Sahara Conflict: Will Christopher Ross Succeed In His Mediation Role? – OpEd


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Western Sahara envoy Christopher Ross, spurned by Morocco in May, began a visit to the kingdom early on Saturday, the Moroccan foreign ministry said.

Details of the visit were not given, but it is part of “efforts to revive the process of finding a definitive, consensual political solution to the Western Sahara dispute,” the ministry said in a statement reported by Moroccan news agency MAP.

The United Nations announced this month that Ross would start a three-week visit to North Africa and Europe on Saturday to meet key players in the Western Sahara dispute, and try to reach a “mutually acceptable political solution.”

Western Sahara
Western Sahara

In the past, many other UN envoys including former US Secretary of State James Baker, deployed efforts in an attempt to find an acceptable solution to this 37 years old conflict but in vain. Mediation is an effective and useful way of dealing with intractable conflicts. This is not to suggest that every intractable conflict can be mediated. Many conflicts are just too intense, the parties too entrenched for any mediator to achieve very much. Some intractable conflicts like the Sahara issue, go on and on with little signs of abatement. They cease to become intractable only when there is a major systemic change. How then can we distinguish between conflicts that can be mediated and those that cannot?

When should mediators, in this case Christopher Cross, enter an intractable conflict, and how can they increase their chances of success?

Mediators can engage in an intractable conflict only after a thorough and complete analysis of the conflict, issues at stake, context and dynamics, parties’ grievances, etc. Intractable conflicts are complex and multi-layered. A mediation initiative is more likely to be successful if it is predicated on knowledge and understanding rather than on good intentions only. A good analysis and a thorough understanding of all aspects of the conflict are important prerequisites for successful mediation in intractable conflicts.

Mediation must take place at an optimal or ripe moment. Early mediation may be premature and late mediation may face too many obstacles. A ripe moment describes a phase in the life cycle of the conflict where the parties feel exhausted and hurt, or where they may not wish to countenance any further losses and are prepared to commit to a settlement, or at least believe one to be possible. In destructive and escalating conflicts, mediation can have any chance of success only if it can capture a particular moment when the adversaries, for a variety of reasons, appear most amenable to change. Timing of intervention in an intractable conflict is an issue of crucial importance, and one that must be properly assessed by any would be mediator.

Given the nature and complexity of intractable conflicts, successful mediation requires a co-ordinated approach between different aspects of intervention. Mediation here requires leverage and resources to nudge the parties toward a settlement, but also acute psychological understanding of the parties’ feelings and grievances. The kind of mediation we are talking about here is mediation that is embedded in various disciplinary frameworks, ranging from problem-solving workshops to more traditional diplomatic methods. No one aspect or form of behavior will suffice to turn an intractable conflict around. Diverse and complementary methods, an interdisciplinary focus, and a full range of intervention methods responding to the many concerns and fears of the adversaries, are required to achieve some accommodation between parties in an intractable conflict.

Mediating intractable conflicts require commitment, resources, persistence, and experience. Mediators of high rank or prestige are more likely to possess these attributes and thus are more likely to be successful in intractable conflicts. Such mediators have the capacity to appeal directly to the domestic constituency and build up support for some peace agreement. Influential, high ranking or prestigious mediators have more at stake, can marshal more resources, have better information, and can devote more time to an intractable conflict. Such mediators can work toward achieving some visible signs of progress in the short term, and identify steps that need to be taken to deal with the issues of a longer term peace objectives. Influential mediators can work better within the constraints of intractable conflicts, and more likely to elicit accommodative responses from the adversaries.

Mediation in intractable conflicts is more likely to be effective if there are no sections in each community committed to the continuation of violence. Such parties are usually described as spoilers. Many political analysts considered the Polisario as spoilers who seem to lose more from a peaceful outcome than from the continuation of tension. All these factors provide some guidance on when mediation might make a contribution to intractable conflicts, and when this will be extremely difficult. Surely other factors are present too, factors such as commitment to mediation and willingness to achieve a suitable outcome, desire to stop a cycle of tension, etc. These may be hard to identify and assess, but their presence or absence will surely affect the process and outcome of any mediation effort.


Mediation offers the possibility of a jointly acceptable outcome without giving in on one’s core values and beliefs. Under some conditions mediation can actually break through an intractable cycle of violence. The availability of suitable mediators may help to transform an intractable conflict and produce a sustained agreement. For this to happen certain conditions have to be present. In the Sahara conflict, Morocco has made a lot of concessions that has resulted lately in an autonomy proposal. However the Polisario and since the beginning of the conflict has refused to make ant concessions and has always opted for full independence as the only and last proposal. UN Special Envoy Christopher Cross should use all his diplomatic intelligence that he has gained all over his career to press the Polisario to adopt a more flexible position. If ever he is interested to make an exception to this whole process and achieve “some” positive outcome he should encourage the Polisario negotiators to alter their stubborn position.

When the circumstances are indeed propitious, few processes can do more to reduce intractability of a conflict than a well planned mediation. Mr. Ross should should be aware of these conditions and do his best to bring this intractable conflict to an end. Moroccans have done their part and proposed a credible autonomy proposal qualified by the American administration and France as serious and credible. The status quo works in favor of the Polisario leadership at the expense of those Sahrawi families forced to live in inhuman conditions in Tindouf. The question remains : Will Mr. Christopher succeed?

Said Temsamani

Said Temsamani is a Moroccan political observer and consultant, who follows events in his country and across North Africa. He is a member of Washington Press Club.

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