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WESTERN SAHARA: United Nations May Abandon Referendum

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 18 1995 (IPS) - The United Nations may be ordered by the Security Council to abandon a long-delayed referendum in Western Sahara if it cannot achieve progress in that region, U.N. diplomats tell IPS.

If the referendum is abandoned, some diplomats say, the chances of resolving the 20-year dispute between Morocco and the pro- independence Polisario Front may drop sharply.

Frank Ruddy, a U.S. diplomat who left his post last year as the chief U.N. official in charge of voter identification in Western Sahara, argued that the U.N.’s failure to organise a referendum would amount to an embarrassing flop.

“If there’s anything that the United Nations is supposed to be able to do, it is to hold a simple referendum,” Ruddy said. “This isn’t Bosnia or Somalia — this is conducting a vote among maybe 100,000 or so people.”

Still, several ambassadors in the 15-member Security Council have been disappointed with the lack of progress achieved by the U.N. peacekeeping force, called MINURSO, in organising the vote.

Ambassador Emilio Cardenas of Argentina, who has accused MINURSO of telling “tall tales” about its work to the Council, has proposed that the referendum be scrapped.

The referendum was originally scheduled for January 1992. It was to allow the nomadic Sahrawi population the choice between independence, or integration with Morocco, which first invaded the territory in 1976 when Spain ended its colonial rule.

Few diplomats believe that MINURSO will stage the vote soon, and the Council last month abandoned a time-table to stage it by next January. MINURSO’s 371 peacekeepers are now authorised to remain until the end of January 1996.

But Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali must inform the Council over the coming months whether MINURSO can begin a “transitional period,” in which it is to assume responsibility for law and order in Western Sahara, by May 1996. If it cannot do so — a step deemed essential by the Council for holding a referendum — the peacekeeping mission itself may be scrapped.

Cardenas, noting the process has already stalled, said the Council should begin planning for alternatives to the referendum. One possibility, he suggested, is for the United Nations to conduct fresh talks between Morocco, which annexed Western Sahara in 1979, and the Polisario Front.

That step remains unlikely. Although several Council members, including Germany and Botswana, seem inclined to adopt a new approach, few diplomats favour going back to square one after so many years of relative calm. Also, France — which holds veto power on the Council — is a Moroccan ally which opposes any change.

Central to the Council dispute is the contention — by Cardenas and others — that Morocco has been able to dominate the U.N. mission and influence the voter identification drive.

Despite fortnightly MINURSO reports to the Council, many diplomats believe the peacekeepers are not reporting back everything they know.

Ruddy argued that MINURSO has not told the Council the problems the mission has encountered staging the referendum, as they are required to do. “U.N. people aren’t free,” he said. “They’re continually under pressure from management (in New York) to make them look good.”

As a result, he argued, MINURSO has not reported what he claims is a “campaign of terror and intimidation” waged by Morocco against Sahrawi seeking to vote in the referendum.

“Morocco prevented Sahrawis from registering for the referendum, physically prevented others who were registered from entering MINURSO registration facilities and robbed — literally took by force — valuable voting documents from Sahrawis who had registered,” Ruddy said of what he saw at his MINURSO job last year.

During that time, he added, all abuses were “reported to Boutros-Ghali’s representative in MINURSO, who looked the other way….This was sheer gangsterism which the United Nations did nothing to stop.”

In a letter to U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright last month, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), agreed that Morocco has “regularly engaged in conduct that has obstructed and compromised the fairness of the referendum process.”

“Moroccan security forces routinely prevent access to U.N. headquarters and identification centres by Sahrawis seeking to submit voter applications,” Roth wrote, citing an August HRW fact- finding mission to the region. HRW’s findings echoed Ruddy’s charges of intimidation of potential voters.

HRW also accuses Morocco of stacking the pool of voters with people who are not Sahrawi. “Out of a total of 180,000 voter applications submitted by Morocco, 100,000 are on behalf of individuals who reside outside of the territory,” Roth wrote. “Polisario, meanwhile, has submitted a total of 40,000 applications.”

Morocco’s U.N. ambassador, Ahmed Snoussi, dismissed the group’s claims.

“The United Nations has in the field representatives of more than 40 countries,” he told IPS. “It is surprising that the representatives of all 40 countries are deaf, dumb and blind.”

Morocco has also dismissed Ruddy as a disgruntled former U.N. employee. Snoussi voiced doubt on the HRW team, as well, for sharing “essentially the same” conclusions as Ruddy.

Other Moroccan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have blamed the continuing dispute over Western Sahara on Algeria, Morocco’s neighbour, which has backed Polisario. One official said the various charges of intimidation all stem from an “orchestrated campaign” by Algeria and the Polisario rebels.

But it may not be so easy to dismiss the charges against the U.N. operation, as criticism mounts within the world body against costly, stalled U.N. missions.

Even the United States, a Moroccan ally, has been divided between support for Rabat and the need to prove to the Republican- led U.S. Congress that Washington is countering bias and corruption at the United Nations, one diplomat told IPS on condition of anonymity.

President Bill Clinton’s officials “know the Republicans would jump on them” if they let the Sahara process go ahead as it currently is set up, he said. However, he added, “the United States would like nothing better than to have this problem go away.”

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