Opinion: Western Sahara talks will lead to nothing but inaction

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."

While all three of these factors have played important roles in making more public one of the world’s most over-looked conflicts, they have also put both parties on the defensive. It is very unlikely that in such a charged atmosphere either side will be willing to trust the other’s intentions, and so the negotiators will most likely leave New York for the fifth time without coming any closer to a solution.

Improving negotiations in the future

It is too late to imagine any changes to the format of the talks, which began Feb. 10. There are small steps, however, that can be taken in the future if the U.N., Morocco and the Saharawis truly wish to end the stalemate.

First, although the conflict is between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Saharawis’ Polisario Front — as has been clearly defended by the U.N. – and although U.N. policy calls for a referendum including the option of independence, Morocco’s concerns must also be addressed if the conflict is to be resolved.

At stake for King Mohammed VI is the very stability of his regime. He has closely tied his monarchy to the retention of the Western Sahara and the defense of Morocco’s “territorial integrity,” and if he were to lose his current de facto control over the Western Sahara, his internal control would be put at risk. To allay his fears and thus encourage Rabat to negotiate openly, the international community – particularly Algeria, France, and the U.S. – should take steps to ensure that if the Western Sahara becomes independent, the king can still count on their support.

Second, as little progress has been made in recent negotiations, the U.N. should encourage the two parties to look for points upon which they can agree, rather than trying to immediately negotiate the future political status of the Western Sahara. Possible points of cooperation include the mutual exploitation of natural resources, the combating of terrorism and the drug trade in the region, and the strengthening of the Arab Maghreb Union.

Third, leaders on both sides must attempt to depoliticize their constituencies to give negotiators the confidence to take bold steps and break the impasse. Caustic rhetoric has ingrained the conflict into the minds of both Moroccans and Saharawis, effectively tying the hands of their own negotiators. King Mohammed VI has made opposition to Western Saharan independence a very part of what it means to be Moroccan, and the Polisario Front’s fixation on human rights violations — justified though it may be — has diminished any faith the Saharawis had in Rabat.

Finally, the parties should start from scratch. In 2007, each side presented its own proposals for peace – Morocco championing autonomy and the Polisario demanding a referendum, while making economic and security concessions – and has largely stuck to the same guns. Each side knows that the other stands morally opposed to its own proposal, and thus neither can be said to be negotiating “without preconditions and in good faith,” as is demanded by Resolution 1871.

While international pressure is cutting back Morocco’s perks from the status quo, and while the Saharawis are desperately calling for self-determination to end their 35-year stay in the Tindouf refugee camps, without taking smaller steps, negotiations will never move past the current impasse.

A breakthrough in Westchester in this week will thus be little short of a miracle.

Timothy Kustusch has worked with the International Crisis Group, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Saharawi Journalists and Writers Union, based in the Saharawi refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria.