The Moroccan occupation since 1975 of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions on the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. The conflict remains unresolved despite the existence of a UN Settlement Plan (1991) and the Houston Accords of 1997, brokered by special UN envoy James Baker and accepted by both Morocco and the Sahrawis. These accords established a timetable for a referendum allowing Sahrawis to choose between independence and integration into Morocco. Pro-independence Sahrawis are poised to win a free and fair referendum carried out in a timely fashion. Knowing this, Morocco has pursued delaying tactics, seeking to bolster Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara through outright colonization and “economic development” projects, as well as an imposing military presence.

The December 1999 UN mission to identify voters in the prospective referendum ended in impasse. Rejecting the inclusion of three tribes representing 51,220 possible votes for the Moroccan position, the UN found a total of 86,386 eligible voters [1] — a tally that corresponded closely to the final Spanish census. The Identification Commission rejected the others because they did not meet the agreed-upon criteria for eligibility, and they were not Sahrawis from the designated territory. Morocco sought the inclusion of those Sahrawis who live in the former Spanish enclaves in southern Morocco. Thus, facing certain defeat, Morocco refused to hold the referendum. In early 2000, a royal commission headed by former opposition leader Abraham Serfaty, who until then had strongly supported the Sahrawis’ claim to independence, promoted the concept of autonomy for “Western Saharan provinces” within the Kingdom of Morocco, taking as a model the autonomous regions of Catalonia and Andalusia in Spain. [2] Today, Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State Baker, along with the US, France and Great Britain, are backing the so-called “third way” — neither independence nor integration — to settlement of the Western Sahara question. The “third way,” a clear concession to Moroccan intransigence after more than a decade of deadlock, comes at the expense of international law and UN resolutions.

“Winner-Take-All Mentality”

Following the results of voter identification, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in March 2000 that the referendum would not take place before 2002. Annan said that Baker needed to further investigate the feasibility of implementing the Houston Accords and the specific problems obstructing the execution of the UN Settlement Plan. After a face-to-face meeting of the parties in London in May 2000, Annan observed that the Moroccan and Sahrawi views on the referendum were widely divergent and suggested another way “of achieving an early, durable and agreed resolution of their dispute over Western Sahara.” The Security Council, approving Annan’s report, expected that the parties would offer Baker “specific and concrete proposals to resolve the multiple problems relating to the implementation of the Settlement Plan and explore all ways and means to achieve an early, durable and agreed resolution to their dispute.” [3] Security Council Resolution 1301, confirming Baker’s new mission, generated disquiet within the UN General Assembly, the majority of whose members were still supportive of the peace plan.

During the remainder of 2000, further meetings in Berlin and Geneva highlighted the fact that neither party “had shown any disposition to depart from the ‘winner-take-all’ mentality.” [4] However, “both parties remained attached to the Settlement Plan despite their fundamental differences and perceptions as to its correct implementation.” In an effort to win over Sahrawis, Morocco proposed to enter into direct talks with the POLISARIO Front, the Sahrawis’ recognized representative, to seek a political solution, “subject to stated concerns involving Morocco’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” [5] Baker asked the parties “whether, without abandoning the settlement plan, they would be interested in pursuing a subsequent discussion to find another solution that may or may not be confirmed by referendum.” The POLISARIO stated its refusal to discuss anything outside the Settlement Plan, whereas Morocco “expressed the wish to further explore other ways and means to settle the conflict.” [6] Morocco pressed for an alternative to the referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people, while Baker headed off to count dimpled chads in Florida.

