Thursday, April 06, 2006

April 2006 - Moment of Truth?

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.

-SW

12 comments:

hale said...

Hi -

You say: "Van Walsum reportedly felt that he wasn’t “fully briefed” before taking on the assignment."

Hard to see how he could fall back on that excuse! Much of the history of the conflict has been published either in books, in newspapers or on the 'Net. A little research would have awakened him to the problem he was likely to face. He could have spent 20 minutes on the phone with James Baker and had a good recap of the situation.

No, I won't buy it. More likely, his ego made him accept the job, and, sensing failure, his ego made him give that excuse.

But back to Bolton ... If he is successful in killing MINURSO, what then? What would the Polisario do if the UN people left?
What would Maroc do? Any ideas?

hale
BlogginTheMaghreb

sahara-watch said...

Hey Hale,

I think you're right. He should have called Baker before taking on the assignment.

I don't think MINURSO keeps Polisario from re-launching a war. If Polisario wanted to fight (as they almost did in newyears 2000/2001), then they would do it. MINURSO's only tool is to 'shame' either party for breaking the ceasefire; its mandate does not allow it to intervene. Like I said in the post, I'm not sure what Bolton is up to; if he just wants to shake things up, put a little fire under everyone's seats, or to seriously get rid of MINURSO because it simply can't live up to its mandate (ie, to hold a referendum)?

But, again, I think the French will pull out all the stops to keep MINURSO in place, for the sake of the Morocco. It doesn't even seem likely that the State Department will get behind the idea of axing MINURSO, as it would clearly look like another sad setback.

Best,
SW

hale said...

Hi -

Please tell me why you think Maroc would want to keep MINURSO in place?

What positive thngs does MINURSO bring to Maroc?

Would Maroc gain any advantage if MINURSO were to be removed?

I am asking these questions of you as I believe from reading your blog so so long, that you have a good handle on the politics on the UN presence in the Sahara.

hale
BlogginTheMaghreb

sahara-watch said...

Good questions, Hale.

"Please tell me why you think Maroc would want to keep MINURSO in place?"

I think the Moroccans and their supporters, mainly France, think MINURSO acts as a kind of deterrent keeping Polisario from fighting. The common refrain from Paris, Washington and Madrid is that MINURSO is a "stabilizing force" in the region. Morocco doesn't want to be the one who appears to be kicking MINURSO out, so I think they're trying to frustrate Polisario into firing the first shot.

"What positive thngs does MINURSO bring to Maroc?"

Again, MINURSO helps justify the status quo through its cease-fire monitoring. I think Morocco thinks the status quo is in its favor. While Polisario sits and rots in Tindouf, Morocco is busy looking for oil, plundering the fish, and constantly investing in the Territory.

"Would Maroc gain any advantage if MINURSO were to be removed?"

That's a really tough question. About the best thing coming out of a MINURSO withdrawal is that the issue will get some needed attention. I'm not sure if it's to anyone's advantage, and I really think the status quo is tilted in Morocco's favor right now. To whose advantage? I think it depends on the circumstances of MINURSO's departure and how each side spins it. If MINURSO leaves because Polisario fired the first shot, Morocco looks good. If it leaves because Annan or Bolton say that Morocco is not cooperating, then it's not so good.

Not very satisfactory answers, but I think we'll be speculating a lot these coming days. My money is on nothing really changing.

Cheers,
-SW

alle said...

I don't expect anything to change either, this time around, but I would like to stress your last point: if MINURSO goes, another solution must be found, because then the peace process is formally over - it's of course dead already, but as it stands, everyone involved can for their own reasons pretend that it's not.

That would force a reexamining of the conflict, which is probably not in Morocco's interest. Minurso is far from perfect from Rabat's point of view, since it keeps the Settlement Plan (and the prospect of a referendum) on the table, but for years it has done little more than provide cover for Morocco's continued occupation, exploitation, fortification, demographic Moroccanization, and generally helping out in its facts-on-the-ground strategy. Also, the frozen no war/no peace situation is seriously wearing down the Polisario morally (among members), politically (no war = no media attention) and militarily (destroying their mine stockpile this winter was basically a signal of abandoning armed conflict).

That is indeed a very comfortable place to be in for Morocco, and only two things could really change Morocco's interest in keeping Minurso: either Morocco deciding to go for the kill and finalize the issue legally, or Polisario causing enough fuss in the Occupied Territories to make the status quo so unpleasant for Morocco that it no longer brings the stability that the US and EU wants.

Interestingly enough, there's movement on both of those fronts now.

sahara-watch said...

Dear alle,

I agree with most of what you said, but I'm not sure that Polisario's move to destroy its landmines signals the end of its fighting days. I think that was a move to earn some good international press and attention.

Polisario still constantly training out there in the 'liberated' zones, teaching a whole new generation how to fight. I wonder about the state of some of their heavy weapons (tanks, APCs and artillery), but I think they still have the will to fight, which is the most important thing for guerilla warfare.

-SW

hale said...

