Western Sahara: Why the Referendum Was Impossible Since Day One

The ongoing friction between Morocco and Ban Ki-moon following the UN chief’s controversial statement, in which he described Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as “occupation” has brought to the surface the lingering question of why the United Nations has failed to put an end to the conflict.


Though this territorial dispute has been on its agenda for the past six decades, the UN has not succeeded in finding the formula that would help bridge the gap between the parties and pave the way towards reaching a mutually acceptable solution.


Since the adoption of the UN Settlement Plan in 1991, the UN has focused for over a decade on achieving a solution to the territorial question, which pits Morocco against the Algerian-backed Polisario, by means of a referendum with the option of independence among the envisaged outcomes.


Despite all the efforts made by the UN since 1991 to conduct a referendum on the future of the Sahara, it failed to achieve this goal. However, when reading the rhetoric of the Polisario and those who support its separatist claims without an in-depth understanding of the multiple facets of the conflict, one can be led to conclude that Morocco is the party obstructing the UN’s work and failing to fulfil its commitments.


In fact, one of the most common misrepresentations used by those who support the Polisario to denigrate Morocco and present it as a country that “violates international law” is the charge that Morocco did not fulfill its commitment to allow Saharawis to exercise their right to self-determination.


But can this claim stand scrutiny? Has Morocco been obstructing the work of the United Nations? Did the Settlement Plan take into account the view of both parties and their respective reservations?


The most common, but inaccurate belief surrounding the Western Sahara, is that since the beginning Morocco failed to abide by the Settlement Plan to which it has agreed. However, a more objective reading of the plan and the conditions under which it was adopted in 1991 shows that, though both Morocco and the Polisario agreed to proceed with the plan, each party had multiple reservations about it.


The first element that has to be taken into account is that since the drafting of the plan, the UN had to answer the important question: who is Saharawi and who should be eligible to vote in a referendum on self-determination? Later, during the UN-led political process, the failure to answer this question would turn out to be the main fault line in the conflict, making it impossible for the UN to achieve a solution by means of a referendum.


While for the Polisario the Saharawis that should be allowed to vote in the referendum are only those included in the 1974 Spanish census, for Morocco all Saharawis with family or blood ties to the region should be allowed to vote, irrespective of whether they were included in the Spanish census.


This position was shared by then-UN Secretary-General, Javier Perez de Cuellar. For Perez de Cuellar, the Spanish census of 1974 could not be the only basis for a referendum,. He argued that the Sahrawis’ nomadic way of life, with constant movement of individuals and families across national borders, whether to flee colonialism and conflict, for economic reasons or to seek education, the Spanish census could not include all Saharawis. Even the Spaniards admitted that their census did not reach all of the Saharan territory, and many tribal chiefs have said that thousands of Saharawis and Saharan refugees were omitted from the census.


Based on the divergence of views between the parties with regards to the electoral roll, why has the Security Council adopted the Settlement Plan?


Security Council Adopts the Settlement Plan Without Taking Morocco and Polisario’s Reservations Into Account


According to Erik Jensen[1], former head of the United Nations Mission for the Organization of a Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) between 1994-1998, Morocco and the Polisario never fully accepted the 1991 Settlement Plan. Though they agreed in principle to the plan, both parties had reservations that were not taken into account.


What most observers overlook, whether purposefully or due to lack of understanding, is that from the start the plan had no chance of being implemented because it suffered from a major procedural flaw. This flaw, which made the plan unworkable, is that Morocco and the Polisario have tended to interpret the plan’s most relevant paragraphs differently[2].


According to Jensen, Morocco and the Polisario “agreed to differing and incompatible interpretations of what was proposed.” But the Security Council endorsed the proposal on the premise that the parties would be willing to cooperate to implement the plan.


The outcome of the deliberations that preceded the adoption of the Settlement Pan could have been different had UN officials in charge of drafting it reported all of the reservations expressed by the involved parties to the Security Council.


Issa Diallo, a trusted member of Perez de Cuellar’s task force in charge of hammering out the details of the Settlement Plan, played a critically negative role in making the plan unworkable. According to Jensen, Diallo conducted separate confidential meetings with both Morocco and the Polisaro and then failed to share each party’s reservations with the other members of the task force as well as the Security Council.


This explains why Morocco and the Polisario reacted furiously when the Security Council presented the Settlement Plan. In fact, the two parties expressed their frustration as if they had not agreed to the same plan.


Before the adoption of the plan, Morocco repeatedly voiced its concerns about many of the paragraphs contained in the draft plan. In a letter to the Secretary-General on July 30, 1990, King Hassan II expressed his frustration that the plan submitted to the Security Council did not take into account Morocco’s reservations. However, this letter was neither conveyed to the Security Council nor to the task force in charge of drafting the Settlement Plan.


The manner in which the Settlement Plan was adopted shows that the UN’s main goal at the time was to quickly reach an understanding between the parties and put an end to the war rather than to work out a viable proposal likely to materialize on the ground and yield the expected outcome.


Had UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon taken these facts into account since his election in 2007, the UN could have learned from its past experience and made important strides towards helping both parties reach a middle ground solution that would satisfy their respective aspirations. Rather than focusing on a formula that has proved unworkable, Ban should have read in the memoirs of his predecessor Perez de Cuellar that he was never convinced that the referendum with the option of independence was the best solution for the Western Sahara.


In those memoirs entitled Pilgrimage for Peace, Perez de Cuellar wrote, “I was never convinced that independence promised the best future for the inhabitants of the Western Sahara.”


Even before the adoption of the Settlement Plan, Perez de Cuellar was sure that the plan “could not meet all the concerns of the two parties and that a compromise solution had to be sought.”


The Only way for the United Nations to fully play its role and help the parties achieve a political solution is to take Perez de Cuellar’s assessment of the conflict and adopt a realistic approach away from any fixation on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence. The UN adopted the Settlement Plan with a procedural flaw that rendered it unworkable. Hence, there is a pressing need to conduct a comprehensive review of the premises on which the plan was drafted.


[1] Erik Jensen, Western Sahara, Anatomy of a Stalemate, International Peace Academy Occasional Paper Series, Colorado, 2005.


[2] Ibid, page45.