Resolving the Western Sahara Saga

August 31, 2007 Topic: Security Tags: Diplomacy

Resolving the Western Sahara Saga

A former U.S. ambassador to Morocco discusses the prospects for peace in the long-running conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front insurgency.

On August 12, the second round of negotiations to end one of the world's least-known and longest lasting conflicts was quietly concluded in Manhasset, New York. These negotiations are the most recent result of efforts to resolve the status of the Western Sahara. The negotiations directly involve the Kingdom of Morocco, where I served as U.S. ambassador from 1997-2001, and an armed insurgent group known as the Polisario Front, as well as neighboring Algeria and Mauritania, both of which have long ties to this issue.

For centuries, nomadic tribes of the Sahara-known collectively as Sahrawis-subsisted in the vast expanse of the Sahara (across present-day Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Mali) while pledging allegiance to the Sultanate of Morocco. The colonial occupation of the region by Spain, and subsequent borders imposed in the area, did not take into account the unique cultural, political and economic identity of the Sahrawi people, who had always been inextricably tied to the south of Morocco.

During the Cold War, following Spain's withdrawal from the Sahara, a separatist revolutionary group known as the Polisario Front, backed by the USSR, Algeria, Cuba and Libya, attempted to wrest the region away from Morocco, which had reestablished its traditional sovereignty in the former Spanish colony. A United Nations ceasefire was established in 1991, but since that time various efforts to reach a political solution to the issue have failed. The impasse reflected the Polisario Front's firm stance that only independence will suffice, while Morocco insisted upon reintegration of its land and people within its national borders.

As a result, the parties to this conflict have been mired in deadlock for decades, unable to find an outcome which would ensure both the self-determination of the Sahrawi people and respect for the territorial integrity of Morocco.

Today, the international community has come to realize that only through compromise will there be success in finding a realistic solution acceptable to all parties. As a result, in an unprecedented and historic initiative, Morocco has proposed a negotiated and mutually-acceptable political solution based on wide autonomy for the people of Western Sahara under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Morocco.

This decision was reached through a wide-ranging discussion among the stakeholders in Morocco and reflects the evolving political realities of the global community. There are three legitimate options for the expression of self-determination in the eyes of the international community: integration with an independent state, free association with an independent state or emergence as an independent state. Yet the question remains: Why has Morocco shifted from its traditional position of total integration of the territory to proposing an autonomy initiative that reflects the concept of free association with an independent state?

The answer is simple: The world has changed. Morocco firmly believes that any solution to this conflict must reflect the complex realities of the contemporary global context and provide a meaningful way to realize self-determination for the Sahrawi people while respecting Moroccan national sovereignty.

The reasons to end this conflict are obvious and many. Morocco is dedicated first and foremost to solving the humanitarian crisis that this conflict has engendered. Morocco is also committed to regional stability in North Africa, which is threatened by maintaining the decades-old status quo. Recent attacks by Al-Qaeda in Morocco and Algeria only serve to reinforce the importance of ending this conflict to secure their shared borders.

Furthermore, Morocco realizes that only regional integration through rebuilding and strengthening the Arab Maghreb Union can help to achieve the economic development needed to allow the entire Moroccan population-especially the Sahrawis-to  share in the progress and prosperity of a modern Moroccan state. It is in Morocco's best interest to promote an economically viable Maghreb, without the hindrance of this conflict.

The first step along the road to ending the Western Sahara conflict is to embrace the opportunities that autonomy offers to the Sahrawis and to all Moroccans. Autonomy as "free association" with Morocco is consistent with the country's evolving democratization. Creating an autonomous arrangement within Morocco implies devolution of power through enhanced democratic processes at the local, provincial and national levels. By committing itself to the autonomy initiative for Western Sahara and to self-determination for the Sahrawi people, Morocco has committed itself to an internal reform process.

It is my sense that the Moroccan people welcome the autonomy proposal as an initiative that will enhance their participation in the political process. Morocco is on an irreversible path toward decentralization of its government's responsibilities, with autonomy for Western Sahara at the forefront. I believe that the government of Morocco is unwavering in its commitment to this initiative as the integral part of its national strategy. 

As Interior Minister Chakib Benmoussa  noted on the occasion of this most recent round of talks,

The Moroccan proposal is characterized by clarity, transparency, boldness and realism. In addition to its being open and flexible, the initiative can be discussed and enriched to enable the Sahrawi inhabitants to fully exercise their constitutional and political rights, and to preserve their cultural specificities, their lifestyle and their traditions, as part of a framework that suits them, unites their families, and shields the region from any threats and challenges. The initiative also conforms to Morocco's conception established at the regional and international levels and which is based on constructive dialogue and fruitful cooperation.

Most importantly, Morocco's autonomy initiative is a realistic solution that reflects the promise of the future of the Sahrawi people, the Moroccan people, and the Maghreb itself. I have every reason to hope that this negotiations process will finally allow all parties to move away from the unfortunate status quo.

Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and a consultant to the Moroccan government.