In his January 1996 report on the UN operation in the Western Sahara, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressed the Security Council’s “frustration…at the absence of even a reasonably clear indication of when the [referendum] process might come to an end.” This was one of Boutros-Ghali’s most candid official statements about an operation that, by most accounts, has gone awry. With a mandate to organize and conduct a referendum asking Sahrawis to choose either independence or integration into Morocco, the most important issue now confronting the UN mission is whether the referendum process, which began in September 1991, has already been so compromised that it no longer offers a realistic means for resolving the conflict.

The dispute over the Western Sahara stems from two fundamentally incompatible claims to the same territory. For the POLISARIO Front, [1] which has struggled for national independence for over 20 years, the territory of the Western Sahara and its people are distinct from Morocco. [2] For King Hassan II of Morocco, however, sovereignty over the Western Sahara has become a central policy and a significant unifying force in the country. [3] For the Moroccan government, the “Moroccan-ness” of the Western Sahara is beyond question and its participation in the referendum is viewed as a confirmation of that reality.

Against this backdrop, the UN Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) has set up operations in the Western Sahara, most of which is under Moroccan occupation, and in southwestern Algeria, where an estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees live in desert refugee camps around the city of Tindouf. [4] After repeated delays, MINURSO began the process of registering eligible voters in August 1994.

Though the UN has successfully brokered and maintained the 1991 ceasefire that ended 16 years of armed conflict between Morocco and the POLISARIO, [5] its mismanaged and tainted efforts to carry out a referendum in the Western Sahara may have jeopardized the chances for a fair and peaceful resolution of the conflict. Many MINURSO staff members, as well as the few independent observers and journalists who have been permitted into the territory, maintain that the voter registration process has not been impartial or transparent and that Morocco — militarily and diplomatically the stronger of the two parties — has regularly engaged in conduct that has obstructed and compromised the fairness of the referendum process.

From the start, the voter registration process has been a contest between the two parties to register more of their supporters as potential voters. The Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf will inevitably vote for independence and the right to return to homes left behind 20 years ago, when the Moroccan military occupied most of the territory. Morocco, for its part, has invested heavily in the territory, providing significant tax breaks, housing and food subsidies to anyone who will move there from Morocco. These measures, however, have not benefited the Sahrawi population which continues to be ruled by an iron fist. Freedom of expression and assembly are severely restricted; since the September 1991 ceasefire, Morocco has arrested and detained hundreds of Sahrawis, who are regularly held incommunicado, without the release of any information on their whereabouts, for days on end. There have also been allegations of torture during detention. [6]

From the outset, the UN relinquished any control over the voter registration process by agreeing that the parties, and not MINURSO, would be responsible for distributing application forms and distributing them on behalf of potential voters. [7] MINURSO’s involvement at this stage would have guaranteed that all individuals were given an equal opportunity to participate in the process. Now, in the words of one member of the UN voter identification commission, “There is no way of knowing who may have been excluded.” [8] This is of particular concern given Morocco’s incentive to exclude those Sahrawis living in the Moroccan-occupied territory who are likely to vote for independence.

In 1991, Morocco transferred 40,000 people into the territory, in violation of the terms of the UN settlement plan. [9] This population, which lives under 24-hour guard in “tent cities,” receives free food and other benefits from the Moroccan government. Of the remaining 140,000 voter applications submitted to MINURSO by Morocco, 100,000 are on behalf of individuals currently residing in Morocco. [10] According to members of the MINURSO voter identification commission, a large number of the applicants submitted by Morocco have no documents proving links to the Western Sahara, are unfamiliar with the tribal structure of the region and have memorized responses to the factual and biographical questions posed by the commission. [11] Since each applicant is interviewed by the UN, these frivolous applications only serve to slow down completion of the registration process.

Another serious violation of the referendum process is the omnipresent Moroccan security and intelligence forces who routinely deny access to Sahrawis seeking to submit voter applications to the UN headquarters in Laayoune. Moreover, Morocco refuses to allow the nearly 100 civilian police of the UN staff to guard the UN compounds. There is also evidence of Moroccan attempts to intimidate and control applicants in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, including allegations that voter registration cards have been confiscated. Individual applicants are also denied access to registration centers; rather, they are gathered at a central location and taken to and from registration centers in Moroccan vehicles.

Opportunities for independent observers to analyze the registration process are severely limited. The UN has permitted journalists and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) into the voter registration centers for only one 30-minute period, which is too brief to permit meaningful observation of such a complex process. MlNURSO staff members, including military observers, are subject to constant surveillance by Morocco. As a result of this, and internal pressure from MINURSO, UN staff members refuse to speak to NGOs or journalists, except on the explicit condition of anonymity.

