Is there a solution to the Western Sahara?

In 1988, the United Nations initiated efforts to resolve the situation in Western Sahara, which have so far been unsuccessful

7 min
Saharawis strung on top of a van

In 1988, 34 years ago, the United Nations initiated steps which, in 1991, led to a cease-fire and the deployment of a United Nations mission (MINURSO) in Western Sahara, whose R refers precisely to the promised referendum which has never materialized. Since 1991, moreover, Morocco has encouraged the colonisation of the Sahara in order to Moroccanize it, an old practice the world over to change the identity or ethnic composition of occupied territories, so that, over the years (now 47), time runs in Morocco's favour, both demographically and politically.

The Sahrawis have the right to self-determination, according to the United Nations doctrine, but the circumstances that I will explain have made it impossible until now. This is the story of a deception and a betrayal, the product of the greater weight of geopolitics over international law. The United Nations' diplomatic movements to obtain a satisfactory agreement between the two parties has not achieved the expected results in any of the stages that the process has gone through up to the present, despite there having been six personal envoys of the UN Secretary General. The reason has always been the same. Morocco is only willing to offer autonomy for Western Sahara and does not accept a referendum of self-determination that would have independence as a possibility, while the Sahrawis, represented by the Polisario Front, do not admit any other option than a referendum of self-determination. They are also protected by a right recognised by the United Nations, although, as we shall see, since 2001 the referendum option has been disappearing and will never be held, for the simple reason that several permanent members of the Security Council, with the right to veto, have so wished.

From then on, the Security Council opted for a "just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution", and, as of 2018, the terms "realistic" and "based on compromise" were incorporated, although mentions to the Sahrawi people's right to self-determination was maintained. The solution could only come from an agreement between the two parties, which is extremely difficult to achieve if neither changes its position. However, what I will explain are some initiatives that emerged in past years, which, had they been successful, would put us in a completely different and much more favourable situation for Sahrawis today. One thing is what is said and demanded at a negotiating table, and another what one is really willing to accept, in a gradualist process, step by step.

Meeting with ambassadors

In December 2000, aware of the subtle change in the language of the Security Council and that the Houston Agreements would not be fulfilled, I decided to take the plane to Algiers and go to the Tindouf camps. The objective was to meet with the Prime Minister of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), and especially with the Sahrawi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Salem Ould Salek, who held this position from 1988 to 1995 and from 1998 until the time of writing, to tell them that, in my opinion, from that moment on, things would change in the United Nations and that it would be advisable to think of alternatives that would be of interest to them. It was a long and very cordial meeting, but at that time the Polisario Front had blind faith in the UN's efforts. A year later, in January 2001, I organised a lunch in Madrid with several embassies, where the French representative did not bite her tongue and said that her country was interested above all in maintaining privileged relations with Morocco and that, if the price was the disappearance of Sahrawis as a people, it did not matter, because it was a "small cause". This is the pure reality, however unfair it may be. I met again with the Polisario negotiator and liaison with MINURSO, who said he was tired of James Baker, the UN mediator, and that the referendum was only "the packaging", since the most important thing would be the content. From there came the idea of organising an international meeting to broaden the perspectives and the framework of the conflict, including a regional outlook.

Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali with UN Special Envoy for Western Sahara, Staffan de Mistura.

After overcoming many obstacles, the seminar finally took place because the SADR president was in favour of the Polisario's participation. He also suggested that the seminar should include an analysis of the failure of the UN peace plan. In turn, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Javier Solana, agreed to meet discreetly with members of the SADR government, who had asked me to convey this wish. We were thus able to hold a confidential seminar behind closed doors in a Barcelona hotel on September 26 and 27, 2001. The purpose of the meeting was not just for the two delegations to meet, who incidentally shared a table for lunch, but for the two sides to hear from third parties who would offer new ideas for their consideration. Participants included the UN Department of Political Affairs, the African Union, five members of the European Union (from the Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Policy), members of the European Parliament, several diplomats and eight academic experts on the Maghreb and self-government. Among the conclusions, it was seen that it was a matter of building on what had already been achieved, seeking guarantees, knowing the basic needs beyond the positions, promoting direct talks, seeking the minimums, rejecting impositions, rejecting finalist proposals without knowing what steps would have to be taken, giving reasonable deadlines, de-demonizing the players, clarifying that the principle of self-determination was not the same as the right to self-determination, not forgetting the context, understanding that having a right does not necessarily oblige one to execute it under certain circumstances, differentiating sovereignty from secession, always obtaining institutional and international recognition, paying attention to transitional proposals, defining who has residual power, and clearly delimiting the powers of each party and the capacity to take decisions.

