By Anna Theofilopoulou
April of this year marked the 21stanniversary since the UN Security Council accepted responsibility for trying to resolve the Western Sahara conflict through a referendum on self-determination. The referendum has never taken place, nor is it likely to ever happen. Nor, for that matter, is it likely that the conflict will be resolved through the mutually acceptable political solution that the Council has been asking for since April 2004.The Security Council adopted yet another resolution asking the parties, the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represents Western Saharans, to demonstrate the political will to work on the implementation of its resolutions, something that they have not done so far and giving them another year to continue with their posturing. And again, the Council failed to squarely address the question of human rights in the territory, other than to include a weak passage in the resolution’s introduction stressing the “importance” of improving the human rights situation in Western Sahara and surrounding refugee camps, and welcoming unilateral steps by Morocco to fulfill its commitments on the issue.
So far, neither party to the dispute appears willing to take the meaningful steps necessary to resolve a conflict that started in 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara, stating that it was reclaiming its “southern provinces” colonized by Spain. However, although both sides have blocked solutions that did not meet their expectations, Morocco has been the more obstructionist party, unwilling to discuss any solution that does not recognize a priori its “sovereignty” over Western Sahara.
In its usual manner of upping the ante, Morocco now demands the removal of Christopher Ross, Ban Ki-moon’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, on grounds that he attempted to introduce subjects outside his competence. In making this demand, Morocco is following a long history by both sides of demanding the removal of special representatives or personal envoys the moment they perceived actions, real or imagined, considered detrimental to their interests.
For years, the UN has pretended that somehow it can resolve the standoff without pushing either side to make real compromises. The UN has been lulled into believing that there can be a mutually acceptable solution without putting the parties on notice to demonstrate that they want one.
Morocco’s management of its internal demands for change in 2011 was similar to the short-sighted manner in which the country has handled the Western Sahara conflict. A side-by-side analysis of the two trajectories reveals that Morocco’s democratic deficit and limited strategy, too often abetted by allies, have contributed to an unsustainable status quo both at home and in Western Sahara. For anything to change, Morocco’s allies—especially the United States and France—must start demanding better.
Change in Morocco
February 20, 2011 saw the first demonstration in Morocco when the unemployed and under-privileged demanded constitutional monarchy, government attention to poverty and unemployment, restoration of dignity, and an end to graft and corruption. The ensuing movement took its name from that date.
Having witnessed events in neighboring states, King Mohammed VI addressed the country on March 9, 2011 and promised comprehensive constitutional change, including the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an elected government that reflected the will of the people. He then appointed a commission of experts headed by Abdeltif Menouni, a constitutional law professor known for his pro-monarchy views, to quickly draft a new constitution.
The king presented the constitution to the nation in a televised speech on June 16. Two weeks later, on July 1, a referendum on the constitution was held.
The king encouraged the public to support the new constitution by quoting a passage from the Qur’an. The Ministry of Religious Affairs apparently instructed imams to urge a “yes” vote during Friday sermons. The mainstream political parties accepted the process and hurried to campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum — including the opposition Justice and Development Party (PJD), which claimed that the new constitution contained sufficient guarantees for democracy. The February 20 Movement rallied thousands across the country to boycott the constitution but were countered by violent supporters of the referendum who called the protesters anti-monarchists, raising suspicions that the Interior Ministry had organized the monarchists.
There were reports of voters being bussed to voting stations by state officials, stations not carrying “no” ballots, and officials failing to verify voters’ identifications. Videos posted online showed officials rummaging through open ballot boxes. The Ministry of the Interior had calculated the proportion of registered voters at no more than 50 or 60 percent of the population, so the reported turnout of 72.65 percent — which in turn approved the constitution by 98.5 percent — raised some eyebrows.
In its first article, which defines the foundations of Morocco’s regime, the new constitution addresses all key demands of the protesters — namely, parliamentary monarchy, separation of powers, and accountability for those in charge. However, the actual changes are less than what meets the eye. A close and careful reading of the document shows that Morocco has a long way to go toward becoming a real parliamentary monarchy.
Forty-five percent of registered voters voted in the November 2011 legislative elections, compared to the 37 percent that had voted in the 2007 elections. Considering the changes that these elections entailed under the new constitution, this number was quite low. As John Entelis points out in his December 2011 analysis discussing the constitutional changes, the number pointed to cynicism, indifference, and apathy among Moroccans who believed that it would not really matter whether they voted, despite the professed changes in the new constitution.
The subsequent machinations by the political parties and the palace to form the new government seemed to justify this indifference. The PJD won 107 of the 395 seats in the parliament, or 27 percent of the vote, and still needed support from other parties to form a government. Eighteen out of the 35 political parties that won much smaller numbers of seats tried to offset this by forming their own coalition blocs.
