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Opinion: Western Sahara talks will lead to nothing but inaction

The 3 parties involved in the Western Sahara conflict — the U.N., Morocco and the Saharawis — would be better off starting from scratch.

A Sahrawi refugee and her daughter collect water at a camp in Tindouf, south of Algiers, Dec. 19, 2009. (Louafi Larbi/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — For the second time in six months, representatives from the Polisario Front — a North African liberation movement representing the Saharawi people — and the Kingdom of Morocco meet this week in New York to attempt to negotiate a settlement to the 35-year-old conflict over the Western Sahara.

While the world remains fixated on Haiti, Yemen and Afghanistan, the negotiators will attempt to solve the conundrum of Africa’s last remaining colony in two short days spent in Westchester, New York.

Four rounds of similar negotiations under the guidance of the United Nations have taken place since 2006, with none producing any considerable results. This fifth round — which was mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1871 — consists of informal talks, at the suggestion of U.N. Special Envoy for the Western Sahara Christopher Ross. In Resolution 1871, the Security Council calls upon Morocco and the Polisario to find a “just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara” – the U.N.’s official stance since the mid-1960s.

A hostile environment

Despite Ross's reserved optimism, the environment surrounding the Western Saharan conflict has become much too frictional over the past few months to envision any breakthroughs from this fifth round. Three main factors have contributed to this hostile atmosphere: human rights violations, inflammatory rhetoric and the specter of terrorism.

Over the past few months, the deteriorating human rights situation in the Western Sahara has become more internationally known, most recently with the expulsion from the Western Sahara of Saharawi activist Aminatou Haidar — recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award – by Moroccan authorities in November, which she followed with a 32-day hunger strike in the Canary Islands before being allowed to return home.

On Oct. 9 – the 34th anniversary of the Green March, during which thousands of Moroccan troops and over 350,000 settlers crossed the border and moved into the Western Sahara – King Mohammed VI gave a particularly forceful speech in which he further polarized the issue of the Western Sahara and challenged anyone supporting its independence, saying, “As for the adversaries of our territorial integrity … they know, better than anyone else, that the Sahara is a crucial issue for the Moroccan people, who unanimously support the throne … One is either a patriot or a traitor. There is no halfway house.”

Finally, with the recent spike in attention to the growing Al Qaeda cells throughout the world – particularly in Yemen and the Sahel region – the perennial concern of the Saharawi refugee camps becoming havens of terrorism has resurfaced. For the second time in a year, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies has released a report stating that one of the keys to countering terrorism in North Africa is the resolution of the Western Saharan conflict, arguing that “the Tindouf camps in Algeria, where refugees have been confined for decades without hope, present a prime breeding ground for potential recruits by the terrorists."