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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.3 (2004) 130-148

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"Seized of the Matter":

The UN and the Western Sahara Dispute

Since 1988, the United Nations has been actively involved in the Western Sahara dispute between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Western Saharan liberation movement known as the Frente POLISARIO. Over fifteen years later, there seems to be no end in sight for this seemingly intractable conflict. For the UN, the Western Sahara file is beginning to look less like East Timor and a lot more like Cyprus.

The UN originally set out to settle the dispute by holding a referendum for the population of the territory and spent the whole of the 1990s attempting to establish the electorate for the vote. In early 2000 the UN halted its Sisyphean referendum effort for a host of reasons cited by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in his February 2000 report on the matter. He emphasized that, of all the reasons put forward, the winner-take-all nature of the referendum (independence or integration) had generated an interminable political contest situated on the identities of prospective voters for the referendum. He called for a compromise solution to be brokered by former US secretary of state James Baker, Annan's personal envoy to the Western Sahara since 1997. Since early 2000, Baker has attempted to find a resolution based on a limited autonomy arrangement between Morocco and the POLISARIO. The basic idea is that the Western Sahara would retain nominal independent governmental authority within the Kingdom of Morocco.

By the end of 2003, Baker's efforts had produced minimal results, primarily because both of the schemes put forward contained provisions for a [End Page 130] final status independence-or-integration referendum following a brief period of autonomy of four to five years. The difference between the referendum in Baker's two proposals and the one that the UN abandoned in early 2000 is that Baker's would allow Moroccan settlers in the Western Sahara—not just indigenous Western Saharans—to vote on the final status of the Western Sahara.

In this essay I argue that the UN has failed to put an end to the dispute because it has continued to seek a winner-take-all solution rather than a true compromise solution. In the construction of this argument, I will track some of the events leading up to and including Baker's recent initiatives. I will then examine the structure of the recent proposals and the antagonists' reactions to the proposals and finally will attempt to explain why the UN has pursued this unfruitful tack.

The Failed Referendum

In late October 1975, King Hassan of Morocco ordered an invasion of the Spanish colony of the Western Sahara. By 14 November Spain, under pressure from the United States, handed over the Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, the northern two-thirds going to the former. The Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro (Frente POLISARIO), having been formed in 1973 to fight Spanish colonialism, turned its guer-rilla war against the new occupying powers, while also escorting a sizable percentage of the resident indigenous population into exile in Algeria (near Tindouf). By 1979 the POLISARIO, strongly backed by Algeria both diplomatically and militarily, had driven Mauritania out of the war but still faced stiff opposition from Morocco's ground and air forces, heavily trained and equipped by France and the United States and well subsidized by Saudi Arabia. By the mid-1980s, a military stalemate had been attained, and both sides warmed up to then UN secretary-general Pérez de Cuéllar's newfound interest in settling the dispute.

By 1990, Pérez de Cuéllar had convinced the Security Council that both sides had agreed "in principle" to a settlement proposal based on a plan that the Organization for African Unity (OAU) had been hammering out since 1979. The plan prescribed a solution whereby a self-determination referendum [End Page 131] for indigenous Western Saharans would follow a military cease-fire...


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