Following the elections, Abdelilah Benkirane, the head of PJD, went on to form his government by approaching the most likely allies. After negotiations by the parties to get the ministries that they considered important in exchange for cooperating with PJD and acquiescing to the nominations of royally chosen ministers, the new government was finally formed
On December 7, Benkirane found out that the king had appointed his friend Fouad El Himma, the head of the Party of Modernity and Authenticity (PAM), as one of his royal advisers, as well as Taieb Fassi Fihri, the former foreign minister. Although Benkirane had excluded PAM from the government prior to the start of the talks, he accepted the appointment of the royal advisors even though this compromised his desire for direct contact with the king.
The strong hand of the palace in shaping the new government was no different from years past. Aware that his options were limited, Benkirane tried to make the best of it and demonstrated his political flexibility in the negotiations.
Morocco’s Handling of the Western Sahara Conflict
The conflict over Western Sahara is again at an impasse. Although both parties are responsible for this, Morocco started it by rejecting in 2004 the UN Peace Plan approved by the Security Council. The Council merely stood by, timidly asking for new negotiations between the parties.
After annexing Western Sahara in November 1975, Morocco proceeded to put “facts on the ground” to ensure its victory in an eventual referendum. Around half of the territory’s native Saharan population stayed while the other half fled to southern Algeria, where the Algerian government settled them in refugee camps. Morocco then proceeded to relocate thousands of Moroccans into the territory, claiming that it was facilitating the return of Saharans who had fled to Morocco when Western Sahara was a Spanish colony.
In August 1988, UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuellar persuaded Morocco’s King Hassan II to accept the UN’s broad guidelines for an internationally supervised ceasefire and a democratic referendum offering the people of Western Sahara the choice of independence or integration with Morocco. The king accepted the proposals in principle, but his subsequent statements left no doubt that he saw the coming referendum as a “confirmative” one for Morocco.
The UN created the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to organize the referendum. Due to logistical considerations, it was agreed that the two parties would submit names of applicants to the MINURSO Identification Commission, which was tasked with identifying potential voters to be interviewed to ascertain their eligibility to vote.
Morocco’s strategy for winning was two-pronged. Locally, it overwhelmed the Identification Commission with applicants and pushed to have as many as possible approved. Morocco submitted a total of 180,000 (100,000 of them living in Morocco), while Polisario submitted only 39,000. Morocco also proceeded to inject resources into the territory, building up its cities, developing its infrastructure, and providing financial and other incentives to thousands of Moroccans to move there. It tried to divide the Saharans by co-opting certain tribes and giving them privileged positions, while remaining indifferent to the fate of the majority and repressing those who challenged Morocco’s presence. It thus created a local constituency of Saharans that expected to benefit in the final settlement, making Morocco’s task of compromise with Polisario all the more difficult.
Internationally, Morocco used its allies inside the UN Security Council, foremost among them France, but also the United States, to obtain decisions beneficial to its position. Morocco also leveraged its influence with members of the UN Secretariat, where both members of the Council and the Secretariat tried at times to accommodate Morocco and facilitate its chances to win the referendum.
Ultimately the Identification Committee deadlocked as both parties continued to insist on the referendum yet challenged the process at every step. This resulted in former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III being brought in to break the impasse. When finally the new king, Mohammed VI, realized that following his father’s strategy would not help him resolve the issue and tried to negotiate a political solution, it was too little, too late. In September 2000, Morocco agreed to discuss an autonomy solution for Western Sahara “taking into account Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Predictably, Polisario rejected the offer and insisted on the referendum under the settlement plan.
In 2003, at the request of the Security Council, Baker put forward the Peace Plan for Self-Determination for the People of Western Sahara. The plan envisaged a final referendum of self-determination, with choices of integration, independence, or continuing autonomy after a four-year period of autonomy, during which both sides would be involved in the governing of the territory. The Council approved the plan and called upon the parties to work with the UN and each other toward implementing it. Polisario accepted the plan but Morocco rejected it in April 2004, leading the Security Council (led by France, the United States, and rotating member Spain) to urge the parties to devise their own mutually agreed political solution, ignoring the fact that two years earlier Baker had informed the Council that the parties would not agree to such a solution.
Several resolutions by the Security Council that read like wish lists followed, encouraging Morocco to come up with its own autonomy proposal as it had promised to do when it rejected the 2003 peace plan. Finally, in April 2007, Morocco presented to the UN a proposal that placed Western Sahara within the framework of the “Kingdom’s sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity.” Although the Security Council was not quite prepared to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, it characterized the Moroccan proposal as “serious and credible” in its resolution, despite strong private misgivings about it among France, Germany, the United States, and the UK, as later revealed by Wikileaks.
