Having had the Sahara dossier in hand for a second time, the United Nations took in 1985 as a point of departure in addressing the Sahara issue the Peace Plan that had initially been proposed by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), and the implementation of which it had proceeded with had it not been for its suspension with the withdrawal of Morocco from this continental organisation. The efforts deployed by the UN Secretary-General had resulted in a Peace Plan that he presented to Morocco and the Polisario in August 1988, and brought the Plan, by the same occasion, to the knowledge of both Algeria and Mauritania. The parties in conflict announced their acceptance of the Plan. However, the implementation of the Plan ran against divergences of points of view, which spurred the UN Secretary-General to submit other settlement proposals. Still, these proposals also came to nought.   

I.   The UN Plan for the Organisation of a Referendum in the Sahara

In addressing the Moroccan Sahara dossier, the UN Secretary-General centred his efforts on the points about which the parties in conflict showed no divergence, notably those that pertain to the question of organizing a referendum.

The UN Secretary-General met with some difficulties during the negotiations that he held separately with the parties concerned, difficulties that pertained essentially to the determination of the persons eligible to participate in the referendum as well as to the legal status of the Royal Armed Forces and the Moroccan administration in the Sahara. In point of fact, the Polisario put as a condition sine qua non the withdrawal of the Royal Armed Forces before it could start talks relative to the organisation of a referendum. Further to the approbation of the UN Plan by the parties in conflict, the Security Council adopted Resolution 621, of September 1988, which entitled the Secretary-General to appoint a special envoy to the Moroccan Sahara.

After the Secretary-General had engaged in supplementary consultations with the parties in conflict, along with the OAU President in office, he put in place, on June 30, 1989, a technical commission, the presidency of which he secured, in charge of examining the modalities of application of the settlement plans. On July 12, 1989, the UN special envoy relayed to the parties concerned a draft agenda in order to put into practice the settlement proposals prepared by the technical commission.

On April 29, 1991, the Security Council adopted Resolution 690 relative to the creation of the UN Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), which will be under its authority.

Of the substantial elements incorporated in the settlement plan, there is one in connection with the identification of the inhabitants of the Sahara who are eligible to participate in the referendum. This task was entrusted with the Identification Commission under the auspices of the special envoy of the Secretary-General.

The Plan stipulates that the role of the Identification Commission be axed essentially upon the meticulous examination of the census that was carried out by the Spanish authorities on the territory in 1974, on its completion as well as on determining the effective growth rates of the population during the period stretching from the Spanish census to the date the referendum is to be held.

In his S/26185 report, which he addressed to the Security Council on July 28, 1993, the Secretary-General suggested several criteria that would entitle the inhabitants concerned to participate in the referendum. The report expanded the voter base by including a fringe of the Sahrawi population that had not been included in the Spanish census.

The identification operation was launched on August 28, 1994. Yet, as highlighted by Mr James Baker, who was appointed in March 1997 as the personal envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, this operation turned to be complex and difficult. According to him, such an established fact was imputable to the traditions of nomadism and the tribal structure specific to the Sahrawi community.

In view of these difficulties, besides the divergence in points of view of the parties in conflict concerning the identification operation, the census was suspended in January 1996.  This was followed by a partial withdrawal of the MINURSO in May 1996. The talks, which unfolded under the auspices of the UN special envoy, resulted -in their fourth round in Houston- to an agreement on the obligations that the parties concerned had to shoulder as concerns the 1988 Peace Plan. The identification operation was resumed on December 3, 1997, and it was scheduled that the referendum would take place on December 7, 1998, following five successive postponements. In December 1999, the referendum operation was to be cancelled once again owing to the sharp disagreements between the parties a propos of the persons eligible to vote. What followed immediately was the cancellation of the date when the referendum was scheduled to be held.

II. The Baker Plans to Settle the Sahara Dispute

In view of the difficulties that the UN settlement plan ran against, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1309, dated July 25, 2000. The latter explicitly recommended the political solution as one of the options amenable to a consensus between the parties concerned. This is precisely what led the United Nations to propose a "Third Way," or the framework-agreement. The latter envisaged a delegation of powers over to the inhabitants of the Sahara, which would allow them to run their own local affairs through democratically elected bodies. In return, they were to secure the central Government in Rabat its attributes of sovereignty as well as its royal prerogatives.

In this regard, not only did the Polisario abstain from examining the settlement proposal, but it refused to even engage in its discussion during the visit by Baker to Tindouf on May 5, 2001. Moreover, it sent a memorandum wherein it laid out some detailed proposals to facilitate the application of the referendum plan.

In his response to the memorandum by the Polisario, Mr. Kofi ANNAN considered that the proposals that were made did not resolve the gist of the problem which impeded the application of the referendum plan. He tied this situation in with the absence of collaboration between the parties concerned as well as with the incapacity that the United Nations showed in putting some measures in place to be taken should one of the parties refuse to collaborate.

