New Internationalist

Article Detailing The Involvement Of The Un In Western Sahara And Morocco.

Issue 297
CATASTROPHE & CAVALRY
- the UN in Western Sahara

'IF EVER THERE WAS A JOB READY MADE FOR THE UN THIS WAS IT...' So said Frank Ruddy, who in 1994 was sent by the US to help the UN organize a referendum in Western Sahara. A year later he blew the whistle on one of the more shameful episodes in UN history ? one that a new UN regime is now straining to bring to an honourable close. Illustration by Anne Cakebread.

illustration of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Javier Perez de Cuellar JAVIER PEREZ DE CUELLAR (far left)  

SECRETARY-GENERAL of the UN between 1982 and 1991, he oversaw the first UN Peace Plan, aimed at a free and fair referendum based on the Spanish census of 1974. A ceasefire had begun when, in the last weeks of his term of office, Perez de Cuellar threw a major spanner in the works. He proposed that a looser definition of a 'Saharawi' be applied that would allow King Hassan II of Morocco (pictured right) to introduce tens of thousands of voters not included in the Spanish census. The UN representative in Western Sahara resigned in disgust. After his retirement Perez de Cuellar was reported to have been given a position in a Moroccan holding company called Omnium Nord Africain. He denied having accepted the position ? but the offer itself was suggestive of 'services rendered'. 

BOUTROS BOUTROS-GHALI (above right)

THE NEXT SECRETARY-GENERAL had been a long-time friend and ally of King Hassan from his days as Egyptian Foreign Minister. He repeatedly postponed the 'transitional period' during which the UN force, MINURSO, would assume control in Western Sahara in the lead-up to a referendum. The UN inertia favoured Morocco not just because it is in possession of the territory and its resources but also because it could manipulate the voter-identification process.

MINURSO

(United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara)

The UN operation in Western Sahara between 1991 and 1997 was so ineffectual that it became one of the main symbols of UN waste and inefficiency for a hostile US Congress. It cost more than five million dollars a month yet did little useful work. UN staff were paid inflated salaries due to the 'hardship' conditions. It is claimed that some UN staff would overstay their tour of duty by a day so as to qualify for a second tranche of 'hardship' money.

In January 1995 Ambassador Frank Ruddy, who had been deputy chair of the MINURSO voter- identification commission the previous year, testified to the US Congress about MINURSO's mismanagement as well as Morocco's obstructionist tactics. He subsequently said: 'During my time in Western Sahara Morocco conducted ? without a raised eyebrow from Boutros-Ghali's hand-picked representative who ran the referendum ? a campaign of terror against the Saharan people. I had not seen anything like it since I observed the apartheid government in South Africa in action against blacks...

'Morocco did not simply influence the referendum; they controlled it, down to what days the mission worked. Morocco tapped UN phones, intercepted UN mail and searched the living quarters of UN staff with impunity. More importantly the Moroccan authorities disenfranchised Saharan voters right and left and substituted Moroccan ringers.

'These outrages were documented to Boutros-Ghali's representative in MINURSO by outsiders like me, but also by UN contract employees and veteran UN professionals, but they were never acted on... When these same outrages were finally brought to the attention of the UN Headquarters official in charge of the referendum, they were dismissed as "not serious". '

Ruddy was barred by Boutros-Ghali from making his case to the Fourth Committee of the United Nations but in October 1996 they heard a similar view from Douglas K Dryden, former US military representative to the Special Liaison Office of MINURSO.

According to Dryden: 'The atmosphere at the MINURSO Force Headquarters in L'ayoun is practically a siege mentality. The mission is not allowed to function independently, but as a creature of the Moroccans. Moroccans regularly gain access to the Headquarters compound with an air that it is, after all, theirs. It is the only UN mission that I am aware of where the flag of one of the parties is required to fly alongside that of the UN.'

ENTER THE CAVALRY: JAMES BAKER, MADELEINE ALBRIGHT AND KOFI ANNAN

illustration of James Baker, Madeline Albright and Kofi Annan 1997 brought a change of regime at the UN. New Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian with no ties to King Hassan, was desperate to lance the boil on the UN body that the Western Sahara fiasco had become. So too was the new US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, formerly US Ambassador to the UN. James Baker, US foreign-affairs supremo during the Gulf War, was appointed as Special Representative, giving the clearest possible message to Morocco that the UN could no longer be messed around. Morocco was brought to the negotiating table with Polisario for the first time ever. If the referendum finally happens in 1998 it will be a boost not just to the Saharawi people ? but also to the tattered reputation of the UN. 

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