This study examines the efforts of the United Nations (UN) to resolve the dispute over Western Sahara from August 1988, when Secretary-general Perez de Cuellar submitted the settlement proposals to the two parties—the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario—until June 2004, when James A. Baker III, the secretary-general's personal envoy on Western Sahara, resigned.

The settlement proposals were to lead to the holding of a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, offering a choice between integration with Morocco or independence. A crucial element in the implementation of the plan was the identification of voters for the referendum, which both sides considered the key to producing an outcome in their favor. The Polisario had a restricted view, expecting the 1974 Spanish census of the territory to be the framework for the identification, while Morocco took an expansive view by trying to include tens of thousands of applicants of Saharan origin now living in Morocco.

Both parties found reasons to interrupt the identification process. Throughout the process, the UN tried to break the impasses created by the parties through technical solutions that addressed the problem at hand without addressing the underlying political problem, which was the determination by both sides to win the referendum.

After six years of trying to move forward the identification process, Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked James Baker to become his personal envoy in order to steer the parties toward a political solution and away from the "winner-take-all" approach of the referendum. However, because both parties insisted that they wanted to proceed with the plan, Baker helped them negotiate the Houston Agreements, which allowed for the completion of the identification process.

In September 2000, seeing that the referendum was not likely to work in its favor, Morocco offered to discuss a political solution aiming at autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario, which until the conclusion of the identification had been interested in meeting directly with Morocco, now believed that it could win the referendum and therefore said it would talk only about the settlement plan.

After two more years of trying to get the parties to agree to a political solution, Baker informed the Security Council that a consensual approach would not work and requested that the Council ask the parties to choose one of four options, none of which would require the parties' consent, to resolve the conflict.

The Security Council was unable to agree on any of the four options and asked Baker to prepare another political proposal that would include self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Baker's final attempt was the Peace Plan for Self- Determination of the People of Western Sahara, which provided for a period of autonomy followed by a referendum on self-determination. Morocco rejected the plan and refused to accept a referendum in which the independence of Western Sahara would even appear as an option.

The Security Council, while having expressed support for Baker's efforts in its resolutions, proved unwilling to ask the parties to make the difficult decisions required to solve the conflict. When Morocco rejected the peace plan, the Council, despite having unanimously supported it, did nothing. The study concludes that Western Sahara will remain on the UN agenda for many years to come and offers a number of lessons learned from this failed mediation effort.