Responses to: Solving the Western Sahara — What Now Remains

I applaud Mr. Gabriel’s desire to reach a solution to the conflict over Western Sahara, which is urgently necessary to stop the suffering of the Saharawi people, who are either treated as second-class citizens without freedom of speech and freedom of movement in an occupied territory, or living impoverished lives in refugee camps far away from their homeland. I also agree that a definite resolution of the conflict will remove one of the greatest obstacles to promoting greater stability, economic prosperity and cooperation in the Maghreb region, and that because of this the United States should play a more active role.

Where I disagree is with Mr. Gabriel’s attempt to portray the Polisario as the obstacle to peace.  Whether or not Morocco would ever be forced to give up its illegal occupation of Western Sahara is a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that no country in the world recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Not the United States, and not France, supposedly Morocco’s biggest ally. In fact, the African Union has even granted full membership to the government in exile of Western Sahara, thereby recognizing Western Sahara as an independent African state.

It is also completely disingenuous to present Morocco’s proposal for limited autonomy as a magnanimous compromise, when it is no such thing. Far from compromising, Morocco persists in pursuing its original aim ― the complete annexation of Western Sahara. If Morocco’s proposal was such a compromise, the UN Security Council would surely have endorsed it unreservedly and called on the parties to implement it. But the Council did not, because Morocco’s proposal is completely inconsistent with the “basic criteria for self-determination” that even Mr. Gabriel acknowledges must be taken into account. Having people participate in a “referendum” where they are asked simply to confirm their approval of a single choice is akin to holding an election in North Korea and calling it genuine. I note in passing that it is ironic that Mr. Gabriel, who as a former US Ambassador must surely have been instructed to extol the virtues of freedom and democracy, should now expend so much energy opposing a free and fair vote in Western Sahara. Those who are most afraid of allowing free votes are those who don’t want to accept the outcome they know will emerge, and it is they who are usually the biggest enemies of peace and democracy. The organization of a free vote in which the Sahrawi people are given a genuine choice is not a “winner take all” solution ― just the opposite. 

Let us remember that Western Sahara was designated by the United Nations in 1963 as a Non Self Governing Territory which under international law is required to undergo a process of de-colonization. Morocco subverted that process for its own aims, and we are still living with the consequences of that today. But the Saharawi population’s right to self-determination is undiminished. This is not my judgment ― the right to self-determination lies at the core of international human rights law, so fundamental in fact that it is referenced in article 1 of the human rights covenants. Mr. Gabriel’s casual attempt to denigrate the importance of this right by placing it in quotation marks does not change its inalienability. The pursuit of self-determination is what led many nations in the world to their independence, including the United States. It is this key principle that still informs the mandate of the UN Mission in Western Sahara, which is given renewed legitimacy by the Security Council every year. One of the primary functions of the UN Mission is to organize the conduct of a referendum of the Saharawi people to enable them to freely choose their own future. Despite its presence in Western Sahara for over twenty years this has still not happened.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Gabriel chooses to ignore these facts and instead presents the current Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara as an “absolute reality.” It would be helpful to remember that the International Court of Justice ruling in 1975 clearly established that Morocco had no ties of territorial sovereignty to Western Sahara. Attempts to ignore this and instead support measures to formalize an unlawful Moroccan occupation would not only constitute a deeply damaging and destabilizing precedent in international law, but also have knock-on effects in other conflict situations. Basing a solution entirely on so-called “political reality” or facts on the ground, without reference to accepted international law is not only deeply cynical, but also completely impractical. One only has to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to see this.

Instead, sincere and renewed efforts must be made to reach a solution that is compatible with the fundamental precepts of international law and the previous agreements between the parties, not least the 1991 Settlement Plan agreed between Morocco and Polisario. The only fair middle-ground to this conflict is therefore to organize a free vote of the Saharawi people, which includes as options the Moroccan proposal for limited autonomy as well as the possibility of establishing a free and independent state of West Sahara. Such an approach would recognize the Moroccan initiative as a possible solution to the conflict, while not ruling out the existence of other proposals, which could more accurately reflect the wishes of the people who lie at the heart of this dispute. Moroccan intransigence should not be allowed to obstruct the peace process and prevent the Saharawi people from exercising their fundamental right to self-determination.

-Carne Ross


Ambassador Gabriel’s discussion of the about the impasse on the Western Sahara question within the Security Council that has prevailed almost since the origin contribution is both candid and realistic. For almost 40 years, a number of UN secretary generals, personal envoys, special representatives, and under-secretary generals from the department of peace-keeping operations or political affairs, have been in charge of this dossier, but have been unable to break the deadlock. The impasse has had regrettable consequences for the people, who remain in refugee camps. It has also had a negative impact on the development of the Maghreb region as well as on the long-term stability of the countries concerned.

Even if I believe Carne Ross to be motivated not only by his links with the Polisario Front but also by his genuine ethical approach of diplomacy, I concur with Ambassador Gabriel that any solution which reverts to inapplicable documents or failed recipes would impede progress. There are those who benefit from the status quo — whose power and advantages are preserved by the lack of an electoral process or democratic accountability. In this context, the then immovable Minister of Interior of Morocco, Driss Basri, knew that the status quo was an effective way to maintain his grip and influence in the country.

Martin Indyk, former US Assistant Secretary of State, in an interview with the Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdomadaire acknowledged, in September 2009, that King Hassan II was convinced of the necessity of embracing the notion of autonomy for Western Sahara. As I wrote in my May 21 essay, I personally came to this same conclusion, though I know that there were strong opponents to such a move in both camps. It seems to me that US Secretary of State James Baker shared this feeling in 2000 adding nevertheless that some form of referendum should conclude the process leading to autonomy so as to preserve a link with the original plan.

Members of the UN Security Council, while playing their traditional part in what looks like a theatrical performance, never showed any appetite for change or readiness to turn the table back in order to impose a deadline as well as conditions for a self-determination referendum. Carne Ross appears to be helpless as it is a stillborn proposal due to the fierce opposition of France and the United States to any approach that could potentially undermine the stability of Morocco or risk compromising their relations with Algeria. Furthermore, with the passivity of the large majority of the Security Council, no other country is ready to counter this policy as almost all of them, openly or secretly, have for long shared this prudent policy. The most evident demonstration is that nothing has happened since I left the UN Headquarters on September 30, 2000.

Would it be wise to re-ignite a debate on this question after 35 years of procrastination in the Security Council? Would it make sense to provoke tensions within the African Union or even risk further instability in the sub-Saharan and Sahel region, which has seen Islamist extremists seize control of northern Mali?

Is it constructive to refuse any other avenue than the only one that has irremediably demonstrated its inanity since the origin? Is it opportune to reject any discussion or dialog, while seeing despair in the Sahrawi refugee camps and knowing that it would last for years or decades to come? These are the real questions to consider and issues to solve.

Ambassador Gabriel’s suggestion to press the US Government to discuss afresh this matter with Algeria and Morocco is useful in light of the risks of destabilizing the sub-region. As the new French administration is also willing to have a balanced and positive relationship with both Rabat and Algiers, Paris and Washington could combine efforts to impress on Algeria ― whose influence remains critical in this process ― the need to move forward on the Western Sahara issue as well as to convince Rabat of the merits of a genuine dialog on the relevance and content of autonomy.

-Bernard Miyet

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