The recent decision by the Obama administration to invite Israel and the Palestinian Authority to engage in serious negotiations over the Middle East conflict should be instructive for those interested in resolving one that seems almost as intractable — the Western Sahara dispute.
Key to this new effort in the Middle East conflict is (1) the U.S. is sponsoring and supporting the talks; (2) the U.S. has demanded that the two negotiate seriously, tackle the difficult subjects that have trounced previous attempts for resolution; and (3) the U.S. has given the two sides a one-year deadline.
Though the fate of the Israel-Palestinian talks still hangs on a knife’s edge, a similar attitude on the part of United States towards the Western Sahara dispute might pave the way to a durable solution to one of Africa’s oldest conflicts.
Although there are many differences between the two conflicts, which the protagonists on both sides hasten to point out, there are also several undeniable parallels. They are both about the annexation of a geographical area by another state resulting in a group of people either coming under occupation or becoming homeless. In both cases the participants pay lip service to the result that the international community would like to see but with their actions boycott such outcome. Both conflicts have resulted in thousands of refugees living in camps or in exile for over two generations. In both cases the key parties are unequal in power, on the one side a powerful Western-backed state and on the other a former liberation organization with influential allies. In both cases, the U.S. has been a strong, steady and undeniable supporter of the occupying state while paying lip service to the rights of the dispossessed nation.
Morocco, who took control of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara in 1975, precipitated a war with the Sahrawi nationalist front Polisario, which has been backed by Algeria and the African Union. Morocco, with strong support from France and the Regan administration, was able to occupy most of Western Sahara by the time the U.N. Security Council got involved in 1988.
Another important parallel between Western Sahara and the Middle East conflict is that both peace processes made important strides when the Carter, Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations maintained an active interest in seeking a resolution and pressured both sides to make compromises. Conversely, both conflicts drastically deteriorated under the George W. Bush administration, who not only adopted an increasingly passive attitude but also an unabashedly partisan one towards Morocco and Israel in his second term.
Recently getting things back on track, the Obama administration told the Middle East protagonists that the path to Israeli security and Palestinian statehood is through negotiations. The parties to the Western Sahara conflict should be told that only through negotiations will Morocco and Polisario be able to mutually define the meaning of sovereignty and self-determination. These negotiations should be based upon the exchange of views and compromise, not dictating outcomes.
An important aspect of a more aggressive initiative in Western Sahara will be the coordination of the Security Council. China and Russia have tended to let the United States do the heavy lifting with some neutral support from Britain. France, on the other hand, maintains an unambiguously pro-Moroccan position on the issue and Spain, the former colonial power in Western Sahara, vacillates between the parties depending on which party holds power.
A serious initiative in Western Sahara means that it will be imperative that the Group of Friends for Western Sahara — United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia and Spain — first agree that there will be no daylight between them regarding the framework for negotiations based upon previous U.N. Security Council resolutions (i.e., a negotiated political solution that provides for self-determination). Indeed, if there is any need for pre-negotiations in Western Sahara, it is amongst those Western states claiming the most interest in the issue.
At the beginning, Western Sahara does not need high-level intervention from the White House or the State Department. Luckily for the United States, they have the next best thing: the current U.N. envoy to Western Sahara is former U.S. diplomat Christopher Ross, who brings with him the neutrality of the U.N. Secretariat and the ear of Washington. For now, all that is needed to jumpstart the peace process in Western Sahara is for Presidents Obama and Sarkozy to let the parties know behind the scenes that they must engage in serious negotiations, listen to each other and get involved in a meaningful give and take. Then a joint communiqué from the U.S., France and Spain should follow that clearly lays out the terms of reference for the talks, establishes a one-year deadline for an agreement and commits the Security Council to a withdrawal from Western Sahara if no agreement is reached. Indeed, the U.S. should leverage its veto over the U.N. mission in Western Sahara, which France backs for Morocco and Spain backs for its historical guilt, to get Paris and Madrid on board.
In Western Sahara, unfortunately, the motivation for spending the political capital necessary for peace is far less compelling than in Israel and Palestine. Since the 1991 ceasefire, most of the violence in Western Sahara has either come in the form of Morocco’s often-brutal repression of dissident Sahrawis or the structural violence of thousands of Western Saharan refugees living in harsh exile in camps in Tindouf, Algeria. Apart from renewed Polisario threats to return to arms if its national rights are not recognized, the situation is not one that seems to threaten regional stability or U.S. interests. Indeed, Morocco’s 100,000 strong military occupation of Western Sahara makes it one of the most secure areas in a region increasingly seen as infested with an Al-Qaida franchise. When compared to the suffering and instability wrought by the Israel-Palestinian conflict on daily basis, it is no wonder that Western Sahara has earned low prioritization.
Nonetheless the Sahrawi refugees must come out of 35 years of exile in the camps to live a regular life in Western Sahara. Morocco needs to address its own domestic socio-economic issues and stop pouring resources of unknown size into a territory that it can only keep calm and quiet through repression. Further, regional economic integration and security cooperation on terrorism in Northwest Africa needs to come out of the deep freeze engendered by the enmity between Rabat and Algiers over Western Sahara.
As in the Middle East, there are no guarantees that the status quo is sustainable in Western Sahara (indeed, U.S. Special Envoy Ross has recently noted the explicit non-sustainability of the status quo). It is now clear that leaving the parties to their own devices in the Middle East has only served to undermine the conditions for a viable two state solution. Similarly, the chances for a peaceful, stable and long-term resolution for Western Sahara will only diminish as the Security Council allows Morocco and Polisario to wage war-by-other-means without respite.
Often one hears in Washington that the parties must first show the political will necessary to solve the issue. Only then will the U.S. back an aggressive peace initiative in Western Sahara. The problem with this argument is that it leaves the parties in the driver’s seat. Anybody who understands the conflict should know that this will never happen. As long as either Morocco or Polisario can veto the peace-process, whether directly or through their respective proxies, the Security Council will be held hostage to a deteriorating situation.
Anna Theofilopoulou covered Western Sahara and North Africa in the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations from 1994 to 2006. She worked closely with former U.S. Secretary of State, James A. Baker, III throughout his appointment as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara.
Jacob Mundy holds a PhD from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He is coauthor of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press). Find more information about the book at wsahara.stephenzunes.org.