Abandoning the Peace Plan

The battle was rejoined in the summer of 2001. The POLISARIO, backed by international law and the results of the voter identification, argued that the Settlement Plan did not envision any enforcement mechanism, leading Annan to complain that every time the UN proposed a solution, a new difficulty arose, “requiring yet another round of protracted consultations.” [7] When neither party came up with the expected concrete proposals for implementing the referendum, Baker said: “There could be a negotiated agreement for full integration of Western Sahara with Morocco, or for full independence.” In his view, however, “neither prospect appeared likely. Alternatively, a negotiated agreement could produce a solution somewhere between those two results.” [8] Baker’s words seemed to endorse the Serfaty commission’s call for Sahrawi autonomy within Morocco. In an astonishing development, Baker and Annan championed this “third way,” submitting it to the parties as a UN “Framework Agreement on the Status of Western Sahara.” [9]

At that stage, the Security Council had only two options: terminate the mandate of MINURSO, the peacekeeping force that the UN has kept in Western Sahara since 1991 at a cost of over $2 billion, [10] or encourage “the parties to discuss the draft Framework Agreement and to negotiate any specific changes they would like to see in this proposal.” Resolution 1359 adopted the latter option, but the Council recognized implicitly that it could not bring the parties to agree on the results of the UN voter identification. Hence the Council acknowledged the value of the Moroccan proposal for settling the conflict, while respecting, ultimately, the principle to self-determination. The Framework Agreement foresees that Western Sahara would be a part of Morocco operated under the Moroccan constitution, but remaining autonomous. Morocco would have exclusive control over foreign relations, national security and external defense. The eligible voters of Western Sahara would elect an executive body running the country’s internal affairs, but Morocco would appoint the judges and be responsible for law and order during the transition. The transition would be limited to four years, after which a referendum would decide whether Western Sahara stays Moroccan or becomes a separate state. The most shocking aspect of this proposal is that Moroccan settlers who had remained in Western Sahara for more than a year would be eligible to vote in the referendum. In other words, Morocco would allow a referendum on self-determination on the condition that Western Sahara becomes Moroccan.

If it were implemented, the Framework Agreement would ignore the basic principles that have informed UN action in the area of decolonization, allowing a question of self-determination to be settled under the guidance of the colonial power, with the UN seal of approval.

In his February 2001 report on Western Sahara, Annan held out the possibility of expediting the appeals procedures for the voter determination carried out in 1999. [11] The reference to the appeals procedure was crucial because the UN itself admitted that it could act on the issue quickly, thus opening the way again to the successful conclusion of the referendum. However, Annan’s report in April 2001 did not repeat the reference, referring instead to Baker’s attempts to find an alternative to the 1991 UN Settlement Plan. [12] In reality, the idea of abandoning the 1991 agreement is Annan’s. Former UN undersecretary-general Marrack Goulding recently revealed that Annan asked him in 1997 “to go to Houston to persuade James Baker III to accept an appointment as Special Representative and try to negotiate a deal based on enhanced autonomy for Western Sahara within the Kingdom of Morocco.” [13]

Against Sahrawi Will

For Sahrawis, implementation of the peace plan, including the referendum, remains the most viable and just solution to the conflict. [14] The POLISARIO considered Baker’s promotion of the Framework Agreement as a breach of the 1991 UN Peace Plan and the Houston Accords. In January 2001, the POLISARIO threatened to block the route of the Paris-Dakar rally, a desert auto race, because the organizers had requested permission to cross the Western Sahara territories only from the Moroccan authorities. This crisis might have led to renewed hostilities between the POLISARIO and the Moroccan army, but for last-minute Algerian, UN and US intervention.

Algeria, home to more than 165,000 Sahrawi refugees, has maintained a consistent position in support of a referendum in Western Sahara, though ambiguities in its stance occasionally emerge. During an official visit to the US in November 2001, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika held talks with Baker in which he allegedly stated that Algeria was not against a “third way.” [15] This allegation provoked violent reactions in the independent Algerian press, prompting the presidency to reaffirm Algeria’s commitment in favor of the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi people. [16] Civilian and military officials interviewed after Bouteflika’s visit insisted that Algeria’s position had not changed.

Members of the Security Council did not endorse the Framework Agreement and requested, again, that Baker produce a plan to implement earlier accords. In Washington, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Kerry (D-MA) wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing their concern that the UN would “abandon the referendum and support a solution that proposes integrating the Western Sahara into Morocco against the will of the Sahrawi people.”

