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Has the UN betrayed us?

*It seems to be a tradition that at the end of his mandate every UN Secretary-General reneges on the commitment to resolve the issue of Western Sahara in a just manner.* But was it a coincidence that, after his retirement, Perez de Cuellar was offered a position in a Moroccan holding company called Omnium Nord Africain? Or that Boutros Boutros-Ghali was given the job of Secretary-General of the International Francophone Organization (France being, of course, Morocco’s closest ally)?

The fact that Kofi Annan’s mandate is nearing its end should be a source of concern and alarm to the Saharawi people – and the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on Western Sahara, published on 19 April, does not offer much hope that Mr Annan will break the tradition and save what remains of UN credibility.

The report stipulates that the UN is giving up its efforts to resolve the issue of Western Sahara through the implementation of its resolutions and the several plans it had outlined during 15 years of presence in the Non-Self-governing Territory. The reason, according to Kofi Annan, is that: ‘nobody was going to force Morocco to give up its claim of sovereignty over Western Sahara,’ a claim that he acknowledges ‘no member of the United Nations had recognized’. The message of Kofi Annan is that the UN is ‘taking a step back’ and that it is up to the parties to find a solution.

Mr Annan and his Personal Envoy, Peter Van Walsum, are encouraging direct negotiations between the parties to achieve a ‘compromise between international legality and political reality’! According to them, the UN is not able to present any Peace Plan as ‘any new plan would be doomed from the outset because Morocco would reject it again, unless it did not provide for a referendum with independence as an option’.

There is a line in the sand that the Saharawis cannot cross unless they accept being Moroccans

Has the UN then been reduced to this – requesting a ‘compromise between international legality and political reality’? Is this the purpose of the UN? Is this included in its mandate? The legal, moral and political responsibility of the UN is clear. The mandate of the UN and its mission is to help achieve the decolonization process of the last colony in Africa. Such a mandate is included in the UN Security Council resolutions 658 (1990), 690 (1991) and 1495 (2003) which call for a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. The UN mandate is not to reward the aggressor that violates international legality and refuses to abide by UN resolutions. To attempt to do so is to betray not only the Saharawi people but also the international community at large.

It is indeed an affront to ask the Saharawi people who have suffered immensely from Morocco’s occupation of their homeland and been denied their basic human rights, to accept an imposed ‘political reality’ and negotiate a compromise on international legality. It is as if the French people had been asked to negotiate a compromise with Nazi Germany or the Kuwaitis to do the same with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

However, the UN knows that the Saharawis are not intransigent. It is the Saharawi side that in 1998 accepted the principle of a referendum including the option to vote for integration with Morocco. We accepted the Houston Agreements of 1997 that enlarged the criteria of the voters in the referendum and we even accepted the Baker Plan of 2003, which not only gave Moroccan settlers the right to vote in a referendum supposed to be only for the Saharawi people but also accepted a transitional period of five years under Moroccan sovereignty.

It is hard to fathom why the Saharawis who are the victims are constantly asked to compromise while Morocco seems to be able to get away with its wrongdoings. It is necessary to remind Mr Annan that Morocco and Polisario have undertaken negotiations both bilaterally and under the UN auspices on many occasions since the beginning of the conflict. Both Morocco and Polisario negotiated and agreed to the UN Settlement Plan of 1990 and the Houston Agreements of 1997. But the weakness of the UN allowed Morocco to violate and obstruct such agreements.

There is a limit to compromise as there is a limit to patience. There is a line in the sand that the Saharawis cannot cross unless they decide to surrender to the Moroccan regime and accept being Moroccans. The Saharawis’ good will has been overly exploited. The Saharawi side cannot make any more compromises because that would mean political suicide. Should the UN want to see a speedy resolution to the issue of Western Sahara, it simply needs to exercise adequate pressure on Morocco to abide by UN resolutions and the Peace Plan. The UN cannot wash its hands of the Western Sahara conflict and abandon its responsibility – if it does, the UN’s credibility will suffer and its integrity will be buried in the Saharan sands.

We Saharawis feel let down by the UN and realize that the UN took advantage of our sincere will to co-operate and compromise. We regret the waste of 15 years of efforts and hope and pray that the years ahead will not be similarly wasted.

*Kamal Fadel* is the official representative in Australia of Polisario, the liberation movement and government-in-exile of Western Sahara.

New Internationalist issue 391 magazine cover This article is from the July 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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