Sahrawis Need Bargaining Power

by Abdelmajid

Manhasset rounds of talks between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front have produced little progress as to the peaceful resolution of the conflict of Western Sahara. New changes and positions emanating from the UN mediation and from the influential powers could create new hope. The ¨small talks¨ be held between a limited number of negotiators in a kept secret location in Vienna have replace the well publicized meetings of Manhassets, New York. But little has occurred in the positions of the parties first concerned. Should we expect a magic touch that will bring Morocco to respect the will of the international community? Or should we read carefully progress as it occur. Yes, I am also from Misouri.

The appointment of Christopher Ross, as the new UN Envoy for Western Sahara, coincided with the inauguration of the Obama Administration. All over the world, peoples have their eyes fixed on any signals from Washington, which can make a dramatic change in their lives. The people of Western Sahara welcomed the change in Washington, for the Bush Administration was too obsessed by its ¨anti-terrorist” fight. In its last two terms, the Bush Administration stopped only short from recognizing Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. It has encouraged Morocco to invent its miraculous solution of autonomy as a substitute to the carrying out of International Law, under UN supervision in Western Sahara. Washington threatened several times the Sahrawis against any resumption of hostilities in the face of Moroccan intransigent attitude. The appointment of Christopher Ross, an Arabist, familiar with the conflict, and the coming into office of an African-American to the White House news that could create a new momentum for a peaceful solution to the conflict. A hand off attitude from Obama is not enough in this conflict that has plagued the region for so long, created unnecessary suffering for the people and paralyzed the function of the Maghreb union for sometimes, delayed many development opportunities of the people of the Maghreb.
Last month, following a second visit to the region by Christopher Ross, UN Envoy for Western Sahara, the Sahrawis and their allies questioned what the mediator achieved since his last visit, and what are his plans and his strategy to move forward? During his public appearances in the capitals of the Maghreb, Ross talked about the need to resolve “the fundamental issue” and to seek ways to proceed forward. He also referred to self-determination for the Sahrawi people, as well as to relevant Security Council resolutions. During his first visit, there were noticeable gaps in his diplomatic itinerary: Ross stopped short of visiting Addis Ababa and Nouakchott. In regards to the Mauritanian capital, he left it out of his schedule due to the absence of an interlocutor.
After an eclipse of three long months, he reappeared on June 24, in the Algerian capital, the first stop during his second visit to the region. He assured everyone that his mission is on the “right track”, reaffirming his determination to continue searching for a solution to the "big conflict”. This time, Ross chose to meet the Secretary General of the Union of the Maghreb Arab in Rabat, certainly at the initiative of Morocco. This ill advised reunion complicates rather than clarify the invisible dimension of this decolonization conflict. Evading the African Union, an early partner in the UN peace process and including the inactive UMA is a penchant towards Moroccan diplomacy.
What is next in the negotiations? Is the new Envoy -- an insider to the political establishment in Washington - backed by the Obama Administration? This is a simple but unanswered question, for it can hold the key to his success or failure.
In its previous sponsorship and performance during the negotiations, the UN pressured only the Sahrawi party to change its stand: to be more “flexible” and “realistic” and to make the concessions considered necessary for the negotiations to go forward. Even though the mediator does not get his direct instructions from Washington, the peace process in Western Sahara, especially since Baker’s mediation, has been swayed by the direction of the winds that blow from the American capital.
This leads to questions pertaining to the Sahrawi stance: Are the Sahrawis going to place their trust fully and maybe last hope for peace in Christopher Ross, as they did with James A. Baker? Are they going to adopt a wait-and-see attitude hoping that Ross will be able to convince Morocco to adjust its stance? Or, will they hope for a dramatic change of mind in Washington in their favor, because an African- American president may be more empathetic to their cause?
It is clear that the Moroccan-Sahrawi conflict has not been on Barak Obama's top priority list. This was not the case with the former Bush administration, which handled the issue through the aggressive hand of Eliott Abrams , who was Senior Director of the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs, and later promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor. Abrams gave firm instructions to the UN, disregarded James Baker´s call for Washington’s support, and directed policies through the unsuccessful mediator Van Walsum.
Obama does not seem to be in a hurry to reveal his State Department’s stance on the issue. The recent nomination of Samuel Kaplan, who is an active AIPAC member and a “lawyer with no diplomatic experience”, as US ambassador to Morocco, plays in the hands of Morocco. The new context, allowed the regime in Rabat to use its Middle East card – as it has always done - to promote its own agenda.
However, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that the ultimate goal for all US administrations remains to serve American interests in this volatile North African region. Historically, Washington’s policy oscillated between open military and diplomatic support for Morocco’s “stability”, and the need to promote other US priorities. During G.W. Bush’s administration, the aim was to “fight terrorism” and advance American economic ventures in the oil rich countries. In this context, there are two possible policy approaches or scenarios that the Obama Administration might adopt in regards to the Moroccan-Sahrawi conflict.
The first is that there could be a slight shift in the American stance away from a too close alliance with Morocco, which is stubbornly and aggressively mobilizing around its “autonomy” solutions. This implies a public support for the new mediator and a more sensitive stand as to the plights of the Sahrawi people.
The second scenario is a low profile, with no real change in the policy or major adjustment in the US policy towards Morocco as far as Western Sahara is concerned. People who subscribe to this view consider Washington’s policy on long-standing issues such as the case of Western Sahara, as unchanging and a continuation of policies adopted by previous administrations.
In other words, they believe in a pragmatic Obama who will disengage from previous Administration positions but will pay little attention to the question of decolonization in Western Sahara, or to the plight of the Sahrawi refugees in the desert, and will not recognize or see the political merit in the Sahrawi non-violent resistance in the occupied territories. Obama, according to this view, will not consider any initiative on this matter, while Morocco will count on its friends in the Middle East to ensure that no such positive initiative sees the light of day. This was the case with former US administrations, which only sporadically showed interest in the UN-sponsored peace proposals and Resolutions regarding the Sahrawi conflict, sometimes very late in their last year in office.
Conflicting interests and pressures can generate a middle ground, often assumed by the Sahrawi negotiators. The Sahrawis base their policy on the hope that the US administration might become an honest broker, thereby facilitating Moroccan-Sahrawi negotiations without taking a stand and without siding with one party against the other.
In such a scenario, the difficulties facing the new mediator unambiguously lie with the official Moroccan stance. Putting aside the French and Spanish enthusiasm for the Moroccan proposal, and assuming the Obama administration opts for a neutral position, means that negotiations will unfold according to the balance of power between the negotiating parties.
Here one may ask: What cards do the Sahrawis and their supporters hold that can tip the scales in their favor?
Since 1975, Morocco has been occupying two-thirds of Western Sahara by sheer force and arming itself to the teeth in order to ensure its military superiority. During the last few months, the situation on the military front has been escalating. The cease-fire is precarious and has been threatened by Morocco’s repressive administration. While denying the people of Western Sahara their basic right to self-determination, Morocco is holding the UN mission in the territory hostage in an endless and expensive game, namely by delaying the holding of a free and fair referendum.
The territory of Western Sahara and its population are kept at bay and besieged by a Moroccan blockage. No media representatives or foreigners are allowed to visit, unless escorted by government officials. The regime in Rabat keeps the population under its tight control and suppresses any opposition or serious challenge to its authority. The peaceful Sahrawi resistance in the occupied territories is repressed through coercive means, including the use of the military which camp in every street to deter any protest or demonstration. Peaceful demonstrators are crushed, and activists thrown in jail, with no consideration for their legal rights. Furthermore, the Sahrawi population is divided by a long and formidable wall built by Morocco in the eighties. The wall, guarded by thousands of Moroccan soldiers, intensifies the suffering of the Sahrawi people by tearing families and communities apart. It also depletes the UNHCR’s meager resources, used to arrange for family visits, which requires transporting people across the prohibitive wall.
