Western Sahara poser for the UN

Morocco serves as the backdrop for such Hollywood blockbusters as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies. The country’s breathtaking landscapes and gritty urban neighbourhoods are the perfect setting for Hollywood’s imagination.

Unbeknown to most filmgoers, however, is that Morocco is embroiled in one of Africa’s oldest conflicts – the dispute over Western Sahara. This month the UN Security Council is expected to take up the dispute once more, providing US President Barack Obama with an opportunity to assert genuine leadership in resolving this conflict. But there’s no sign that the new administration is paying adequate attention.

The story of Western Sahara would make quite a movie. There was high diplomatic intrigue when Moroccan troops occupied the territory, after Spain abandoned its long-time colony as Generalissimo Franco lay dying in 1975. The subsequent war between Morocco and the Algerian-supported Polisario Front, which sought Western Saharan independence, furnished plenty of action sequences in the desert. There is also the real human tragedy of the Western Saharan refugees, who have languished in exile for more than three decades.

In 1991, the Security Council created the UN mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO, whose mandate has been ritually reauthorized ever since. MINURSO’s original task was to organise a referendum in Western Sahara in which the residents would vote up or down on self-determination. Morocco, on the other hand, lobbied that tens of thousands of Moroccans be counted, a demand that Polisario resisted.

It was not until 1997, when former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called in former US Secretary of State James Baker as envoy that the debate got unstuck. However, the deadlock ensued once more in 1999 when Morocco’s new king, Mohammed VI, dropped all support for a referendum. Baker resigned – in part due to the (at best) weak support of the Security Council for his mandate.

Morocco’s latest stance is that Rabat share power in Western Sahara with indigenous groups. An autonomy proposal Morocco advanced in 2007 is in fact a credible starting point for negotiations aimed at a power sharing agreement. But Polisario will not discuss power sharing until Morocco recommits to a referendum on self-determination.

It has long been assumed in Western capitals that the Western Sahara question will be resolved through power sharing, but such a solution cannot simply be imposed. Only a negotiated settlement can bring about comprehensive peace.

But the UN does not push effectively for negotiations. Indeed, in rolling over MINURSO’s mandate year after year, the Security Council seems to hope that one party or the other will give in – an attitude that favours the more powerful actor, Morocco, a state that is closely allied with Security Council members France and the US.

The last thing the world needs is more de facto partisanship from the ostensibly neutral Security Council. Peace in Western Sahara will require that both Morocco and Polisario accept something they do not like. Polisario must accept that the achievement of a comprehensive power sharing agreement with Morocco is a prerequisite for a referendum. Morocco, on the other hand, must commit to a self-determination referendum as a necessary condition for power sharing talks. How to cut the Gordian knot?

The new man in charge of MINURSO is Christopher Ross, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria. Ross can boast of fluency in Arabic and an extensive background in North African affairs.

Instead of waiting for conditions to ripen, the new envoy should, at the next round of negotiations, secure the commitment of the parties – in writing – to a strong Security Council resolution calling for both a negotiated political solution and a referendum. This approach not only balances the interests of the parties but it also unblocks the mutual suspicion currently stalling talks.

If one side or the other refuses to sign, the Security Council must be willing to wield the weapon of shame and name names. The Obama administration should back Ross to the hilt as enforcer of the UN’s writ.

Western Sahara is not a problem of imagination that needs a Hollywood producer or two. It is problem of political will. With strong, consistent leadership from the US, inside and outside the Security Council, Morocco and the Polisario Front can be put on the right track toward peace.

¤Jacob Mundy is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He is coauthor of the forthcoming Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution.

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