Can John Bolton Thaw Western Sahara’s Long-Frozen Conflict?

FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

The Polisario Front has created an international diplomatic presence on a shoestring budget and sees the Trump administration as its best hope in decades to gain independence from Morocco.

BY R. JOSEPH HUDDLESTON | MAY 9, 2019 | foreignpolicy.com

Members of the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army take part in a ceremony to mark 40 years after the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic was proclaimed by the Polisario Front in the disputed territory of Western Sahara at the Rabouni Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria, on Feb. 26, 2016. FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In March, the United Nations secretary-general’s personal envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, hostedthe second in a series of roundtable talks to move a long-frozen conflict toward a peaceful resolution. This conflict has been suspended in a stalemate since a 1991 cease-fire agreement halted a 16-year-long civil war between the Moroccan monarchy and Western Sahara’s liberation movement, called the Polisario Front.

In addition to fighting the U.S.- and French-backed Moroccan military for 16 years, Polisario built several sprawling refugee camps in southern Algeria to accommodate thousands of families who fled the violence. An estimated 165,000 Sahrawi refugees, as those who fled Western Sahara are known, continue to live in these camps, as they have since the conflict began.

Trying for the 10th time to negotiate a settlement to this seemingly intractable conflict at the roundtable in Geneva, the U.N. hosted representatives of the governments of Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania, alongside Polisario. A third round of talks is likely on the way. Both Moroccan and Sahrawi press outlets soon spun the events in Geneva, claiming the world supported their respective positions.

These positions originated in the cease-fire agreement, which called for a referendum and established the U.N. Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Eight sluggish years later, the Moroccan government declared the 1999 list of eligible voters produced by the U.N. to be unacceptable because it excluded certain Moroccan nationals.

At the time, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s report noted that Morocco and Polisario “share the belief that the composition of the electoral body will predetermine the outcome of the referendum.” James Baker, the U.N. envoy to MINURSO at the time, drafted another comprehensive peace plan in 2003. It called for five years of autonomy for Western Sahara followed by a referendum that included the option of independence, and it used an expanded voter roll made up of all uncontested applicants from the 1999 list, the U.N. Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation list, and all residents of the territory as of the end of 1999. The Security Council endorsed it unanimously, but the Moroccan government rejected it, and Baker resigned in exasperation.

In 2007, the Moroccan government proposed a plan that would offer Western Sahara autonomy with no possibility of independence. At the time, the Security Council welcomed the plan as “serious and credible” and simply took note of Polisario’s position, which insisted on independence as an option. This was the birth of the current stalemate: “autonomy at worst” as the Moroccan position, and “referendum or bust” for the Polisario Front. This impasse has endured, Morocco has continued de facto control, and those 165,000 Sahrawi refugees have continued to endure decades of displacement in an insufferable rocky desert landscape.

In this stalemate, the front lines have moved from the arid desert to the realm of media and diplomacy. Scholars of civil war and self-determination have shown that international perceptions of conflicts are one of the most important factors in determining their outcomes. International recognition establishes the state; sovereignty without recognition is incomplete. Knowing this, the Polisario Front has undertaken considerable efforts to ensure that governments around the world take notice of it. It is playing the role of a state for an international audience, just as it does in the Saharan camps, which Polisario has governed and administered independently of the U.N. since 1976.

In this stalemate, the front lines have moved from the arid desert to the realm of media and diplomacy.

While many small countries maintain only a few embassies abroad, Polisario has a permanent representative in nearly every European Union capital, Russia, the United States, Australia, and many other countries, as well as representatives to the U.N., EU, and African Union. There are representatives of the Sahrawi Republic (the civilian government that operates parallel to Polisario in recognizing countries) in nearly every country that recognizes its statehood—the number of such countries fluctuates, but it currently stands at 39. My research using data from publicly available press releases and news reports shows that the Polisario and Sahrawi Republic representatives have met with representatives of the world’s governments over 250 times in the last five years.

These diplomatic efforts are slowly paying off. Each year sees new calls for human rights monitoring to be included as part of MINURSO’s mandate in Western Sahara, an effort aggressively resisted by the Moroccan government. Moreover, official support for the Polisario position in many countries continues to grow. A recent summary of Swedish policy on Western Sahara asserted that it is “under occupation,” a term the Moroccan government condemns.

A few years earlier, in 2012, the Swedish parliament called for the unilateral recognition of the Sahrawi Republic. In October 2017, Italian Senator Stefano Vaccari testified before the U.N. General Assembly on the illegal exploitation of the territory’s resources. Polisario has earned allies like these in many foreign  governments. Although there is by no means unanimous support for Polisario, in the stalemate era, it has wasted no time in seeking new friends.

South Africa has been a particularly reliable ally of Polisario, even going so far as to seize a ship carrying a Moroccan cargo of Saharan phosphate, which had stopped over in Cape Town in June 2017. It confiscated the cargo, valued at $5 million, and in March 2018 handed it over to Polisario to sell. South Africa also advocates within the Southern African Development Community, an intergovernmental organization with 16 member states, for “unwavering solidarity with Western Sahara.”

South Africa has been a particularly reliable ally of Polisario, even going so far as to seize a ship carrying a Moroccan cargo of Saharan phosphate, which had stopped over in Cape Town in June 2017.

Polisario has built this diplomatic network on the most austere of budgets. Most of these diplomats run one-man or one-woman operations, living and working out of studio apartments. According to an interview with a Polisario foreign minister, their representative in Washington has a budget of around $6,000 per month, stretched to cover his apartment, travel, and work expenses, including inviting politicians and staffers to conversations over fancy dinners and attending expensive events.

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