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Stalemate in the Desert

Western Sahara: Against Autonomy

by JACOB MUNDY

In recent years, the Moroccan government has championed the idea of autonomy as a solution to its territorial dispute with pro-independence advocates over Western Sahara. Rabat has said it is willing to consider an autonomous, locally elected government in Western Sahara, which would have powers independent of the central government, albeit circumscribed by Morocco’s ultimate sovereignty. The movement for Western Saharan statehood, on the other hand, has rejected autonomy. It continues to claim the right of self-determination, to be exercised through a final status referendum among the territory’s indigenous ethnic Sahrawis.

There is a broad international consensus, political and juridical, backing the right of self-determination in former European colonies. This consensus was applied most recently in East Timor. Western Sahara, like East Timor, was a European colony until the mid-1970s. In a landmark 1975 ruling, the International Court of Justice dismissed Morocco’s historical claims to Western Sahara and instead supported the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. The UN Security Council and Secretary General have both reiterated their support for a solution that provides for self-determination, which would entail a vote including, but not limited to, the option of independence.

From 1988 to 1999, the Security Council attempted to hold a vote on self-determination in Western Sahara. Then, in 2000, the discourses started shifting away from self-determination to a "third way" that was neither independence nor integration with Morocco. Autonomy has become that "third way" solution, and it seems like the best compromise on paper. Yet, when mapped onto the realities of the conflict, autonomy becomes a recipe for disaster — both at the negotiating table and on the ground in Western Sahara.

Though the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations had provided material support for Morocco’s invasion and occupation of Western Sahara from 1975 to 1991, the first Bush and Clinton administrations maintained a hands-off policy toward the early UN referendum process (1992-1996). Indirect, high-level U.S. involvement — in the form of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker — began in 1997. However, Baker’s seven-year engagement was sabotaged, on the U.S. side, by larger geo-strategic concerns: Morocco’s role as an ally in — and after May 2003 a site of — the war on terror. The U.S. government’s attitude toward the conflict since then has been to leave it to the parties to make their own proposals while discretely encouraging autonomy.


Stalemate

The stalemate in Western Sahara was originally achieved on the battlefield during a 16-year war pitting Western-supported Morocco against the Algerian-backed Sahrawi guerrillas of the Polisario Front. The armed conflict ended in 1991 when the Security Council backed an agreement to hold a referendum on independence, but only with the consent of the two parties, most importantly Morocco. Several hundred UN peacekeepers began monitoring the ceasefire in 1991. Five years later, and no closer to a vote, the UN seriously considered a withdrawal. Then, in 1997, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker agreed to mediate the dispute.

During his seven-year tenure as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara, Baker was the center of gravity in the peace process. He originally brokered a series of agreements that revived the referendum process in 1997. However, when it was time to hold a vote in 2000, the Security Council decided that a referendum was no longer realistic. Behind the scenes, the Clinton administration also backed away from a referendum and instead supported the new regime in Morocco under King Mohammed VI. To avoid the kind of dangerous referendum the Security Council had botched in East Timor, Baker started searching for an alternative to an independence/integration referendum. However, in 2002, the UN Security Council said that it would consider any peace proposal so long as it provided for self-determination (i.e., a referendum on independence).

In 2003, Baker presented his final proposal. The idea was to grant Western Sahara four years of autonomy as a kind of trial period and then hold a final status referendum. The choices would be autonomy, integration with Morocco, or full independence. To sweeten the deal for Rabat, Baker proposed that non-Sahrawi Moroccan settlers could participate in the vote. With Moroccan colonists outnumbering the native Sahrawi population by as much as two-to-one, it came as quite a shock that Rabat rejected the proposal as soon as Polisario accepted it. Baker worked with Morocco for another year, but all of Rabat’s counter-proposals demonstrated a deep unwillingness to compromise on the most fundamental issue, the right of self-determination.

For the George W. Bush administration, Morocco’s role in the "war on terror" was more important than supporting Baker in Western Sahara. The same month Baker resigned, Morocco won major non-NATO ally status and a free trade agreement from Washington. Elliott Abrams, head of Middle Eastern affairs in the National Security Council, is most likely the lead cheerleader in the White House for Western Saharan autonomy. Indeed, Moroccan expectations that the United States would support a unilaterally implemented autonomy had echoes of U.S. support for Israeli unilateralism in the occupied Palestinian territories.


Sharing the Land

In Western Sahara, total victory is impossible and total defeat is unthinkable for the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front. In such a situation, both sides should, if they are self-interested rational actors, search for a middle-of-the-road solution. The two obvious compromise options for Western Sahara are either sharing the territory or splitting it up. Both sides, however, have rejected the latter. Besides setting an ugly precedent for the international community, a mini-Saharan state would be severely disadvantaged in terms of its viability, which is in no one’s interests.

Sharing the territory involves roughly four choices:

* giving Western Sahara special regional status within Morocco though without governmental autonomy;

* transforming Morocco into a symmetrical federalist state so that each region, including Western Sahara, has its own elected government that can not be dissolved by Rabat;

* granting Western Sahara special governmental autonomy within Morocco;

* confederating an independent or quasi-independent Western Sahara with Morocco.

The first approach, regionalism, calls for little compromise on the part of Morocco and a massive concession from Polisario, and so is unlikely to be taken seriously by the latter. The second approach, federalism, has some sympathy in Morocco, but it requires a massive and messy overhaul of Morocco’s state structures through a new constitution, effectively involving the entire Moroccan population in the peace process. Federalism also does not recognize the special status of Western Sahara, so it is seriously deficient as a peacemaking tool. A confederation between an independent Western Sahara and Morocco is another option, but Rabat is unlikely to consider such a serious challenge to its "territorial integrity."

Thus the third option, autonomy, wins by default. A peace agreement between Morocco and Polisario could allow for the creation of a quasi-independent Western Sahara with its own locally elected government and internal responsibilities. Both Morocco and Western Sahara would have to share security duties, with Morocco likely retaining military duties and the foreign relations portfolio.


Unripe for Compromise

On paper, autonomy seems like the ideal solution. The problem, however, is just that: it is ideal, not real. Autonomy might be viable under a situation corresponding to a prisoners’ dilemma, wherein mutual cooperation produces a positive sum outcome rather than the zero-sum outcome of competition. Yet an honest appraisal of the situation in Western Sahara reveals that the parties’ thinking is still war-like; neither Morocco nor Polisario yet believes that total victory is impossible. While there are "hurting" aspects to the stalemate for both sides, the "pain" isn’t enough to alter either’s fundamental objectives. Morocco’s control of the territory is incomplete and lacking in international legitimacy, but its control is enough that the administration is routine and the prospect of being militarily dislodged appears slim.

While Morocco’s offer of autonomy might seem like a compromise, the autonomy it put on the table this month is far less than Baker offered in 2001 and 2003. Despite their glowing statements of support, some U.S., UN, and even French officials off the record are very disappointed that Morocco’s idea of a concession is still very limited. Rabat’s support for autonomy is, for now, merely rhetorical, a tactical concession made to regain the moral high ground after rejecting the Baker Plan — and Baker — in 2004.

Polisario, as well, is acting as if time is on its side, even though it also faces problems. Polisario exists in exile, its arms are deteriorating, and there are generational tensions. A recent poll of youth in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwest Algeria — home of Polisario’s popular base of support — suggests that young Sahrawis are increasingly frustrated with the limits of camp life. Polisario also has to contend with the constant and growing calls for a return to arms against Morocco. These internal tensions may well come to a head at the movement’s upcoming triennial congress.

Meanwhile within Western Sahara, nationalism has exploded rather than receded in recent years. Growing in militancy, the Western Saharan independence movement has spawned its own intifadah, a decentralized, youth-led, anti-Moroccan protest movement in the occupied region. The Sahrawi heroes of this struggle are former political prisoners who have become unashamed nationalists. Many Sahrawis living under Moroccan administration are no longer afraid to speak their mind about the Moroccan occupation, for which they suffer regular beatings and imprisonment. The flag of Polisario, once unseen in Moroccan-controlled areas, is now a ubiquitous symbol of Sahrawi resistance. The only internal feedback that Polisario’s leaders are receiving is toward greater confrontation not compromise.

Additionally, support for independence from Algeria’s executive is at nearly unprecedented levels. As post-conflict Algeria gains in international status and regional power, literally fuelled by soaring hydrocarbon sales, Polisario is more and more confident that it has sided with North Africa’s emerging hegemon. Furthermore, Polisario has interpreted Morocco’s offer of autonomy not as a peace gesture but as the desperate gesticulations of an occupier slowly losing its grip.


Challenge of Negotiations

Western Sahara is experiencing a long, drawn-out diplomatic war of attrition. Indeed, the peace process has significantly deteriorated in the past two years. Negotiations, or even the admitted existence of some kind of first-track initiative, would constitute a breakthrough at this point. Neither side has been willing to talk, even under the most non-committal and secretive situation. The fundamental attitudes of the parties reflect Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz: both still see politics as war by other means.

The current standoff in negotiations involves a reluctance to lose face in order to gain through compromise. Polisario wants Morocco to accept the principles of the 2003 Baker Plan — including a referendum on independence — before negotiations can start. Morocco claims it is willing to enter into negotiations without preconditions, yet Rabat will not discuss a referendum on independence. So, from Polisario’s point of view, Morocco’s negotiations "without preconditions" still entail an implicit precondition: Polisario must take self-determination off the table. According to the history and realities on the ground, then the likelihood of either side making a fundamental concession — just to get talks started — is nil.

The clear subtext to the current UN thinking on Western Sahara is to get Polisario to abandon a vote on independence. This is technically impossible under international law, as only the Western Saharans can, through a referendum, give up their right to self-determination. But former Secretary General Kofi Annan was even bold enough to suggest that the right of self-determination is the prerogative of the Security Council. In his last report on Western Sahara, October 2006, Annan warned that "Polisario would be well advised to enter into negotiations now, while there is still consensus in the Council that a negotiated political solution must provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara."

