identification of the final group of some 63,000 potential voters from three tribal groupings whose inclusion among those allowed to apply for identification had been contested by the Polisario, and that process moved smoothly to its conclusion in January 2000. …

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