Saturday, May 03, 2008

Resolution 1813: Casus Belli? Apparently Not.

‘Negotiations, without the credible threat of force, are useless’
--Paraphrasing some dead white guy

Peter Van Walsum, personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the festering, nearly 33-year-old conflict in Western Sahara, dropped the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear bomb on international legality this week. The problem is, no one seemed to notice.

In the lead-up to the Security Council’s now ritual extension of the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at the end of April, Van Walsum, whose credibility is supposed to rest on his impartiality, said that ‘an independent Western Sahara was not a realistic proposition’.

Though Van Walsum’s sentiment was clearly at odds with the UN charter and the neutrality of the offices of the Secretariat, his realpolitik logic was quite impeccable. Not because Western Sahara does not have a right to independence or because it would constitute an unviable state; no, Van Walsum had another reason in mind. He simply noted there is ‘no pressure on Morocco to abandon its claim of sovereignty over the territory’.

This has always been the rub when it comes to Western Sahara. As a former colony of Spain and a UN-recognised non-self-governing territory, the native people of Western Sahara ought to be afforded a vote on independence. Yet Western Sahara, since 1975, has been occupied by Morocco, a staunch -- one might say highly pliable, exceedingly acquiescent or pathetically submissive -- ally of France and the United States. And since France and the US hold the keys to MINURSO and any coercive UN diplomacy, Morocco has gotten its way in Western Sahara, plundering and colonizing Africa’s last colony in what is the most aggressive, unchecked expansion of territory since Israel took Gaza and the West Bank in 1967.

Following Van Walsum’s dropping of the R-bomb (for realism), France and the United States charged full speed ahead with an effort to shove a pro-Morocco resolution down the Security Council’s throat. The crux of the matter was whether or not the term realism (i.e., deference to global U.S.-European hegemony before the law) should apply to the final status option of independence. With help from South Africa, a vital ally of Western Sahara holding the Council Presidency, this assault was somewhat repulsed and the term realism was affixed to the negotiations process rather than obliterating the option of independence. And as always, France would not accept increased human rights monitoring added to the Mission’s mandate, lest Morocco’s abuses become part of the official Security Council records in the Secretary-General’s reports.

Finding ‘Comfort’

As always, Polisario spun defeat into victory -- pointing towards the carnage, remarking how beautiful the smouldering husk of what is left of self-determination.

The Western Saharan independence movement (if it still deserves that title) said it ‘is happy that in the resolution that it just adopted, the Security Council has decided, once again, to comfort and consecrate the international legality regarding the question of Western Sahara, and thus, the righteousness and fairness of the Saharawi cause’. Algeria, likewise, applauded the work of their ally South Africa in defending the right of 200,000 Sahrawis to cast a ballot.

Meanwhile, the US adopted its most stridently pro-Moroccan language in the course of the Western Sahara conflict. Since 1975, for the most part, the US has avoided explicitly recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Instead, the US always fashioned itself a more moderate intermediary than France, whose historical baggage with Morocco and Algeria had predetermined its pro-Rabat position on Western Sahara.

In the past, the US would offer tepid, ambiguous support for self-determination (i.e., without qualification) and, more wholeheartedly, negotiations between Morocco, Polisario and Algeria. Now, it seems that the US has given up pretending that it would ever throw the Morocco’s pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime to the wolves of democracy. As the deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN told reporters after the vote, ‘The best way to move forward, in our view, the realistic way to move forward, is to pursue a negotiated solution resulting in true autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the Polisario’.

This was reaffirmed by the State Department in a press briefing on 1 May. Where in previous months, the US had simply adorned Morocco’s timid autonomy proposal with platitudes like ‘serious’ and ‘credible’, the Bush administration was now awarding its favourite proxy-torturer with a fait accompli in Western Sahara.

When asked about Resolution 1813, ‘An independent Sahrawi state is not a realistic option. In our view, some form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty is the only realistic way forward to resolve this longstanding conflict. We urge the parties to focus future discussions on a mutually-acceptable autonomy regime that is consistent with the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara’. And what if the aspirations of the Sahrawis are for independence? Well, one can only aspire for so much in the face of ‘realism’.

We will have to wait and see, but this move by the US probably also terminated the Bush administration’s brief fling with Algeria, consecrated shortly after 9/11 but irreparably undone in 2004. In 2003, the US had asked Algeria to use its influence on Polisario to accept the second Baker Plan. When Algeria delivered, the Bush administration turned around and supported Morocco’s rejection of the Baker Plan in 2004.

And while the ship of self-determination is sinking, Algeria and Polisario re-arrange the deck chairs.

Endgame or end of the endgame?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Resolution 1813 is that it extended MINURSO’s mandate for an entire year. In more recent renewals of the Mission, the Council had opted for four to six month intervals, enough time for the diplomatic process to cycle through once or twice (especially the shuttle diplomacy of the late Baker period, 2000-4, and the early Van Walsum period, 2005-7).

With the parties further apart than ever, and with Rabat more assured of its position than at any other time, why would the Council choose a long extension rather than a short one? Is it because Van Walsum (or, as people said in 2005 when he was nominated, Van Who-sum?) needs a year to work his realism magic?

Unlikely. Morocco will demand, in the name of realism, that Polisario first abandon the right to independence. Polisario, on the other hand, will demand that Morocco, in the name of realism, first accept the right to self-determination.

Which only goes to show that one person’s realism, is another person’s fantasy.

The reason the Security Council gave itself such latitude probably has to do with the elections in the US. Under current conditions, Polisario and Algeria will probably keep their hands folded and hope for another Clinton presidency, or better yet Obama.

Indeed, the current phase of the conflict is not unlike just five years ago, when the table were turned on Morocco. Algeria and Polisario had accepted the Second Baker Plan and Morocco had rejected it. Instead of creating more momentum in the peace process, it came to a dead halt, and Morocco stalled until Baker got the message in April 2004.

Now it’s the same way, except Morocco will be the one gloating and Polisario and Algeria will be the ones doing the stalling until more favourable conditions present themselves. And the only major change on the horizon isn’t until November. Thus MINURSO gets a yearlong lease on life.

What is also clear is that all talk of endgames should cease. If ever there was a moment for Polisario to withdrawal from the peace process and mobilize its forces, the time has passed. Morocco has apparently learned to keep overt repression of Sahrawis to a minimum -- just below the obtuse level of most international media. Everyone -- the Security Council, Morocco, Algeria and Polisario -- will tolerate an endless peace process. The status quo is, for better and worst, the least bad option for all -- except the Sahrawis.

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