The obstruction of independent observers only increases suspicions that the referendum process is not being conducted in a transparent manner. This is particularly troubling given evidence that Morocco has intimidated and improperly influenced Sahrawi tribal leaders who live in the Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara and are involved in the identification of eligible voters. [12] Members of the UN voter identification commission allege that they have been pressured by certain senior MINURSO staff to act contrary to established procedures. [13] Such allegations may prove difficult to verify since there has been no opportunity to scrutinize the procedures or guidelines used by the UN in deciding which applicants are eligible to vote. While applicants will be allowed to appeal the UN’s decisions on eligibility, MINURSO will not justify denial of eligibility. Thus, it will be difficult to assess whether such decisions were made fairly and objectively. With such an ill-defined basis for eligibility, the number of appeals is likely to be overwhelming, and may well amount to a virtual repetition of the entire voter registration process.

While the slow pace of the registration process can be attributed, in part, to logistical complexities and difficult operating conditions, the more significant problem, in the words of one staff member of MINURSO, is that the UN operation simply “started off on the wrong foot.” [14] In spite of repeated calls by the secretary-general for coordination between the parties, the spirit of cooperation has been conspicuously absent in this operation. Rather, a pattern has emerged in which minor disagreements between the POLISARIO Front and Morocco escalate into large-scale disputes, often paralyzing the registration process for days or weeks at a time. By mid-August 1995, MINURSO had registered only 49,808 of the 235,000 voters who have submitted applications. Between September 1995 and January 1996, a dispute over eligibility criteria brought the registration process to a standstill.

Thus, more than four years after the arrival of MINURSO in the Western Sahara, the future of a referendum originally scheduled for January 1992 is still uncertain. Two UN special representatives for the Western Sahara have resigned; Australia, Canada, Britain and Switzerland have withdrawn their military and support forces from the operation. Former MINURSO Deputy Chairman Frank Ruddy testified before Congress on January 25, 1995, alleging MINURSO mismanagement and Moroccan obstructionist tactics. [15]

In contrast to the highly publicized UN operations in Somalia, Bosnia and Cambodia, which have been subjected to severe criticism, the flaws in the Western Saharan operation have remained largely unexposed. This is due, in part, to the obscure nature of the conflict. In addition, although the MINURSO operation may turn out to have been, in the words of one European diplomat, “just another colossal UN waste of time and money,” its cost relative to other UN operations has been small. [16] The monthly price tag of MINURSO, estimated at over $5 million, [17] seems negligible when compared to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), or UNPROFOR, in the former Yugoslavia, which each cost an average of $150 million per month. [18] The imbalance in diplomatic clout between Morocco and the POLISARIO has also shielded MINURSO from scrutiny. Influential countries such as the United States, France and Great Britain have been unwilling to risk their close friendship and trade relations with Morocco by speaking out, whether from their capitals or from their seats on the Security Council, against unfairness and improprieties in the referendum process. The Republican Congress in Washington, however, has seized upon MINURSO as a symbol of everything that is wrong with expensive and grandiose UN operations. The subject of continued US assistance to MINURSO was debated in the FY 1995 and 1996 appropriations hearings. During a hearing coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights cited the Western Sahara as an example of the need for reform and increased UN accountability. [19] However, such criticisms have yet to change the course of MINURSO’s operations.

Prior to each vote on the extension of the mandate of MINURSO, the Secretary-General has implied that if MINURSO is kept alive long enough to get all the voters registered, the conflict will only be steps away from resolution. The Security Council has repeatedly extended MINURSO’s mandate, most recently until May 31, 1996. [20] Yet, even if the registration process is completed, the results may not be accepted by the two parties involved in the conflict. Already there is a strong perception on the part of MINURSO staff members, the POLISARIO and outside observers that the UN has not acted as an impartial party in organizing the referendum.

