Risk of status quo

The American diplomat Christopher Ross was chosen this past summer to untangle this mess. Ross was originally selected for the job in September, but it took several months to make it official, after Morocco obstructed his appointment because, as the moroccan press say, that, from now on, any talks must focus on how to implement the king’s autonomy plan, not whether to do it the Moroccan autonomy plan must be the « sole platform » for future discussions, leaving aside any proposals from POLISARIO. That is of course unacceptable to the Sahrawis, who respond that in such a case, there would be no point in having negotiations at all.

Ross inherits an unenviable portfolio. Morocco remains as unlikely as ever to agree to a referendum that offers independence for the territory, and the Polisario will settle for nothing less. To date, UN proposals have all been unsatisfactory to, at least, one of the three parties. The proposed UN referendum on independence signed in 1991 died when the Polisario and Morocco disagreed over who in the Western Sahara should have the right to vote. In 2001, Morocco signed on to the first version of the Baker plan, under which the Western Sahara would become an autonomous region of Morocco, but Polisario predictably rejected the plan. In 2003, Baker revised the plan to include autonomy and a referendum of the entire Western Saharan population, including the Polisario refugees in camps in Algeria. Polisario signed on, as did the UN Security Council, but without Morocco’s cooperation the deal fell through.

After visiting, twice, the Maghreb region, Ross said he won’t accept any solution that doesn’t have self-determination. Alternately, this could mean nothing. Moroccan claim that self-determination includes autonomy, and he hasn’t mentioned a referendum. But at least he is seraching for a « solution based on the self-determination principle » and he isn’t endorsing autonomy like Van Walsum. The new UN envoy on Western Sahara isn’t taking up last envoy Peter Van Walsum’s weak stance on self-determination.

Officially, Morocco indicated that it wanted negotiations to be based on the autonomy plan, but that never seemed likely. It could just have been an attempt to play hardball, so Western nations do not get the idea that Morocco is ready for more compromise; also, it’s worth bearing in mind that Morocco is rather comfortable with the status quo, and would rather extend it than enter unknown diplomatic territory.

If international law were followed, this would be an easy enough problem for Ross to sort out. Western Sahara falls under U.N. Charter laws. General Assembly Resolution 1514 outlawed colonialism and imposed an obligation on all colonial powers to let the indigenous population within the colonial territory vote for self-determination.

If Ambassador Ross convinces the parties involved to follow international law, he will have the honor of closing the door on Africa’s colonial past. The new UN envoy Ross seems to have reawakened hopes for sahrawi community. Let us hope that a year from now, Sahrawis are not still claiming for their rights and that refugees in Algeria be in their homeland.

But reality is different. The sad reality is that there is a little chance the talks in Austria would break the deadlock, even with a new format. That means that a fifth round of UN-sponsored negotiations is expected, but promises little immediate progress. All Analysts are unanimous : little prospect of breakthrough.

The informal meetings between Morocco and Front POLISARIO has again made a little noise. The good news: it is still moving. The bad news: it is moving to the statu quo if the international community still watching this conflict with indifference.

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