The resolution called for negotiations without preconditions, with a view toward achieving a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. That set the stage for a slew of meetings where the parties have met, exchanged views, and politely agreed to meet again. That resolution and subsequent ones have set the path for stalemate.
Morocco continues with its strategy of short-sighted inflexibility. It has expanded its lobbying efforts within the U.S. Congress and news outlets in the United States, where individuals without a real grasp of the conflict present simplistic views on how the conflict could be resolved by adopting the Moroccan proposal. Outright support from France and subtle support from the United States is assured no matter what.
Polisario, which presented its own proposal to the UN based on the UN peace plan, continues in its wishful thinking. It equates rhetorical support from states like Algeria and international civil society with meaningful action to help resolve the conflict.
What Needs To Be done
In Morocco and in Western Sahara, dangerous inertia reigns.
Morocco’s powerful friends must insist that it adopt the necessary legislation and start bringing about the changes promised by its new constitution. Past performance by previous parliaments suggests that that it is not a foregone conclusion that the current one will make good use of the new constitution’s potential to bring about real change on its own.
Demonstrations and violence since the elections illustrate the continuing disappointment and despair among the young and disaffected. Yet Moroccan authorities continue to ignore the signs of discontent and growing unrest, both domestically and in Western Sahara. Having weathered the crisis by drafting a new constitution and holding “different” elections praised by its allies, Morocco has developed a false sense of security. The frustration within Morocco and a recent spate of disturbances in Western Sahara speak to the frustration of young Saharans and Moroccans with economic and social conditions.
Those with real power in Morocco who are still resisting the idea of real reform need to change course to address the population’s grievances. They need to be disabused of the belief that cosmetic changes and repression will bring the desired results, because time is running out.
Morocco should stop claiming that it will provide autonomy to Western Sahara within its own sovereignty and territorial integrity. This language may be acceptable domestically, but it ruins internationally any chance of resolving the conflict. Even the best and highest paid lobbyists in the world cannot persuade the U.S. and French governments to violate international norms and recognize such non-existent sovereignty.
Morocco proposes to govern the autonomous territory in a truly democratic manner, while refusing, with France’s unfailing support, to even consider accepting a UN-administered human rights mechanism to monitor the situation within the territory. Both claim correctly that such a task is not included in MINURSO’s mandate. When MINURSO was set up in 1991, this task could not have been foreseen since it was assumed that the referendum would be held within a year. However, MINURSO and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have been carrying out confidence-building measures outside their mandates, which Morocco resisted at first. There is no reason, other than Morocco’s refusal to agree, why human rights monitoring by the UN cannot be undertaken on both sides.
By ignoring the link between autonomy arrangements and democracies, the Moroccan authorities disregard the fact that an authoritarian regime like their own cannot be trusted to practice true democracy in Western Sahara. True autonomy can only exist within a democratic system. Morocco should be advised and encouraged by its powerful friends to start implementing real democracy internally and in Western Sahara. More flexibility and less disdain and sense of entitlement in its dealings with Polisario and Saharans could achieve more progress.
There are plenty of constitutional arrangements within democratic states that could be adapted to the Western Sahara situation. Rather than continuing with the current norm, the Security Council must press Morocco and Polisario to examine carefully their respective proposals, find points of convergence (there are several), and work out their differences in a way that an implementable arrangement emerges.
The latest crisis created by Morocco’s demanding the removal of current Personal Envoy Christopher Ross fits a pattern of such behavior by both sides. When Baker resigned because he could not do anything more to help the parties, the Moroccan foreign minister called it “a triumph of Moroccan diplomacy.” Polisario and Algeria demanded that then-Special Representative de Soto stop dealing with the political solution on grounds that his previous association with Secretary-General Pérez de Cuellar made him suspect of sympathy to Morocco. Similarly, they demanded the removal of Personal Envoy van Walsum because of bias in favor of Morocco.
A mediator who loses the confidence of one or both sides to a dispute is no longer effective and should resign or be removed. When Baker resigned, the secretary-general should have told the Security Council and the parties that another mediator would be appointed only after all concerned showed willingness to negotiate and make hard decisions. Instead, he reassured them that he would continue helping them, a pattern continued by Ban Ki-moon, without recognizing that appointing special envoys without conditions only supports the parties in their inflexibility.
The continuation ad infinitum of the current situation, which only seems to encourage violence in Morocco and Western Sahara, should be unacceptable for all concerned with stability and prosperity in North Africa. It is incumbent on Morocco’s allies, mainly the United States and France, to stop blindly supporting its every position in the mistaken belief that they are helping. Real help for Morocco should include demanding more, both in terms of its internal politics and its handling of the Western Sahara conflict.
Anna Theofilopoulou is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a former UN official who served as a member of the negotiating team of Personal Envoy James Baker. She covered the Western Sahara conflict from 1994 to 2006.