- Saharan Conflict: Towards Territorial Autonomy as a Right to Democratic Self-Determination
The author, a noted Moroccan scholar, offers a robust legal and diplomatic account of the origins, history, and intricacy of the Western Saharan conflict from a Moroccan perspective, which is most informative on the colonial period, together with a thought-provoking discussion of the concept of autonomy in the post-modern context.
El Ouali reiterates the well-known Moroccan position that the Western Sahara is a bilateral legal issue pertaining to international law and not a matter of decolonization that implies a right to self-determination. He frames the dispute over the Western Sahara as a contest between particular religious and political entitlements, on the one hand, and territory-based, Westphalian sovereignty, on the other. El Ouali recalls that, although Morocco had provided, at times, tactical support for self-determination in the Western Sahara, its “traditionalist” views over sovereignty based on religious and allegiance links failed to be recognized against Eurocentric territory-based state power. The gist of this study relates to the failure of self-determination in general and for the Western Sahara in particular, as understood by the United Nations (UN), and to the ensuing emergence of autonomy as a new paradigm in international relations.
Recasting self-determination as a right to democratic governance, the author argues in favor of autonomy as a successor concept where self-determination has led to artificial and failed states. Autonomy is superior to self-determination in terms of democratic entitlements, and notwithstanding its poor record in settling conflicts, is most effective when democracy functions well and regional integration and acceptance takes root. The modern state has outlived its reliance on self-determination; its survival now depends on granting autonomy as a means to share sovereignty and stave off deleterious ethnic conflicts. In the Magrhib context, the Western Sahara conflict has prevented the transition from self-determination to a territorial autonomy regime.
Yet this reviewer remains unconvinced of the legitimacy and practicality of an autonomy concept reframed as minority rights — except for the benefit of securing an international and legal foundation that autonomy critically lacks — just as the “advanced” status of Morocco’s current autonomy plan [End Page 150] for Western Sahara is still to be demonstrated. In particular, regional as well as politically binding instruments such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) documents may not be the best support for vetting Morocco’s latest autonomy proposal. Furthermore, the Western Sahara dispute appears to be more the symptom than the cause of an aborted process that should have led to regionalization and decentralization, including autonomy, in the North African states. Instead, nascent and clashing nationalisms have rendered a Maghrib-wide democratization and decentralization evolution at least premature, if not unattainable, thus making the case of autonomy for the Western Sahara an exception rather than a trendsetter.
Therefore, a further discussion of, for example, the novel model of shared sovereignty and prospective international guarantees for any future autonomy-based settlement of the Western Sahara conflict would have enriched our understanding of what may lay ahead in the ongoing UN-mediated negotiations between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front.
Jacques Roussellier, Adjunct Scholar, the Middle East Institute