Will Bolton Break the Western Sahara Stalemate?
April 2006 could become a decisive month in the history of the Western Sahara conflict. The United States’ temporary UN representative, John Bolton, has made no secret of his desire to shake things up in the Sahara -- to unsettle the diplomatic war of attrition being waged by Morocco and the Algerian-backed independence front Polisario. His chance will come at the end of April, when the mandate for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) comes up for renewal. Bolton claims that his position with respect to MINURSO is principled. Like other UN missions, Bolton has argued that the UN operation in Western Sahara should be terminated unless it can fulfill its mandate. (One Moroccan magazine, Le Journal, however, recently reported that Bolton’s boss, Secretary of State Condi Rice, has had to rein him in on Western Sahara).
Bolton is no newcomer to the Western Sahara conflict. Starting in 1997, he worked -- pro-bono -- under former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. As Kofi Annan’s Personal Envoy to Western Sahara until 2004, Baker led negotiations between Morocco and Polisario. Baker first worked out all the problems with the 1991 UN Settlement Plan until Morocco rejected it in 2000. Then Baker started working on autonomy proposals that would also allow for an act of self-determination. The first, presented in 2001, was close to what Morocco wants because it did not offer independence outright. The second, presented in 2003, explicity reintroduced the idea of independence, and so Morocco rejected it. All the time, Bolton was in the loop, until Baker resigned in June 2004.
When introducing himself at the United Nations last fall, Bolton reportedly told every mission that if he did one thing during his short recess-appointment mandate, he would fix Western Sahara. What Bolton has in mind is not clear, except that he is obviously threatening to pull the plug on a mission that has existed for fifteen years come April.
The Security Council has ritually extended the Mission’s mandate since its creation in 1991, which saw the end of the sixteen-year war between Morocco and Polisario. MINURSO was originally had a six month timetable for a referendum polling 80,000 Saharans. Both Morocco and Polisario, however, had very different ideas about who should vote. During its first nine years, MINURSO tried to organize a classic decolonization referendum. It was supposed to allow indigenous Western Saharans to choose between independence and integration. Following the death of King Hassan II in mid-1999, the Moroccan regime lost interest in the referendum. The key architect of Morocco’s effort to fix the vote in its favor, Interior Minister Driss Basri, was removed from power soon after King Mohammed VI took over. With Basri and Hassan out of the way, the Morocco’s power-elite, especially the military-security apparatus, could reassert itself through the new King, and abandon the idea of an referendum on independence.
During negotiations in Berlin in 2000 (the last known face-to-face meeting between Morocco and the independence front Polisario), Morocco expressed its willingness to consider autonomy as a definitive final status, yet independence had to be taken off the table. France and the United States, Morocco’s strongest backers, agreed with Morocco’s turn towards “autonomy”, as the likely vote for independence in Western Sahara would be too traumatic for Morocco’s new regime head.
The problem now facing the Security Council is that MINURSO exists to hold a referendum on independence. Morocco rejects any peace proposal that would question its “sovereignty” vis-à-vis independence, even when the majority of voters in the referendum would be Moroccan citizens, voting alongside native Western Saharans. Yet the Secretary General has made it clear that “It is difficult to envision a political solution that, as required by Security Council resolution 1429 (2002), provides for self-determination but that nevertheless precludes the possibility of independence as one of several ballot options.”
Kofi Annan’s new Personal Envoy to Western Sahara, Dutch diplomat Peter Van Walsum, apparently is having trouble filling Baker’s shoes. When touring the region last fall he called the conflict “quasi-irreconcilable”. He told the Security Council in April that it would not be resolved this year. Van Walsum reportedly felt that he wasn’t “fully briefed” before taking on the assignment.
For the French government, especially Jacques Chirac, who is personally involved with the Moroccan royal family, extending MINURSO for the sake of monitoring the ceasefire is fine with them. Whatever is good for Morocco determines the French vote on the Security Council. (It’s no wonder that Polisario is eagerly awaiting the French presidential elections.)
Thus the only hope for shaking up the Western Sahara deadlock, at this point, is Bolton. Bolton, however, as a Baker protégé, is bad for Morocco, and Rabat knows it. The fact that Baker showed sympathy for Polisario was enough to put him on Morocco’s bad side. No need to mention Baker's disgust with Morocco's lack of cooperation following Rabat's rejection of his 2003 Peace Plan. It’s no secret that Bolton is far right, and no secret that some of Polisario’s biggest supporters in Washington are as far right as can be. (Though Polisario also counts Ted Kennedy among their supporters as well.)
How much freedom of movement Bolton has on the East River is unknown. So far he has carried out his campaign of reforms with full support from Washington. That might buy him some leverage on his pet issue of Western Sahara, though Morocco’s supporters on the National Security Council (i.e., Cold Warrior Elliot Abrams) probably like the status quo -- even if it means extending MINURSO ad nauseam, perhaps for another fifteen years and another half-billion dollars.