France, the US and the “Third Way”

France, the former colonial power in North Africa, retains the preponderant great power role. With respect to the conflict in Western Sahara, France’s official “neutrality” is largely influenced by France’s pro-Moroccan policy, presently demonstrated by the friendship between President Jacques Chirac and King Mohammed VI, and reinforced by France’s economic and cultural relations with Morocco. Neither conservative nor socialist political forces in France have provided support for the establishment of an independent Sahrawi state. [17] Not being part of the French colonial sphere of influence, an independent Western Sahara could destabilize a fragile region that France considers vital from economic, strategic and military points of view. France pays particular attention to political and social unrest in North Africa, especially to Islamist groups intent on overthrowing the Algerian regime.

France aims to achieve a subtle balance on issues where Algeria and Morocco disagree — trying not to alienate Algeria, but opposing actions potentially detrimental to the Moroccan regime and the leadership of the young monarch. Hence France displays a position of “neutrality” on Western Sahara, while working through the UN to elicit support for a UN resolution or initiative, such as Baker’s, which would fulfill French objectives in the region. Since Chirac’s visit to Algeria in early 2003, an indisputable Franco-Algerian rapprochement has occurred. Although France still seeks a solution favorable to Morocco, French policymakers realize that they cannot alter Algeria’s stance on Western Sahara, especially since Algeria is regaining its role on the international stage.

The United States is a traditional ally and friend of Morocco, as confirmed by Baker’s nomination to be special envoy and especially by the evolution in his positions since taking the job. However, the remarkable improvement in US-Algerian relations has made all-out support for Morocco implausible. [18] Particularly since September 11, 2001, US-Algerian relations have improved considerably. Algeria’s impressive hydrocarbon resources and large potential market make it look more and more like the preferred US ally in North Africa. Meanwhile, Morocco’s strategic significance has declined in Washington’s eyes.

Congress, despite the pro-Moroccan positions of the pro-Israel lobby, has not been as pro-Moroccan as the executive branch. Sahrawis, in fact, have steadfast support among some Republican and Democratic members of Congress. In this environment, the Bush administration can ill afford to act in a way that might trigger resumption of hostilities in the region, as no Congressional majority exists to endorse military support for Morocco. Growing US interests in the region, especially in the Algerian hydrocarbon sector, make it doubtful that the US would welcome further instability in North Africa.

US administrations have been careful not to alienate Algeria. [19] But, unlike France, the US has sought a resolution of the Sahrawi conflict — preferably in Morocco’s favor — in order to force the process of regional economic integration. Such integration, policymakers hope, will create the conditions for a market wide enough to attract US investment. By favoring Morocco’s stance, the US has set a dangerous precedent for its diplomatic standing in the region. Nonetheless, both France and the US continue to support the “third way,” convinced that Morocco will not accept the verdict of a referendum.

The Fourth Way or the First Way

Following Algeria and the POLISARIO’s rejection of the draft Framework Agreement, Annan indicated that one option to remedy the “bleak situation” could be to “explore with the parties one final time whether or not they would now be willing to discuss a possible division of the Territory,” “following indications from Algeria and the POLISARIO of a willingness to negotiate a possible division of Territory.” Annan also mentioned the possibility of ending the mandate of minurso. After more than 11 years, he recognized, the UN could not solve the problem of Western Sahara “without requiring that one or the other or both of the parties do something that they do not wish to voluntarily agree to do.” [20]

If Annan represented Algerian intentions correctly, his statement contradicted the Algerian proposal of May 2001, which Baker had rejected, to place Western Sahara under UN administration in order to conduct the referendum, following the example of East Timor. The seeming change in Algeria’s position is said to have been designed to serve US interests — because the creation or partition of a Sahrawi state would allow Algeria to transport its oil to ports in the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, the exploitation of oil reserves of the region requires the stability of North Africa. [21] In the era of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, Algeria has become a pivotal state in the region for Washington, which has recently promised Algiers the delivery of sensitive military equipment. [22] In any event, Morocco reacted angrily to Annan’s suggestion, reaffirming that its “sovereignty” was inalienable in “Morocco’s southern provinces.” [23]

