WESTERN SAHARA: Time to pressure Morocco


Western Sahara is a decolonisation issue that has been on the United Nations' agenda for almost 40 years. The right of the Saharawi people to national self-determination has been recognised by the International Court of Justice and


Western Sahara is a decolonisation issue that has been on the United Nations' agenda for almost 40 years. The right of the Saharawi people to national self-determination has been recognised by the International Court of Justice and supported by the UN, the African Union (formerly the Organisation of African Unity — OAU) and many other international organisations. The problem is that there has not been enough will or courage to put pressure on Morocco to allow the Saharawis to decide their own future.

Located on the Atlantic coast of north-west Africa, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1975, when it was invaded and illegally occupied by two neighbouring countries, Morocco and Mauritania. Western Sahara is the size of Britain and is rich in mineral resources. Morocco's invasion was the result of greed and an attempt to divert attention from that autocratic regime's internal problems.

The invasion provoked a long and bloody war with the Saharawi people under the leadership of the Polisario (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro) front, the movement that had fought for independence from Spain. Mauritania gave up its claim to Western Sahara and withdrew, signing a peace treaty with the Polisario in 1979.

Since its occupation of the Western Sahara, Morocco has embarked on a brutal campaign of human rights abuses. As a result, more than 170,000 Saharawis have fled their homeland and now live in makeshift refugee camps in the desert of south-west Algeria, where they are dependent on foreign assistance.

UN's 'dismal' role

Western Sahara is a similar case to East Timor, but while the UN succeeded in its task in East Timor its performance in Western Sahara has so far been dismal. This is due to the lack of will and negative attitude by some members of the Security Council, who persist in their support to the authoritarian monarchy of Mohamed VI.

After 13 years of war, Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed in 1988 to the UN/OAU "Settlement Plan" based on the organisation of a free and fair referendum for the Saharawi people. The UN Security Council endorsed the plan and a cease-fire was declared in 1991. The referendum was scheduled for early 1992.

For the past 12 years, the UN has been trying to organise the promised referendum. Despite its efforts and the huge costs involved — more than US$500 million — the UN has so far failed because of the Moroccan regime's obstruction and delaying tactics.

On July 31, and after 20 days of haggling over the precise phrasing and content of a draft resolution, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1495.

The significance of this resolution is that the UN Security Council has for the first time officially moved away from implemention of the Settlement Plan, and has accepted a novel approach to the resolution of the Western Sahara conflict. Known as the "Peace plan for self-determination of the people of Western Sahara", it was proposed by James Baker, the personal envoy of the UN secretary-general for Western Sahara. Baker is a former US secretary of state.

The problem facing Baker's plan is that one of the parties to the conflict, Morocco, has vehemently rejected it. Hence, resolution 1495 was diluted from its draft form, which sought the Security Council's endorsement of the plan. The Security Council has expressed its support for the new plan but has called upon the parties "to work with the United Nations and with each other towards acceptance and implementation of the Peace plan".

Baker's plan is not very different from an earlier version — the "Draft Framework Agreement" — presented to the Security Council, which Morocco had accepted. Both plans envisage an autonomous status for Western Sahara under Morocco's sovereignty, eventually followed by a referendum of self-determination in which Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara would be allowed to vote.

By rejecting Baker's plan, the Moroccan regime has once again clearly indicated to the UN and the international community its unwillingness to cooperate in order to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Western Sahara.

The Moroccan regime has repeatedly rejected or violated UN resolutions since 1975.


The Polisario independence movement, on the other hand, has continuously shown flexibility and a willingness to compromise. Polisario's acceptance of the Settlement Plan and the cease-fire was a significant compromise from its earlier stance, which called for Morocco's unconditional withdrawal. There was also compromise concerning the criteria of eligibility of voters, which was biased towards Morocco. Polisario again showed a great degree of flexibility during the negotiation process and the identification process of eligible voters.

