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POLITICS: Western Sahara Awaits End to 30 Years of Limbo

Ellen Massey

WASHINGTON, May 3 2007 (IPS) - For the first time in seven years, Morocco and the Western Sahara will engage in direct talks over a 30-year-old territorial dispute, but the two sides come to the negotiating table with very different plans for the region’s future.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that calls on Morocco and Western Sahara to initiate peace talks. While the government in Rabat and the Polisario Front, the Western Sahara independence movement based in Algeria, have expressed their willingness to talk, the room for concessions on either side remains uncertain.

Last month, both Morocco and the Polisario submitted proposals to the U.N. regarding the future of Western Sahara, but analysts say the plans offer little that is new. Rabat recommends a degree of autonomy for the Sahrawis, but subject to Morocco’s sovereignty, and the Polisario’s proposal calls for a referendum that would allow the people of Western Sahara to vote on their own future – the same demand they have been making since a ceasefire ended the war between the two sides in 1991.

Morocco has turned down previous chances to end the stalemate with the former Spanish colony, such as in 2003 when former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed a resolution to the crisis after working with both parties for six years. The Baker plan involved a trial autonomy period followed by a referendum in which the Sahrawis would be able to vote on their final status.

The Polisario accepted the plan but Morocco rejected it. The Sawharis are showing little flexibility in their conditions as well. Following the Security Council’s vote on Monday, Ahmed Boukhari, the Polisario representative to the U.N., said the talks were doomed if the Moroccan government doesn’t consider a referendum on independence.

But there is pressure within the Security Council and without to find a solution to this impasse. Reaching its 16th year and with costs stretching to 600 million dollars, the U.N. mission to Western Sahara is reaching the end of its legitimacy. The mission has been extended innumerable times, always failing to achieve a referendum. This time it was extended by another 60 days.

The dispute between Western Sahara and Morocco has festered for the past 30 years but now, as the U.S. competes for allies in its “war on terror”, the focus has returned to this small Arab country seeking democratic self-determination.

United Nations and U.S. government officials have called the proposed peace talks a window of opportunity. Washington’s policy has been to discreetly support autonomy since 1997 when Baker was assigned to work on the conflict, but recently this support has become more vocal. On Apr. 10, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns released a memo praising the “Western Sahara Initiative”, Morocco’s plan, as “a serious and credible proposal and that would lead to real autonomy for the Western Sahara.”

The U.S. government’s sudden attention to Western Sahara, a dry stretch of desert located between Morocco, a strategic U.S. ally, and Algeria, an important potential ally, hasn’t gone unnoticed. “I think this is diplomacy on the cheap. The government has put very little into this and I think it’s suspect that the U.S. is meddling in it now,” Clayton Swisher, programmes director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, told IPS.

The U.S. House of Representatives has waded into the issue as well. Last week, 180 members sent a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to support Morocco’s plan and stating that “we are concerned that the failure to resolve this conflict of more than 30 years poses a danger to U.S. and regional security.” Forty-five members signed a letter supporting the Polisario’s call for a referendum.

There has been broad – and at least, symbolic – support around the world for Western Sahara’s right to a referendum. Following Spain’s withdrawal from the former colony in 1975, the International Court of Justice upheld the Sahrawis right to self-determination. Dozens of governments and international bodies recognise the Polisario as an independent government, including the African Union.

A peaceful resolution to this conflict could bring stability and substantial economic benefits to the region, but the dispute over Western Sahara stands in the way of security coordination between Algeria and Morocco, without which these two players cannot realise the economic benefits of a North African trade.

But the fate of Western Sahara is dependent on the international community. Morocco has some 300,000 settlers in the territory and has poured money into developing the land and natural resources despite the uncertain status of the desert region’s sovereignty. Morocco administers and occupies much of the territory, including the capital city, Laayoune. Meanwhile, more than 160,000 Sahrawis are living in desert refugee camps in southern parts of the country and Algeria with few resources and a bleak future.

Despite facing increasing political and economic marginalisation, the Sahrawis’ sense of nationalism has remained strong. Morocco is the last colonial power on the African continent and, as Swisher pointed out, historical examples of indigenous movements giving up their right to choose their own future are rare. In the next 60 days, the United Nations has the chance to broker a legitimate peace, or to continue the stalemate.

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