Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed November 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Gilonne d'Origny

Western Sahara takes another step toward freedom

Gilonne d'Origny of Paris, France, is a senior at Brown University, where she is majoring in international relations. She attended the U.N. General Assembly debate over Western Sahara.

"The critical question now is whether a [U.N.] General Assembly opinion and a new secretary-general will lead to a more committed Security Council."

Western Sahara, Africa's last colony, is still waiting to exercise its right to self-determination. The people of the region, the Sahrawi, seek independence from Morocco in accordance with the United Nations Charter. A five-year-old peace process and peace-keeping mission intended to organize a free and fair referendum for the purpose has faltered due to Moroccan intransigence and U.N. impotence.

The stalemate is caused by disagreement over who may vote and what constitutes the "people" of the territory. But last week, a UN committee debate resulted in a breakthrough resolution calling for direct talks between the parties. If they fail, the peace mission may be withdrawn and the region returned to war.

In 1974, after Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania divided the territory. The Frente Polisario, which had been established to fight for independence from Spain, turned its attention to the armies of Morocco and Mauritania. After a coup in the capital of the latter, the new authority abandoned its claim over the southern part of Western Sahara. However, Morocco, attracted by natural resources and the idea of a territorially "greater Morocco," claimed Mauritania's share. During the 1980s, Moroccan forces built a 2,000-mile wall of sand and stone, dividing the country in two. The Sahrawi waged guerrilla warfare, dragging the conflict on for two decades.

After the arrival of the United Nations in 1991, a formal cease-fire was declared. The regular violation of this by Morocco was the first of several issues that halted the implementation of the plan to carry out the referendum. The second issue, and to date insurmountable, was disagreement over the identification of voters. Morocco's absolutist monarch, King Hassan II, moved into his army's zone of occupation more than twice as many of his subjects as the Sahrawi who were intended to vote in the referendum. In doing so, he redefined the "self" in self-determination for those with the right to determine the future of the territory. So divisive was this issue that the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) is threatened with cancellation.

On Oct. 7, several petitioners addressed the U.N. General Assembly on the issue of Western Sahara, denouncing the outrageous manipulation exerted by the Moroccan government over the U.N. Other petitioners three days later declared that the Sahrawi guerrilla force is an organization of criminals, whose victims are women, children and the elderly. But these proclaimed "Sahrawi" who argue in favor of the Kingdom of Morocco tend to speak for the security apparatus in control of the territory. Because freedom of expression is not a guaranteed right in Morocco generally, it is difficult to rely on testimony from the front lines of occupied Western Sahara.

The U.N. committee hearing the debate ultimately adopted a draft resolution, over Morocco's objections, calling for direct talks and a continuation of the peace process.

This might be a first step in breaking the stalemate, particularly because the Security Council will debate the issue in November and, for the first time since the start of the peace process, there will be a strong recommendation for direct talks from the General Assembly. It will have expressed its opinion in a matter seized by the Council, an unusual step in the normal separation of powers between the two bodies.

Coupled with this kind of pacific settlement of the dispute, which necessitates the political engagement of powerful countries, the possible replacement of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as U.N. secretary-general may alter the constellation of factors preventing the implementation of the peace plan. His objectivity as an honest broker has been questioned throughout.

The critical question now is whether a General Assembly opinion and a new secretary-general will lead to a more committed Security Council. This is necessary not only for successful talks between the parties but for a revitalization of MINURSO and the effective implementation of the Settlement Plan. Until that happens, according to Jarat Chopra, a lecturer at Brown University who presented to the committee a framework for talks, the situation will remain a tragedy, because at stake is nothing less than the fate of a people and a territory.