Furthermore, Polisario's recent willingness to examine Baker's novel plan is a major shift from its position, which originally rejected an autonomy option during the transitional period prior to the organisation of the referendum on self-determination.

It has become crystal clear that Morocco will not adhere to a solution until it is confident that it will be in its favour.

Two main elements have encouraged Morocco to obstruct the peace process: the lack of any concrete and significant pressure since the guns were silenced in 1991; and the support of some members of the UN Security Council, such as France.

It is well known that Morocco agreed to the Settlement Plan mainly because of the pressure of the war. Nevertheless, should the Moroccan regime now be subjected to real pressure it is likely that this could tilt the pendulum towards a real solution. It is now the time to exercise such pressure both from inside occupied Western Sahara and from outside.

The Saharawi people need to intensify the pressure within Western Sahara to make the occupying power feel the heat, thereby making its presence uncomfortable. This is a challenge because of the brutal nature of the Moroccan police-state, but it is not impossible.

Other means of pressure from outside need to be considered, and there are many options available that have worked in similar situations, such as economic sanctions and a campaign directed at the tourist industry which the regime depends upon a great deal.

There is a need to illustrate the fact that the only beneficiaries of the hard currency that tourists bring to Morocco are the members of the royal family, its cronies and the corrupt generals. It is also quite likely that tourists' money will be used to rearm the occupying forces in Western Sahara and reinforce the security apparatus, which is renowned for its human rights abuses.

The campaign to end the pillage of Saharawi natural resources should be accentuated not only to preserve the resources of the Saharawi state but also to target the vital interests of the regime.

It is also necessary to maintain the diplomatic campaign and further isolate the regime, which finds itself in a dreadful situation, since it is opposed to all UN proposals for the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The other element of pressure, which cannot be ruled out, is the return to war should the peace process fail.

Morocco's attitude towards UN resolutions and the way the UN has so far dealt with the regime's obstructions do not augur well for a just, speedy and lasting resolution to the conflict in Western Sahara. Unfortunately, Morocco has been able to get away with its illegal and brutal occupation of our country and the UN has shown constant leniency towards the regime's flagrant violations of its resolutions and of international law.

For the UN to restore its credibility it must complete the implementation of the only solution that is just, democratic and benefits from the strong support of the Security Council: the Settlement Plan, complemented by the 1997 "Houston Accords", which both parties had accepted. This solution has gained further impetus since Polisario's compromise.

However, Morocco is attempting to shift the debate from the Saharawis' right to national self-determination to so-called "territorial integrity" and "Morocco's sovereignty". It is important to emphasise that no country or international organisation has ever recognised Morocco's sovereignty over, or its illegal occupation of, Western Sahara.

The right of the Saharawi people to self-determination and independence is inalienable and paramount. This means that it is not negotiable and cannot be overridden. The question of Western Sahara remains on the UN agenda as a decolonisation issue and it will remain so until the Saharawi people exercise their right to self-determination. Therefore, the Settlement Plan must not be ignored or sidelined; it should remain on the UN agenda as the most viable option for the resolution of the conflict, unless Morocco decides to end its occupation and give up its illegitimate claim over Western Sahara.

However, it is expected that the Moroccan regime will do its utmost to maintain the status quo and at the same time enact its old tricks during the forthcoming negotiations in order to obtain even more favourable terms in Baker's plan. Those who benefit from instability and disunity in the Maghreb will continue to encourage the Moroccan regime in its obstructionist attitude. Sadly, it is the Saharawi people who will continue to suffer because of considerations that have more to do with Realpolitik than justice.

It is evident that the Saharawi side has done all that it could do in order to facilitate the UN's efforts to end the illegal occupation of Western Sahara. Now it is the duty of the UN Security Council to stress to Morocco that its tricks and crocodile tears can be tolerated no longer.

[Kamal Fadel is the Polisario representative in Australia.]

From Green Left Weekly, August 20, 2003.

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