But Polisario is not in the mood, nor is it willing, to make further concessions. The Western Saharan independence movement has already agreed to a referendum under the 2003 Baker Plan that would be dominated by Moroccan settlers. Indeed, Polisario has made all of the major concessions in the peace process: from the criteria for registering referendum voters to agreeing to live under Moroccan autonomy for four years before a referendum. The movement’s officials reasonably argue that it can’t make any more concessions. All that is left to compromise is Polisario’s fundamental core: the right to a vote on independence. Abandoning self-determination would completely de-legitimize Polisario in the eyes of its constituents and its international support. If a compromise is unlikely from either Morocco or Polisario, the autonomy option is a non-starter.

Negotiating autonomy will also require secret talks so that no one loses face. Again, the problem is that Polisario’s leadership is neither willing nor able to enter into such negotiations. Any backroom deal for autonomy is unlikely to receive support from Western Saharan nationalists, especially in the camps. Most Western Saharan nationalists still think the 2003 Baker Plan is a dangerous compromise, only made worthwhile by Morocco’s stern rejection of it. However, many nationalists swear that the Baker Plan was the last and ultimate compromise. If that is the limit of Polisario’s concessions, then there should be little hope for autonomy.


Implementation

The challenges to autonomy are not just in the negotiating stage. Both sides also have reasons for concern about implementation, should it come to that. To create an environment where Sahrawi refugees feel safe to return, both Morocco’s military-security apparatus and the numbers of Moroccan settlers will have to decrease. For autonomy to work, Western Sahara must revert to being Sahrawi, not Moroccan, in both the majority of its citizens and the visible elements of its regional security. However, in any autonomy scheme, Rabat will constantly fear separatist moves, so it will demand a sizable military presence to guarantee its "territorial integrity." Finding a balance will be difficult if not impossible, yet this issue is not even on the radar.

The real question, however, is whether or not the international community, especially the Security Council, is willing to invest in the kind of multinational peace-building project such an autonomy agreement would warrant. No one is talking about how to get Morocco and Polisario to work together after 30 years of mutual mistrust. Then there are the coercive aspects of implementing autonomy: will an international force be required to maintain the peace if Sahrawi separatists organize an insurgency and Moroccan settlers form death squads?

The implementation of autonomy thus involves many moving parts and will require a credible threat — if not the actual use — of force from the international community. For autonomy to work in Western Sahara, there has to be a tripartite willingness that has been historically lacking: the willingness of Morocco, Polisario, and the Security Council.

In 2003, Baker asked the Security Council to endorse his proposal so that he could have a mandate to twist some arms. Instead, he got a weak vote of support after Morocco protested directly to France and the United States. Will the Security Council suddenly find the will to use coercion in support of autonomy in Western Sahara? If so, this begs the question: Why reject self-determination because it requires coercion when autonomy will need the same? Autonomy is, after all, a far more complicated solution to implement than an independent Western Sahara.


Washington’s options

The problem of Western Sahara is not that the Moroccan annexation is a fait accompli, which is one of the dominant assumptions driving calls for autonomy. Instead, the determinant reality is that Western Saharan nationalism is growing, not diminishing. Thirty years of exile (for the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria) and socio-economic marginalization (for the Sahrawis under Moroccan administration) have strengthened their resolve, not diminished it. In the streets of Western Sahara, an escalating dialectic of violence is being played out day by day. Protest meets repression meets counter-protest meets police retaliation in an endless cycle. How much longer can Polisario’s leaders justify to their constituents, without losing all credibility, the maintenance of a cease-fire that is now considered pointless by many nationalists? Sooner or later the international community must face this fact, or they will be forced to face it. We can either intervene in a realistic manner or we can, feigning ignorance, let another obscure African conflict deteriorate before our very eyes.

The politics of the least-worst option in Western Sahara are no longer working. The time has come for a new approach. The Security Council has to confront the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and bring it to a legal and practical end using the weapons of non-violence at its disposal.

There is only one hope for a peaceful and just resolution to the Western Sahara conflict. Key states, like the U.S. government, must back up their rhetorical support of self-determination with meaningful action. International pressure must build on Morocco to allow and respect an internationally organized expression of self-determination for the native population of Western Sahara. As Morocco is highly sensitive to its international image, the only weapon required is the tool of shame. At the same time, though, Morocco’s domestic stability and reform should be supported in word and deed.

Thus the U.S. government should take a two-track approach in its relations with Morocco: supporting self-determination in Western Sahara on the one hand while supporting Moroccan stability and reforms on the other. In other words, Washington should decouple support for Rabat from support for the occupation of Western Sahara. The U.S. Congress should reaffirm its support for U.S. initiatives aimed at supporting Moroccan stability and internal democratization processes. But Congress should simultaneously press the White House to support self-determination in Western Sahara. None of this, however, will be possible without political will. International, grassroots, faith- and community-based organizations will have to create broader awareness of the problem in the United States. Such pressure helped bring a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa and was key to ending Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

JACOB MUNDY is coauthor, with Stephen Zunes, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, forthcoming). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).