The visit of the new Personal Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General for the Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, to the region is the first of its kind since his appointment last September. Observers are hopeful the new envoy will succeed in reviving the stalled political negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario.


Unprecedented international context


The UN envoy’s visit comes in an unprecedented international context which should prompt the United Nations to reconsider the approach it has adopted over the past 10 years, which has brought the conflict to a standstill. This international context is characterized by the two referenda that took place earlier this month both Catalonia in Spain and Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The tension and reactions that these consultations elicited in in the concerned countries, as well as the refusal of the international community to recognize their results are the sign of a turning point in international relations that might usher in a new era in which the territorial integrity of states will take precedence.


Taking into account the report of the Secretary General in his report last April in which he called on the disputants to define the meaning and scope of the concept of self-determination, and the reaction of the international community to the results of the referendum in both Catalonia and Kurdistan, it can be argued that the current international political context may favor the approach advocated by Morocco for more than a decade, which advocates a political solution based on the autonomy proposal.


The UN is fully aware that Morocco will not accept any solution that might lead to the independence of the Sahara from Morocco. Consequently, the referendum option sought by the Polisario and Algeria can no longer be one of the possible options for reaching a mutual political solution to the conflict.  Therefore, the UN ought to take into account this international context and Morocco’s position, and adopt a new approach that comes to terms with the fact that that the concept of self-determination adopted in the 1960s and 1970s is no longer applicable in the reality of the 21st century.


The UN should also recall that the relevant resolutions on self-determination were adopted at the height of the decolonization in many regions of the world. Even the manner in which those resolutions were drafted demonstrates that they were formulated for a special international context marked by the presence of many countries under yoke of European colonial powers. What best illustrates this is the use of terms such as “the relationship between metropolitan states” and the external areas under their sovereignty.


For example, Principle IV of resolution 1541 indicates that the main factor to be taken into account in defining whether a territory is under colonial domination is when such territory is “is geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” The fifth principle of the same resolution states:


“Once it has been established that such a prima facie case of geographical and ethnic or cultural distinctness of a territory exists, other elements may then be brought into consideration. These additional elements may be, inter alia, of an administrative, political, juridical, economic or historical nature. If they affect the relationship between the metropolitan Slate and the territory concerned in a manner which arbitrarily places the latter in a position or status of subordination, they support the presumption that there is an obligation to transmit information under Article 73 of the Charter.“


The use of the term “metropolitan state” is very significant. In legal parlance it refers to the relationship between colonial powers and their overseas colonies.


Morocco’s determination to benefit from the international context


Morocco appears to be determined to take advantage of the new international context to further emphasize that the only way to reach a political solution is on the basis of the autonomy proposal it presented in 2007. Morocco’s intention to rule out the option of referendum was made clear in the statement that Omar Hilale, Morocco’s Ambassador to the UN, delivered before the Fourth Committee last week. The Moroccan diplomat stressed that “there is no room to talk about the referendum as one of the options for a solution to the dispute over the Sahara,” adding that this option was buried long time ago. He also called for the taking the question of Western Sahara off of the agenda of the Fourth Committee on decolonization, stressing that its colonization ended in 1975 when Morocco regained its sovereignty over this region.


To give flesh to his statement, Hilale evoked all the relevant UN resolutions on self-determination, including resolutions 1514, 1541, and 2625, highlighting that Morocco’s autonomy proposal is consistent with international law and the relevant UN resolutions. The Moroccan ambassador denounced the selective rhetoric of the advocates of separatism, who use resolution 1514 as the only reference in international law on self-determination, while they overlook that that the same resolution mentioned the principle of self-determination just in its article 2, while the respect of the territorial integrity of Member States is mentioned in articles 6 and 7. Advocates of separatism also overlook Resolution 1541 of December 15, 1960 and Resolution 2625 of October 20, 1970. The two resolutions state that self-determination can be exercised through Emergence as a sovereign independent State; Free association with an independent State; or Integration with an independent State.


Moreover, Resolution 2625 states clearly that nothing of what is mentioned in the previous paragraphs should be interpreted as “authorizing any action or encouragement of any action that would, in whole or in part, damage the territorial integrity or political unity of independent sovereign States.” The resolution, whose constitute the principles of international law, also calls upon Member States to refrain from “any action aimed at partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of any other State or country.”


The Moroccan ambassador went straight to the point when he stated that the principle of self-determination associated with independence, sought by the Polisario and Algeria, does not apply to the Sahara as long as it is a geographical extension of Morocco and in the absence of any ethnic, religious, racial, cultural, or linguistic differences between Morocco and its own Sahara.


Algeria and Polisario’s allegations versus Morocco’s legal rights


The allegations propagated by Algeria and the Polisario that Morocco denies Sahrawis their tight to exercise to self-determination do not outweigh the arguments and historical legal documents that prove that the Western Sahara was part of the Moroccan territory when Spain occupied it. The most important argument in this regard is the agreement signed between Morocco with the United Kingdom in March 1895, by virtue of which the latter recognized that the Western Sahara was subject to the sovereignty of former. The United Nations records also testify that, immediately after gaining independence in 1956, Morocco called on Spain to end its presence on Moroccan territory, including Tarfaya, Sidi Ifni, and the Western Sahara. Moreover, Morocco the issue for the first time in the United Nations in 1957. Conceivably, the main goal of Morocco’s efforts for more than 60 years is to preserve its erstwhile territorial integrity, which was undermined by Spanish colonialism.


There is no doubt that the recent developments in the international arena do not favor the Polisario. If the international community rejects the independence of a region such as Catalonia with a population of 8 million and with one of the richest regions in Europe with all the trappings of a state, it would be incongruous to advocate statehood for a minority of Sahrawis, which do not exceed 90,000 inhabitants at best? Although the legal status of the two cases are dissimilar in terms of international law, what happened in Spain provides Morocco with an opportunity to emphasize more than ever that the only way to get back to negotiations is by taking off the table the option of independence fiercely defended by the Polisario and Algeria. The UN should therefore reconsider the concept of self-determination adopted several decades ago and put greater pressure on Algeria and the Polisario to demonstrate their willingness to compromise to reach a political solution to the conflict.


Accordingly, the success of the efforts of the Personal Envoy of the Secretary General in the Sahara will depend on the approach he proposes to the parties to the conflict and his courage to make concrete proposals able to revive the stalled political process. Most importantly, the success of his endeavor will depend on the extent to which the UN permanent members are willing to exert pressure on the Polisario and Algeria to reach a realistic political solution that would preserve the rights and interests of the Sahrawis and preserve Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory and the stability of the region as a whole.


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