The international mediator, Mr James Baker, also visited Algeria in order to lay out the project. Algeria, however, discarded the project as being a "non-official" proposal, because its presentation did not, according to it, fall under the missions entrusted with the special envoy of the Secretary-General. Algeria considered that the project was devoid of credibility as long as it anticipated respect for the Constitution of the State administering the territory (that is, Morocco), in addition to not making any distinction between the inhabitants of the territory and the Sahrawi people, and giving precedence to the expression "inhabitants," all of which reinforces, according to Algeria, the thesis of the integration of the territory in Morocco. In response to some observations made by Algeria, the Secretary-General considered that the allegation of the prejudice of the framework-agreement in favour of the idea of integration is unfounded, the reason being that the election of the legislative body would issue from the lists that were drawn by the Identification Commission. As concerns the appellation "the Sahrawi people," the Secretary-General considered it to be a non-official expression within the circles of the United Nations, where such expressions as "the inhabitants of Western Sahara," "the people of Western Sahara" and "Western Sahrawis" are commonly used. He added that the memorandum presented by Algeria fails to take on board a great part of the Sahrawi inhabitants who have chosen to stay in Morocco, and that it only mentioned those established in Tindouf.

As far as Morocco is concerned, and despite the fact that the framework-agreement came up to several of its claims, notably the question of sovereignty and such related matters of prerogative as defence and foreign relations, the flag, the currency, and the "stamp," it expressed certain reservations in connection with the electoral body. In fact, Morocco had voiced several objections in relation to the results arrived at by the Identification Commission. Similarly, a number of points remain ambiguous such as the nature of the relation between the central power and the local one, the relation between the Moroccan Parliament and the local legislative assembly, in addition to the questions pertaining to the redeployment of the Moroccan Army and the mechanisms that would allow the Army to intervene in order to deal with any attempt whatsoever at secession, should it spring either from inside or outside the territory. There was also the question pertaining to the return of the sequestered, the situation of those that have not been included in the lists, the management of the revenues that accrue from the resources of the regions, in addition to the ambiguity resulting from the post-five-year situation; that is, after the transitional period. Despite all these apprehensions, Morocco did accept the plan.

On February 2002, the UN Secretary-General put forward a report on the Western Sahara that was based on what his special envoy had recommended. This report included a plan that was called "The Fourth Way," and which envisaged the option of partitioning the territory, giving Morocco the province of Saquiat El Hamra (two thirds of the Sahara) and Oued Eddahab (the remaining third) to the Polisario to install its "independent State" upon it. This solution, which emanates according to some observers, from Algeria, was rejected by the Polisario which claimed the Sahara territory in its entirety. Morocco in turn categorically refused such a solution, considering it indeed as an arbitrary amputation of a part of its southern territories, in addition to being divisive of tribes and families, not to mention the fact that it overlooks the common interests of the concerned inhabitants. Likewise, the project of partition was also rejected by the European Union and the United States, both of which deemed the project to be unrealistic.

Towards the beginning of the year 2003, James Baker submitted to the Secretary-General another plan called the "Peace Plan for the Self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara." The Plan consists of a blending together of the referendum regime and the political solution. Morocco rejected such a plan on the grounds that it affected a step backwards from the provisions of the framework-agreement, in addition to holding in its folds several proposals that affect Moroccan sovereignty over the territory. In view of the inapplicability of all these settlement proposals, James Baker ended up by resigning in June 2004 from his post as the special envoy of the Secretary-General.

Broadly speaking, the settlement plans proposed by the United Nations were either inapplicable for not taking into account the sovereignty of Morocco over its Sahrawi territories; or because they are impeded by the parties opposing the completion of its territorial integrity. In fact, the upkeep of a crisis situation seems to be the principal objective for these parties; namely, the Polisario and Algeria. In return, Morocco indefatiguably showed proof of its commitment to work towards finding a political solution that takes into the fold all the parties concerned.

Thus, locating its action within a participative approach, both at the national and international levels, Morocco submitted on April 11, 2007, a proposal to the Security Council of the United Nations a proposal that consisted of a project of a large autonomy for the provinces of the Moroccan Sahara. Through this initiative, Morocco took out the Sahara dossier out of the lethargy wherein it had sunk following the abortion of all attempts at a resolution. Encouraged as it was by the "serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the progress forward towards a political resolution," the Security Council adopted on April 30, 2007, Resolution 1754 which invited the parties to enter into negotiations "without preconditions in good faith, taking into account the developments of the last months, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution."

Although the Polisario presented a counter-proposal, it turned out that that proposal was no different from the habitual discourse to which it had held on to for over three decades. In view of this, there is good ground to speak about a "non-proposal" because, offering no sensible suggestions, it rather boils down to the assimilation of the principle of self-determination into pure and simple separation.

In turn, Morocco allowed for some quite substantial concessions, making its proposal for autonomy stand midway between independence and mere integration. That is what brought it a large plebiscite at the international level, above all because this initiative is such that it leads to a definitive settlement of the Sahara dispute, all the while taking into account the interests of all.

In view of this, the settlement of the Sahara dispute depends solely on the will of the other parties, and more specifically Algeria. Within this perspective, there is; therefore, no other way but to admit that it is the Moroccan project for autonomy which constitutes the founding base for the negotiations in New York between Morocco and the parties in conflict.

Hassan Khattabi
(Trans. M. Karimi)