Since 1991, the failure of the UN to carry out its peace plan has created an abnormal situation on the ground. The UN is kept silent and stands impotent, even while human rights violations are being committed at its door steps. The various peace plans that were generated in this longest peace process have deepened the frustration of the Sahrawis; their situation remains grim.
In accepting the Baker Plan II, the Sahrawi negotiators acquiesced to Morocco’s request to temporarily administer the territory, but did not recognize any legal and permanent rights to the territory. However, the substitution of the UN Settlement Plan with the Baker Plan, which was accepted by the Sahrawis and rejected by Morocco, has certainly weakened the Sahrawi negotiating position and restricted their ability to maneuver in subsequent negotiations. The Sahrawis were further restrained by major concessions they made to put aside, even temporarily, armed struggle as a means to resist occupation, and perhaps more detrimental to de facto de-link the cease-fire from the political solution.
Currently, the Sahrawis do not have the negotiating leverage to counter Morocco’s maximalist position. Meanwhile, Morocco’s friends are attempting to put an end to all forms of armed resistance against the Moroccan occupation, and are concurrently pressuring Sahrawi allies and supporters to normalize their relations with Rabat.
The new mediator’s strategy to the negotiations is to ensure they creep like a snail. This approach could further decrease the visibility of the Western Sahara conflict and reduce international pressure on the parties. It will encourage Morocco’s defiant attitude, mainly to impose conditions, while the Polisario will be required to offer new concessions.
In any case, if the negotiations continue with no progress in sight, the lapse of time and political inertia will further weaken the Sahrawi bargaining position. Further vulnerability in the Polisario position will set the stage to an unexpected return to war.
Negotiations for a peace settlement could commence seriously only when Morocco recognizes that its autonomy plan is obsolete. Furthermore, cooperation with the UN should be contingent on a comprehensive road map which provides for the self-determination of the Sahrawi people. In this case, self-determination must mean full conformity with UN Resolutions and international legal principles and standards and not as Morocco wishes it to mean or to be defined.
In the next round of negotiations, Christopher Ross must not lose time and credibility, and he should avoid obfuscating the issues, or eclipsing his mandate by seeking to “reinstate confidence” between the parties through never-ending so-called informal and non-binding talks. Such an approach will entrench the schisms and differences between the parties. More importantly, private consultations with each party separately, as Ross proposes, will diminish international pressure on them to cooperate, and will produce false impressions, especially since they are focused on resolving unsubstantial issues.
In this context, the Polisario Front must concentrate its efforts on urgent objectives: it must demand a freeze on all colonial policies and activities Morocco is pursuing in the territory, including an end to political repression of Sahrawi peaceful forms of resistance and to the plundering of Sahrawi national resources. The Polisario must remind and urge the United Nations to comply with its central responsibility, namely to provide protection to the Sahrawi people. It must demand of the UN to play a more active role in improving the social and humanitarian situation in the territory, while pursuing more vigorous negotiations in order to implement its own Resolutions that call for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination.
The Sahrawis face precarious conditions and a watershed in their history. Consequently, they are required to re-evaluate their bargaining cards and potential in regards to the negotiations and their strategies of resistance.
The Sahrawi demands are legitimate. The protection of the civilian population in the territories should not be subject to progress at the negotiating table. This objective is critical and must be pursued within a given time frame by the mediator.
The success of the Sahrawi-Moroccan talks cannot and should not be measured by “confidence-building” indicators; rather by concrete improvements on the ground. The outcome of such negotiations must be felt by the Sahrawi population in their daily confrontation with the occupier. Christopher Ross early optimism about holding new talks is a misplaced note.
During the last eighteen years, the Sahrawi population seems to have lost confidence in the UN-sponsored negotiations. Christopher Ross’s first six months have done very little to change that.
25.06.09, received 11.07.09
This text expresses the opinion of the author and not of the moderators of the forum.