Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Western Sahara Endgame

As is obvious to anyone who keeps up on the rather limited written material available on the Western Sahara, the name of this blog derives from the title of Toby Shelley’s excellent recent book, Endgame in the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara’s post-colonial history seems to be fitting neatly into three broad stages: 1) the war years 1975-1991 from the Moroccan invasion until the cease-fire when little or no negotiating took place between the parties and they fought themselves to a draw; 2) the referendum years 1991-2003 from the first attempts to compile a voting list under the cease-fire agreement through the Houston Accords to the resignation of James Baker and Morocco’s rejection of the Baker II Plan; 3) and starting in 2003 the endgame.

The challenge of the endgame is to find a way out of this mess without resorting to war and without negotiation between the two parties. I say “without resorting to war” because the Polisario is all too aware that a return to arms would be useless and suicidal -- that their ability to prevail against vastly superior Moroccan numbers and resources is non-existent. And because a return to arms could very easily escalate into a fratricidal war between Morocco and Algeria, the world community would pull out all the stops to keep violence in check. I say “without negotiation” because the Polisario, by accepting the Baker II Plan that would result in a referendum heavily slanted in Morocco’s favor, has given just about all that they can give short of giving up the struggle; and Morocco, by rejecting the Plan, was forced to admit that they had no intention of ever allowing a referendum under any circumstances. With the death of Baker II there is no longer anything left to negotiate.

The new endgame paradigm involves strategic shifts on all fronts. For the Western Saharans we have seen a dramatic shift of the axis of their struggle from Tindouf to the occupied territories where demonstrations have been taking place with increasing regularity. Predictably Morocco has responded with more troops and increased repression. On the Moroccan front, Rabat has greatly ratcheted-up the public relations war with a world-wide propaganda and misinformation campaign to discredit and demonize the Polisario. Another notable aspect of Morocco’s endgame is the King’s first serious mention of autonomy for the Western Sahara as a possible solution. Predictably the Polisario immediately and vehemently rejected this overture.

Internationally, the UN has once again extended MINURSO, this time for six months until the end of April 2006. And the Security Council has once again signed on to a referendum plan, this time Baker II. Ironically, the UN’s endorsement of Baker II probably signals the end of the UN’s primacy in the conflict resolution process. It has been a long road for the UN from the original designation of the Spanish Sahara as a non-self-governing territory in the 60’s to their call for a referendum in the 70’s to their facilitation of the first negotiations between the parties in the 80’s to the Cease-fire Agreement and Houston Accords in the 90’s to the Baker II Plan in the 00’s. To the UN’s credit they have for over forty years stuck to their guns in insisting that this is purely a de-colonization issue and that the Western Sahara has the right to self-determination and a referendum. Any further retreat by the UN from Baker II would inevitably involve a rejection of self-determination for the Western Saharans, and I see no indications that the UN would take this drastic and ignominious step. All told, the consistent refusal of two members of the Security Council, France and the United States, to pressure Morocco to abide by UN resolutions has resulted in a greatly reduced role for the UN in the endgame.

Thus, for the world community, the endgame will be played out not in New York, but in Washington, Paris, Madrid, and the other capitals that have a stake or interest in the issue. The elevation of John Bolton to be US Representative to the UN (at least for the moment) is an impoortant move in the endgame. As Baker’s assistant in the Western Saharan negotiations, Bolton is by far the most knowledgeable member of the Bush administration on the issue, and he is on record as supporting a referendum. The fact that he is a rabid unilateralist and an anti-UN zealot reinforces my contention that Bolton will try to solve the issue from Washington not New York. Whether he can overcome the very strong American friendship with Morocco is of course the big question. Recognition of the SADR by South Africa and Kenya have been major recent successes for the Polisario. But outside of Africa, the SADR still doesn’t have the big country support necessary to turn the screws on Morocco.

To read much of the Moroccan and pro-Moroccan material on the Western Sahara issue is to understand the often-repeated dictum that if you repeat lies often enough people start believing them. The prime example of this is Morocco’s position on the ruling of the International Court of Justice in 1975. Despite the fact that the Court unambiguously concluded that it did ”not support Morocco’s claim to have exercised territorial sovereignty over Western Sahara,” Morocco from almost the moment the ruling came out has insisted that the ICJ ruled in its favor and thus supported their invasion and hegemony. Morocco has been spreading this lie for over thirty years now, and it is with much dismay that I read a lengthy report on the Polisario Front dated November 2005 and written by a serious-sounding group called the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center that sure enough justifies Moroccan sovereignty by citing the ICJ ruling.

Now that the endgame is upon us it is more important than ever to make sure that Morocco’s sleazy misinformation campaign does not go unanswered. Western Sahara Endgame is my small contribution to this effort.

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