Ten years on from the 1991 ceasefire in the war between Morocco and the Western Saharan liberation movement, Polisario, the UN has delivered a body blow to Saharawis’ right to self-determination. Former US Secretary of State James Baker, now the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, proposed to the UN Security Council on 26 June that the planned referendum should be abandoned and replaced by an offer of ‘autonomy’ within Morocco.
It was an extraordinary volte-face on the part not only of Baker but also of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa and its people’s right to self-determination has been consistently supported by the UN General Assembly since 1975, when Morocco invaded the former Spanish colony, condemning more than half the Saharawi population to a miserable existence in a refugee settlement in the bleakest part of the Algerian desert.
Few impartial observers doubt that in any free and fair vote the vast majority of Saharawis would opt for independence rather than being part of Morocco. As a result Morocco spent the 1990s putting every possible obstacle in the way of the referendum, including settling Moroccans in the occupied territories and trying to get them included on the voting roll.
When James Baker first became involved in 1997 he made progress: Morocco signed up to the Houston Agreement in which the outstanding issues on voter registration and the repatriation of refugees were apparently resolved. The Houston Agreement and Settlement Plan ran to hundreds of meticulously negotiated pages; Baker’s new ‘plan’ amounts to less than two pages.
Under pressure from sceptical UN Security Council members, Baker conceded that the autonomy plan was conceived in Morocco, though he claimed to have ‘polished’ it. He was given a rough ride by the representatives from Russia, Ireland, Singapore, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mali and Bangladesh, all of whom insisted that any talks Baker is now to conduct must include the original referendum plan and not just the new autonomy idea. The scepticism of these countries hardened when they received a letter from Algeria, Polisario’s main backer, which accused Kofi Annan of ‘shamelessly taking sides’.
Nevertheless the Security Council approved the autonomy talks. The new development is a shock for Saharawi refugees, who have come to feel in the last two years that they will have no alternative but to return to arms. They are vastly outnumbered and outgunned, and face a fortified, landmined Moroccan wall across the entire length of the country. If war resumes they will also face new British armaments: having previously refused arms-export licences to Morocco, the British Government in 1999 approved the refurbishment of 30 105-mm Light Guns, a fact which has only recently emerged to embarrass the New Labour administration. No-one doubts, however, Polisario’s willingness and ability to fight an effective guerrilla war.
Why has the UN position suddenly shifted so drastically? Observers speculate that it has much to do with the US desire to bolster King Mohammed VI – Morocco is the one reliable Arab ally of the US and there is hope (largely unrealized so far) that the young king might lighten the ferocious repression associated with his father, King Hassan.
But the sudden lurch of the UN into Morocco’s arms remains a betrayal not only of the Saharawi people but also of its own most fundamental principles. The Western Sahara issue is as clear cut as that of East Timor, which was also a former colony invaded by its neighbour in 1975. As the UN prepares its welcome for the newly independent East Timor, it must not be allowed to sacrifice Western Sahara on the altar of political expediency.