Hi -

I read the press reports about the destruction of Polisario's land mines, but I did not see anything about the destruction being monitored by an independent body, as usually occurs when weapons are destroyed.

Did MINURSO oversee the destruction of the land mines? If so, I faled to note this in their press releases. If not, it makes me wonder whether the land mines were actually destroyed, or hidden for use when armed conflict breaks out again.

If you were Polisario, would you have destroyed ALL of them, realizing that you may well have a resumption of armed conflict in the near future? I'm not sure I would!!

hale
BlogginTheMaghreb

sahara-watch said...

Hey Hale,

On the mine issue, according to Reuters, March 3, 2006, 'Western Sahara's independence movement has started destroying its landmines in a boost for efforts to enlist "non-state" armed forces in the drive to abolish the weapon, a humanitarian group said on Friday.
'The Geneva Call group said in a statement that engineers of the Polisario Front, which opposes Moroccan control of the territory, destroyed 3,321 anti-personnel landmines last month in front of United Nations and other international observers.
'The event took place at 30th anniversary celebrations of Polisario's proclamation of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in the small town of Tifariti in an area of the territory outside Moroccan control.'

Taking this at face value, it seems that Polisario is serious. But I think you're right to be skeptical. I'm sure they could easily stash some mines. I don't think MINURSO knows where even half of Polisario's real bases are in eastern Western Sahara.

During the war, one of Polisario's tricks was to dig up Morocco's mines and replant them where Moroccans would drive/walk over them. So there's still plenty of mines for Polisario to use in Western Sahara!

Best,
SW

Anonymous said...

Bolton can fix it. its time somebody stops the feudal northafrican kingdom and do some justice for the saharauis.
Jimmy

Anonymous said...

Seul M. John Bolton à l'instar de son mentor James Baker peut peser de tout son poids et donner un coup de fouet à cette affaire qui n'a que trop duré alors que tout un peuple est dans l'expectative : les sahraouis méritent bien un meilleur sort et il est temps qu'ils prennent leur sort en main via l'autodétermination. J'espère que M. Bolton, connu pour son franc-parler et son intransigeance, saura faire courber l'échine à un entêtement marocain qui n'est 'courageux' que grâce à l'appui inconditionnel et incompris d'un membre permanent des Nations Unies qu'est la France...mais que peuvent Chirac, De Villepin, Douste-Blazy face à des Bush, Condi, Cheney, Rumsfield, Bolton entre autres Negroponte, D. Welsh ou Elliot Abrahams..??? Il est temps de secouer le cocotier chérifien...

sahara-watch said...

It would be great if Bolton could shake things up, but I'm starting to fear that he won't be able to do much with Iran facing the Security Council at the same time.

The best thing Polisario could do at this point is mobilize its army ASAP to give the international community a fright so that the Security Council takes them seriously.

-SW

alle said...

landmines: well, it's true that polisario could easily have hid mines elsewhere, or get new ones from algeria or whomever. but the important part is that they publicly committed to not using them again, ever. of course it is a pr-stunt, but since renewed hostilities would almost certainly involve mines, it also says something about how they themselves view the chances for a new war. making a promise: good pr; breaking a promise: bad pr.

on war: agree completely. polisario needs war, and would gain tremendously from it. the cease-fire has been gutted of the referendum, foreign aid is decreasing due to lack of media attention, and what's left for the refugees is no homeland, but death from malnutrition.

and, well, since morocco has spent 15 years systematically breaking one clause of the cease-fire agreement after another (right on from not redeploying its troops, to refusing meetings with the other side, to turning away from two separate UN-ordered peace plans, and finally refusing even the concept of a referendum), there's no need to look for a casus belli: morocco has consciously and openly destroyed the cease-fire terms in what was always a formal state of war.

virtually every sahrawi i've met wants war, desperately, and that's the impression i get from everybody who's been either to the territories or the camps. if anything, the pro-independence youth in the territories seem even more militant.

problem is algeria, not polisario. they won't permit cross-border movement for a war, since that would wreck algerian-american relations. and there is simply nothing polisario can do about that. they can't very well fight algeria, even if it works against their interests.

so the intifada, while a poor substitute, is the only show in town. but even peaceful protest could spiral into warfare. khat ash-shahid and pro-polisario youth activists in the territory have begun forming "martyrs' brigades" and releasing ETA-style video tapes in the last months, so it's pretty clear where the wind is blowing, regardless of how many times abdelaziz asks everybody to stay calm.

when that hits the fan, it won't be the polisario's fault, of course (they've been warning for several years that they couldn't keep the lid on this), but they will certainly be blamed for it.

and in the end, of course, the tragedy is that terrorism could actually work, where lawful war, peaceful protest, international legality and democractic activism have all been derailed by western and arab support for morocco. so far polisario has met nothing but indifference and scorn from the US and Europe, while they heap attention on anyone prepared to blow up an airliner or massacre civilians.

it's getting to the point where you can't tell if it's just normal hypocrisy or a conscious effort to provoke terrorism...