Given the growing sense that MINURSO has been a failure, the UN mission may be forced to withdraw. Instead of a free and fair referendum, the fact that Morocco already occupies most of the Western Sahara would then determine the region’s future. More ominous is the prospect that the termination of MINURSO would lead to a resumption of the 16-year armed conflict. The only alternative — a negotiated settlement of the conflict — appears unlikely. As Boutros-Ghali pointed out in his January 13, 1996 report, Morocco believes that “a dialogue between the two parties would not serve much purpose at this stage and might even complicate the situation.” [21]

In assessing the viability of MINURSO, the UN should focus not just on accelerating voter registration, but also on ensuring that the process is credible and fair. Rather than simply renewing MINURSO’s mandate periodically and making hollow threats of withdrawal, the Security Council should both acknowledge that the process thus far has been deeply flawed and provide MINURSO with the tools to conduct a free and fair referendum. First, it must increase the presence of MINURSO military and civilian police in the Moroccan-occupied territory in order to prevent intimidation and the restrictions on access that have adversely affected the transparency and fairness of the referendum process. The Security Council should also order an independent review of the registration process and eliminate those results that have been improperly or unfairly obtained. Most important, the Security Council must send a strong signal to the Moroccan government that interference with MINURSO operations must cease immediately. While both Morocco and the POLISARIO have engaged in petty rhetoric, exhibiting a lack of cooperation at various stages of the process, only Morocco has engaged regularly in actions that have both obstructed a crucial and expensive UN operation and compromised the free and fair nature of a future referendum. To preserve its own credibility, the Security Council must either put an end to this conduct or withdraw its support for MINURSO and finally admit that the UN operation in the Western Sahara has failed in what has been proven to be nothing more than an expensive political exercise.


[1] The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO Front) was originally formed in May 1973 to fight against Spanish colonial rule.
[2] The majority of the Sahrawi population currently resides in the Moroccan-occupied territory or refugee camps in Algeria. The remaining population resides in Mauritania and Spain.
[3] George Joffe, “The Conflict in the Western Sahara,” in Oliver Furley, ed., Conflict in Africa (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), pp. 118-119.
[4] Of these 165,000 refugees, the POLISARIO has submitted applications for approximately 40,000 eligible voters.
[5] A de facto ceasefire has been in effect since 1989.
[6] In May 1995, eight young Sahrawi men were arrested in Laayoune following a peaceful pro-independence demonstration. They were held incommunicado, in secret detention for more than five weeks, during which they were allegedly subjected to torture and ill treatment. In June 1995, a military tribunal in Morocco sentenced them to periods ranging from 15 to 20 years each. The trial was condemned as grossly unfair by Moroccan and international human rights organizations, and King Hassan subsequently commuted their sentences to one year. See also Amnesty International, “Continuing Arrests, ‘Disappearances’ and Restrictions on Freedom of Expression and Movement in the Western Sahara,” London, February 1993, p. 2.
[7] The exception has been for the 14,500 potential voters who have submitted applications in Mauritania.
[8] Interview in Laayoune, August 15, 1995.
[9] UN Doc. 8121360, paras. 72 and 73, provide that Western Saharans resident outside of the territory can return to the Western Sahara only after their eligibility to vote has been established by the UN voter identification commission. The 40,000 people who have been transferred to the Western Sahara are Moroccan citizens (as are all Sahrawis living in Moroccan-occupied territories). While Morocco claims that these 40,000 are Sahrawis who fled during the Spanish colonial period, the POLISARIO claims that they are Moroccans posing as Sahrawis in order to increase the number of those who will vote for Morocco in the referendum.
[10] MINURSO Press Office, Laayoune. The size of the Sahrawi population is contested. By November 1995, the UN had received 233,487 applications for participation in the referendum (which does not include children). The UN has yet to announce how many of these will be eligible to vote.
[11] Interviews conducted in Laayoune, Western Sahara and Tindouf, Algeria, August 1995.
[12] Interviews with Sahrawi tribal leaders in Tindouf, Algeria and with MINURSO staff members in Laayoune, August 1995.
[113] Interviews with MINURSO staff members in Laayoune, August 1995.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Frank Ruddy, “Review of United Nations Operations and Peacekeeping,” Statement before the Subcommittee on the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State, the Judiciary and Related Agencies, January 25, 1995.
[16] New York Times, March 5, 1995.
[17] UN Doc. 811995/779, para. 40. The report also notes that “unpaid assessed contributions to the MINURSO special account since the inception of the mission amounted to $55.8 million.” Ibid., para. 42.
[18] UNTAC costs an estimated $2.8 billion over an 18-month period. See Court Robinson, “Something Like Home Again: The Repatriation of Cambodian Refugees,” US Committee for Refugees, p. 1, and Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Disillusion after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995), p. 329.
[19] Hearing before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, October 26, 1995.
[20] Security Council Resolution 1042, January 31, 1996.
[21] UN Doc. 811996/43, p. 3.

How to cite this article:

"UN Impasse in the Western Sahara," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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