Dividing the Sahara

In early 2002, the UN Secretary General's personal envoy, James Baker, first raised the possibility of partitioning Western Sahara as one of four options. At a meeting I had at the time with the Polisario negotiator, he told me that they were really interested in studying this possibility, but that they could not put it on the negotiating table, since it would mean lowering their stakes and renouncing their right to hold a referendum of self-determination. So he asked me for a favour: I would be willing to raise this option in public, as if it were my own suggestion, to see what reactions it would elicit. As soon as I agreed, in April I published an article with a partition proposal in an international newspaper, which was echoed in Le Monde and the Algerian government liked it. Although in the end this issue was not taken into consideration (the negotiating table did not yet exist), it was analysed by the Sahrawis, and I explain it now to show that new and unexpected spaces for negotiation can always arise. A different matter is whether they are taken advantage of and are in the interest of all parties.

At the beginning of 2003, Baker presented a new, more balanced proposal, known as Baker Plan II, which was accepted by the Polisario Front as a starting point for negotiations, but rejected this time by Morocco. In June 2003, in view of the failure of Baker Plan II, I made a proposal with five phases (direct negotiation to reach an agreement on the process to be followed, agreement for coexistence through an initial self-government, return of refugees and preparation of elections, elections to the Legislative Assembly and final referendum), and a duration of four years. In short, it was intended to transform "the framework agreement" into a "framework for an agreement". I do not explain the details because in the end it did not have an impact. But I record that, once again, the Polisario negotiator welcomed it and said that they would be ready to discuss it directly with Morocco. In the end, this did not happen, or at least I am not aware that it was discussed.

A Sahrawi camp.

In 2007, Morocco sent UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon its proposal for regional self-rule for Western Sahara, whereby the territory would be autonomous in the administrative, economic, fiscal, infrastructure, cultural and environmental fields. The two parties expressed their willingness to meet, which led to a first meeting in June. From then – mid-2007 – until March 2019 (the last meeting), they met 16 times, with no results after twelve years of formal negotiations. It is now three years since they last met. The Moroccan 2007 proposal has always been the subject of concern and debate among analysts of the Sahara conflict. Despite the Polisario's deep misgivings about any deceptive proposal by the Moroccan government, there was at that time the possibility of changing an alleged fraud by means of huge international support, in particular through the presence of the United Nations as guarantor, to shield and enforce rigorously what was promised. The Sahrawi strategy of "all or nothing", which is the same as Morocco followed, impeded this strategy from having any success, despite the fact that there was then a willingness by the United Nations and international high diplomacy to seek a provisional way out.

In May 2014 and February 2015, I proposed to the UN Secretary General, without success, to discreetly invite the King of Morocco and the leader of the Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz, to its New York headquarters to meet for the first time. On January 22, 2015, King Mohammed VI and the UN Secretary General spoke on the phone and reached an agreement on the way forward. Things had already changed so much that not only would there never be a referendum to which Sahrawis were entitled, but only the option of self-rule would be valid, although, in my view, it would no longer have the guarantees we had planned with the UN in 2007. In 2017, the African Union took the decision to readmit Morocco, after having kept it on the sidelines of the regional organisation for over three decades. Morocco was gaining ground diplomatically, be it with Africa, China or other countries, in addition to traditional allies France, the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2020, the United States recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, and several Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African countries opened consulates and committed investments in the Sahrawi territory. Finally, after decades of Moroccan occupation and colonisation, the demographic structure of the Western Sahara has changed a lot. There are many people from Moroccan families who were already born there and have the right to vote. Whilst 74,000 people were on the 1974 voters' roll, Morocco's statistical yearbook shows that, in 2019, 619,000 lived in the area, of whom 421,000 would have the right to vote. If there were a referendum one day, what would happen?

An alternative for the State

In the end, like it or not, the Security Council made the decision many years ago not to hold a referendum. In the collision between law and geopolitics, the latter has won. Even the gradualist paths I have explained would surely have fewer guarantees with each passing year. In any case, and it is important not to forget this, Western Sahara continues to be on the Security Council's agenda, is on the list of territories to be decolonized, and is covered by the United Nations doctrine of self-determination. Therefore, if the Spanish Government now thinks that autonomy in 2007 is the most realistic way forward, it still has the option of considering it as an intermediate stage, which does not rule out future options. But, for that, it would have to get involved, convince the Sahrawis, think of how to make this whole process gradualist and look for allies. I am afraid these are too many things, unfortunately.