In January 2003, James Baker conducted another mission to the region. He submitted to Morocco and the POLISARIO, as well as to Algeria and Mauritania, a settlement plan that differed very little from the proposal he presented in 2001. The proposal is a mere reiteration of the “third way,” with slight modifications. The plan that Baker proposed — with the probable support of the US, France and Annan — would guarantee with all certainty that Morocco, due to the overwhelming presence of Moroccan settlers and their eligibility to vote, would win the referendum. The POLISARIO had already rejected the proposal before the March 31 deadline for the parties to respond. Algeria is very likely to challenge legally the plan that Baker has set forth, as it did with the “third way.” Sahrawis rejected the new plan submitted by Baker on May 20, 2003 even before the Security Council had given its opinion. Sahrawi officials feel that Baker’s new proposal “is keener on taking account of the Kingdom of Morocco’s sovereignty than of the Sahrawis’ inalienable right to self-determination.” [24] Furthermore, the new proposal would basically guarantee Morocco’s victory in the referendum, given that under this plan all residents in the territory, including Moroccan settlers, would be eligible to vote.

After 30 years of enduring conflict, the independence of Western Sahara remains first and foremost an issue of international law. Few options, except a referendum, can break the stalemate. But the successful example of decolonization in East Timor may not be emulated in Western Sahara. Morocco maintains its uncompromising position to preserve the rich resources of the territory and to ensure the internal stability of the kingdom. The US, having gone to war in Iraq ostensibly to enforce UN resolutions, looks on while its former Secretary of State facilitates Morocco’s ongoing defiance of UN resolutions in Western Sahara.


[1] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2000/131, February 17, 2000.
[2] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2000/131, February 17, 2000
[3] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2000/461, May 22, 2000.
[4] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2000/683, July 12, 2000.
[5] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2000/1029, October 25, 2000.
[6] Ibid.
[7] UN Security Council S/2001/613, June 20, 2001.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2002/178, February 19, 2002. “As of January 31, 2002…the total outstanding assessed contributions for all peacekeeping operations…amounted to $2,165,678,953.”
[11] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2001/148, February 20, 2001.
[12] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2001/398, April 24, 2001.
[13] Marrack Goulding, Peacemonger (London: John Murray, 2002), pp. 214-215.
[14] Letter of Mohammed Abdelaziz, Secretary-General of the POLISARIO, to Annan, May 30, 2001. Published in UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2001/613, June 20, 2001, Annex IV.
[15] Le Quotidien d’Oran, November 5, 2001. An Algerian journalist who accompanied Bouteflika on his visit to the US told Yahia Zoubir that the reporter from Le Quotidien d’Oran did not give an accurate account of what the president had said.
[16] Le Matin (Algiers), November 6, 2001. Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel declared that the framework agreement is not a proper solution.
[17] See Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, Le dernier roi (Paris: Editions Grasset, 2001), pp. 269-300.
[18] See Yahia Zoubir, “Algeria and US Interests: Containing Radical Islamism and Promoting Democracy,” Middle East Policy 9/1 (Spring 2002).
[19] Interviews with high-ranking State Department officials, Washington, DC, May 2000.
[20] UN Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation Concerning Western Sahara, S/2002/178, February 19, 2002.
[21] Vicenc Fisas, “Una propuseta de paz para el Sahara,” El Pais, April 27, 2002.
[22] Francois Soudan, “L’ami algerien,” Jeune Afrique/L’Intelligent (January 2003).
[23] Abla Cherif, “Mohammed VI s’attaque a l’Algerie,” Le Matin, March 7, 2002.
[24] Le Matin (Algiers), May 21, 2003.

How to cite this article:

Yahia Zoubir, Karima Benabdallah-Gambier "Western Saharan Deadlock," Middle East Report 227 (Summer 2003).

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