After more than seven years of deadlock in the United Nations-led political process aimed at helping the parties in the Western Sahara dispute to reach a political solution, a spokesman for the United Nations said earlier this month that Christopher Ross, the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, will visit the region in the coming weeks in order to revive the political process.
The announcement comes after Morocco and the UN Secretariat agreed on the gradual return of the civilian component of the UN mission in the territory, known as MINURSO, thus, putting an end to an unprecedented tension between that two parties, which lasted for the better part of this year.
As reported by some media outlets, the new visit of the UN envoy will bring to the negotiating table a new proposal in order to bridge the gap between Morocco and the Polisario and pave the way towards a final solution to the conflict. By all accounts, the new proposal that Ross aims to present is a federation or commonwealth between Morocco and its southern territory.
If the UN chief intends to put this proposal on the table, his attempt, which comes in the lame duck days, will not be successful for several reasons:
First, despite the restoration of dialogue between Morocco and the UN Secretariat, trust between the two parties is not nearly at the level it once was—certainly not at the level required for a major new proposal by the UN to be received positively by Morocco. Morocco has hinted more than once that there are parties within the UN who are hostile to its interests and view the conflict only from a limited perspective that ignores the efforts it made to find a solution to the conflict as well as overlooks the cultural, political and social particularities of the region into account.
Second, the commonwealth or federation proposal is based on the convictions of some influential parties in the UN Secretariat who are known for being close to the US and British governments. Thus, these parties draw their proposal, or are at least perceived to draw it, from the experience of some countries, notably Britain, with federation and the commonwealth systems, and want to apply this experience to the dispute over the Sahara.
While these parties believe that this approach is the only way to put an end to the conflict, Morocco believes that, the autonomy proposal it put forward in 2007 is a more viable way to end the conflict given that it provides all the concessions and guarantees that would enable the Saharawis to enjoy their autonomy.
Third, the main factor that will not help the Secretary-General and his Personal Envoy to succeed in their endeavor is that Morocco has said more than once that the autonomy proposal is all it can offer to reach a mutually acceptable political solution away from the winner-takes-all approach.
Moroccan authorities are aware that there is a tendency within the Secretariat of the United Nations, led by the Christopher Ross and some other UN officials, to reject the Moroccan autonomy plan and the political process that began under resolution 1754, in favor of a new approach based on the commonwealth or federation formats.
This prompted Moroccan officials to stress on many occasions their rejection of any change in the current political process, and emphasize that any option likely to help the parties reach a political solution is one that builds on its autonomy plan.
This is also the reason why, in his speech during the first Moroccan-GCC summit in Riyadh in April, King Mohammed VI criticized the bias of some UN officials to the Polisario and their intent to sideline the political process initiated in 2007 by attempting to impose other proposals that do not take into account Morocco’s historical rights over the region nor the huge investments it made over the past four decades to build full-fledged cities out of nowhere. This statement, and other official statements in the same vein, make it difficult to imagine that Rabat will accept any proposal that would call into question its sovereignty over the Sahara.
Morocco’s autonomy proposal: UN’s missed opportunity
Regardless of the chances for a successful alternative proposal to be put forward by the UN Envoy, one has to not forget that a proposal based on federation or commonwealth formulas is not really warranted or needed in light of what the Moroccan autonomy plan has to offer.
A thorough reading of the Moroccan autonomy proposal shows clearly that Morocco provided all the safeguards that would enable the Saharawis to conduct their affairs “through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers” while they remain under Moroccan sovereignty.
With the exception of being subject to the Moroccan flag, anthem, currency, external defense and defense of territorial integrity, foreign policy and the inherent religious prerogatives of the King as Commander of the Faithful, the autonomy proposal allows the Saharawis to enjoy all the powers of self-rule, including the formation of a regional parliament and government that would exercise extensive powers to manage the everyday life of the people of those regions. As a sign of Morocco’s eagerness to negotiate a viable political solution, when it presented its autonomy proposal, it left the door open to possible amendments to it.
Morocco should dismiss any negotiations based on the principle of commonwealth or federation. Accepting this possibility would mean giving up its sovereignty over the region gradually and paving the way for greater demands in the future that would lead eventually to the full independence of the territory.
Morocco should thwart all attempts that aim to impose Iraq’s Kurdistan example to the Western Sahara. Since this region was turned into a region enjoying expanded autonomy, it has gradually gained independence from the central government and encroached on many of the central government’s prerogatives.
When Iraq was forced to grant autonomy to this region following its defeats in the First and Second Gulf Wars, it, in effect, signed a blank check that paved the way for the independence of this territory, a scenario that Morocco should avoid.
Nothing can be expected from Ross’ routine visit
It is unlikely that Ross’ visit will bring any progress in the UN-led political process. Based on the UNSG’s and his Personal Envoy’s record over the past seven years, their indifference towards the Moroccan proposal and sympathy with the thesis of the Polisario, this visit will be but a routine visit that will go the way of countless visits of UN officials to many regions of the world to no avail.
One problem the United Nations faces is the lack of a true leadership with deep knowledge of the issues on its agenda and a clear vision about the way to deal with each case based on the specificities of every region.
Ban Ki-moon and his Personal Envoy had nine years to develop a serious and viable proposal, but they failed to provide any tangible solution. Therefore, it would be delusional to think that the five remaining months in the UN chief’s mandate will be enough to achieve what he has failed to achieve during his two terms at the helm of the United Nations, especially since Moroccans are firmly convinced that Ban Ki-moon and is personal envoy have lost any credibility to fully play their role of neutral and impartial mediators.
All that Ross is expected to do in the five coming month is to conduct his usual visits to the region and present a briefing to the Security Council in October on his meetings with the interested parties.
Consequently, Morocco and the international community have to wait for the election of the new Secretary-General, and hope that he or she will have the political courage, leadership and diplomatic skills to help the parties work out the details for a political, long-lasting and mutually acceptable solution.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of and editor-in-chief of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis