A Conversation with Christopher Ross, UN Special Envoy to the Sahara

Before the start of the lecture organized on Tuesday, March 5 by the Permanent Mission of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe featuring Spanish actor Javier Bardem and Kerry Kennedy at the United Nations, I talked for a few minutes with Mr. Christopher Ross, Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General to the Sahara.


On a personal level, Mr. Ross has a charming and interesting personality and I enjoyed my short conversation with him. As I have always been vocal in criticizing his approach and the UN’s approach in trying to bridge the gap between the two parties of the conflict and find a long-lasting and viable solution, I was interested to get a firsthand explanation from him. I hoped to learn something new about the issue.


I thought it was interesting he would take credence in this presentation by people with no experience in the issue. I was eager to hear what he had to say and hoped I would come out with a clear idea about what solution he offers to find a way out of the Sahara conflict.


It did not took me long to realize that I was not wrong when I was saying in my analyses that the UN’s approach to the issue has failed and there is a need to adopt a more realistic and goal-oriented mission. Nor was I surprised to discover that the UN Special Envoy cannot bring anything to the table that might pave the way for finding a political and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict, as called for by the relevant UN Security Council resolution.


I told Mr. Ross that there is a defect of procedure in how negotiations were conducted since he was appointed in 2009, and that we cannot continue to talk about the referendum while the Security Council resolutions call on the parties to find a mutually acceptable political solution. I further stated that a mutually acceptable solution means that we should not envisage a referendum as a viable solution, since it has been proven almost impossible to have the two parties agree on people eligible to vote.


I added that the project of autonomy presented by Morocco could be a basis for finding a permanent solution. After he respectfully let me ask my question, Ross told me “There can be no mutually acceptable solution,” because “both parties camp on their respective positions and none of them wants to make concessions.”


I told Ross that Morocco has already made concessions that were qualified by the Security Council as “serious” and offering the basis for finding a settlement to the dispute.


I went on to ask him what was the solution in his opinion. He then told me that he is not competent to decide on that and that it is up to the Security Council to chart the way forward.


I must admit that I was quite puzzled by the answer given by Mr. Ross. After our short conversation, I left with the firm conviction that this American diplomat does not believe one iota in the Autonomy Plan presented by Morocco in April 2007 and later hailed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a viable solution. Apparently Ross continues to believe that the solution should pass through a referendum on self-determination.


In other words, the Personal Envoy, who should in principle remain impartial to earn the trust of both parties to the conflict, leans in favor of one solution to the detriment of the other. What further made me believe that he sympathizes more with the Polisario and his supporters is that he attended the lecture given by Javier Bardem, Kerry Kennedy and Aminatou Haidar.


Mr. Ross knows all too well the purpose of that lecture was to tarnish Morocco’s reputation and provide the audience with a one-sided perspective on the conflict. Since he knew the panelists overlooked and ignored Mustapha Oueld Sidi Mouloud and Najem Allal, two opponents silenced by the Polisario, Mr. Ross should have avoided any suspicion on his personal convictions and abstained from attending the lecture.


I recall that since 2002 and especially since 2007, the UN has tacitly admitted the non-feasibility of a referendum. Ever since, all Security Council resolutions stress the need to find a political and mutually acceptable solution to the conflict.


France and the United States have repeatedly praised the seriousness of the Moroccan autonomy plan and said it can be a serious basis for a political solution.


 Yet for a solution where there is no loser to be reached, there is a need to find a mediator who firmly believes he can bring the two parties together and push them to make concessions in a way that would enable them to reach a mutually acceptable and political settlement. There is a disconnect between what the Security Council recommends and the personal convictions of the UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy to the Sahara.


I am not sure how long Mr. Ross will lead the negotiation process between Morocco and the Polisario. But I am almost sure that his good offices will not bring anything new to the conflict and that the UN’s current approach will not result in a solution that would preserve the interests of both parties in the conflict.


Samir Bennis is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis