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The Unending Quest for Self-Determination in Western Sahara

The disputed region of Western Sahara in Northern Africa is the largest by both population and area on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories. Although Morocco has formally claimed Western Sahara since its own independence in 1957, Spain officially relinquished its administration of the territory to joint control by Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. The International Court of Justice acknowledged the Saharawi’s right to self-determination, but King Hassan II of Morocco refused to give up the territory and instead led 350,000 people on a peaceful Green March across the border. Morocco then fought with Mauritania as well as a Sahrawi national movement called the Polisario Front for control of the region until Mauritania’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1979. The Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and gained support from the Soviet Union, Algeria, Cuba, and Libya. Beginning in 1981, Morocco erected a sand-berm “Moroccan Wall” to repel the Polisario’s guerilla fighters. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991.

The U.S. and UN have made several attempts since to organize a referendum on independence and make peace between Morocco and the Polisario. The central conflict is over determining eligible Saharawi voters. Former Secretary of State James Baker was appointed Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara in 1997. The Baker I plan, devised in cooperation with Moroccan and American officials, proposed an autonomous Western Sahara under the sovereignty of Morocco. The plan was rejected by Algeria and the Polisario. The revised Baker II plan offered five years of the autonomy/sovereignty arrangement followed by a referendum of all current residents of Western Sahara. Although it was endorsed by the UN Security Council and accepted by the Polisario and Algeria, Morocco ultimately did not accept the plan. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Baker resigned in 2004. Morocco and the Polisario continue to demand sovereignty and independence, respectively, as threats of renewed violence loom.

In the midst of these negotiations, Algeria retained over 2,000 Moroccan prisoners of war, many held since the conflicts in the 1970s. They released some in small groups and used their captivity as leverage in talks with Morocco. Both the United States and Morocco brought pressure on Algeria with threats of UN action against the violation of international law. American efforts by embassy officials and Senators John McCain and Richard Lugar secured the release of all the POWs by 2005.

Edward Gabriel served as Ambassador to Morocco from 1997-2001. In an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in December 2005, he discussed his involvement in the negotiations over Western Sahara and his impressions of the key players and events, as well as his reaction to the plight of the POWs held in Algeria. You can also read about the attempted birthday party coup against Hassan II and James Baker’s “Half Dozen Precepts on Foreign Policy.”


A History of Conflict 

GABRIEL:  The Western Sahara, as it has become known, is the westernmost edge of the Sahara desert and forms the southern portion of Morocco, about a third of the country. At various stages in its history from 1600 forward, Morocco controlled the Sahara, having taken it from the Portuguese. The Spanish took control of the Sahara in 1884. From the 1600s until the Spanish occupation, Morocco had exerted its sovereignty over the Sahara. Following Spain’s occupation of the land in 1884, around 1912, France and Spain further divided the country into territories.

As I recall, the northernmost territory, down to the northern region above Fez, was taken by Spain. The middle part of the country was taken over by France, whose reach extended to the Sahara, where again the Spanish exerted control. The middle section of the country included the cities in the front range of the Atlas Mountains, such as Fez, Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech. Tangier was designated as an “international” city. Morocco remained a “soft” protectorate of Spain and France until 1956, when both countries turned over the northern Spanish and middle French portions of Morocco to the Moroccans. But the Sahara remained in the hands of the Spanish until 1975….

At the end of Franco’s rule in Spain, as he was literally on his death bed, Morocco was struggling to wrestle the land away from Spain and from this newly formed rebel group. At the urging of the UN, Morocco agreed to an International Court of Justice opinion on the rightful ownership of the Sahara. When the opinion came back inconclusively – stating that neither the Polisario nor the Moroccans had real claim to sovereignty, with the Court only conceding allegiance to Morocco by some tribes of the Sahara, short of sovereignty – King Hassan II organized a peaceful march to reclaim the Sahara, known as the Green March, in which more than 350,000 people marched to the Sahara and claimed it as Moroccan.

Spain quickly signed a peace treaty with Morocco and Mauritania – and eventually Morocco signed an agreement with Mauritania – turning the land over to Morocco as the “administrator” of the territory. The UN never recognized this action.

During this time, an insurgent group was formed, backed by the Soviet Union and its proxies Algeria, Cuba, and Libya, called the Polisario, to pressure Morocco to give up its claim of sovereignty and call for the independence of the Sahara. A war ensued. In the very early years of this conflict, Morocco suffered significant casualties. By about 1980, however, Morocco built a rock and sand berm, north to south, separating the Sahara from the rebels on the other side. This action stabilized the area militarily, until a cease fire was signed in 1991 with the Polisario. There has been no fighting since that time, although the Polisario refused at the time to also live up to the Geneva Convention accords to release the prisoners of war (POWs) that had been held for more than twenty years, some approaching thirty years.

Until a real grassroots effort was started in the United States in 2004, which eventually got Senator McCain’s interest, there was not any pressure put on Algeria to force the Polisario to release the POWs. It was the worst form of cruelty. The Polisario decided that they were not going to release the POWs without a deal to have the Sahara turned over to them. It turned out to be a bad decision. In essence, the POWs were being held hostage in exchange for the Polisario getting land, even though at the same time they were agreeing to a referendum to decide the fate of the territory.

“An African solution, not a Texas solution”

Until 2000, both sides to the dispute worked with the UN to organize a referendum to determine the fate of the territory, on whether it should be dependent or remain under the sovereignty of Morocco. An effort was undertaken in the latter ‘90s to register qualified voters through a process of verifying whether each Saharawi citizen could prove his or her direct lineage to one of the Sahrawi tribes. There was tremendous disagreement between the parties over the criteria, but by about 1998, 80,000 people had been registered. There were another 200,000 or more remaining on appeal. The Polisario were against the appeals and Morocco wanted them to go forward.

All the while, the U.S. was somewhat suspect of the process, as we did not see how a winner-take-all process would settle the animosity in the territories. If the Moroccans were to lose the referendum they would never give up the Sahara anyway, and the UNSC [Security Council] would not force them to. Secretary Jim Baker, the personal envoy of the UN Secretary General, did not see a way out and instead preferred a negotiated settlement, but both parties had refused to abandon the referendum.

Then in early 1999, the U.S. formulated a new policy that suggested to Morocco they grant significant autonomy over the Sahara to the people living there, but under Moroccan sovereignty. This position was signed off by Madeleine Albright and brought to the region by Martin Indyk, the Assistant Secretary, in March of 1999. We promised to not support any outcome in the negotiations that did not respect Morocco’s sovereignty in the Sahara. We also told them that we could not guarantee such an outcome, but that we would work to ensure that any outcome respected Morocco’s sovereignty.

King Hassan II was initially cool to it and found it hard to abandon a 20-year position to support a referendum on the fate of the Sahara. Martin explained that there was no guarantee that Morocco could win a referendum, and given the present make up of those qualifying to vote, a positive outcome for Morocco was uncertain. Martin went on to explain that the further the King went down this road the more difficult it would become for us to support such a position.

Martin said, “Your Majesty, we are going down a dark tunnel together on this issue and at some point a wedge will be driven between us.” He told the King that a winner-take-all referendum was not in either of our interests. Regardless, the King did not show an immediate interest in this new approach.

I met with King Hassan on July 20 of 1999, three days before he died, the last business meeting he had in his life, for an hour and twenty-five minutes. That’s when he informed me that he was now prepared to change course….

King Hassan started the meeting by saying that he now felt the Western Sahara had to be solved with “an African solution, not a Texas solution.” I took that to mean that since Bouteflika had just been elected President of Algeria, he would work directly with him to find a way forward, and that the UN effort, through [Texas native] Secretary Baker, would take a back seat.

He also said something very telling. He went on to relay a story about King Leopold II of Belgium, during World War II. He said that at the time, King Leopold had been a Nazi sympathizer and that the Belgians wanted his head at the end of the war. Leopold said he wasn’t afraid of his people and would subject their views to a popular referendum to decide. His prime minister at the time, Spaak, advised him that there could never be a referendum on the throne. King Hassan went on to tell me that he had finally come to conclude that in Morocco as well, a referendum was probably not the way to solve the Sahara problem. He died three days later, so we will never exactly know what he had in mind. We can only speculate. However, we did find out what the new king thought on this issue some two months later….

Baker I — So Close to a Deal… 

Following the last and very moving meeting with King Hassan, I was able to brief the new king, Mohammed VI (at left), on the evolving Sahara policy and the new U.S. position. A series of meetings were quickly set up with the new king, the first being with Secretary Madeleine Albright on September 1, 1999, his first official meeting as King, only forty days after his father’s death. By the end of September, the U.S. reached an understanding with the King for a negotiated settlement that would provide autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

The next step was to convey the U.S. position to Secretary Baker and seek his agreement. He had always been for such a negotiated settlement but had been rebuffed in the past by both parties. Baker wanted to hear it for himself from the Moroccans, but otherwise was excited to move in this new direction, which he had agreed with all along. He finally met with King Mohammed in February or March of 2000 and reported back that in fact he was convinced the King was ready for a sovereignty/autonomy solution under “internationally accepted standards.” Baker swiftly moved in this direction.

It took Baker until April 2001 before he finally announced what is commonly called Baker I, or the framework agreement, outlining his proposal for an internationally accepted form of Saharan autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. Morocco quickly accepted the offer to negotiate within this “framework” agreement. The Polisario and Algeria rejected it.

By now, early 2001, the Clinton administration had stepped down and President Bush had taken over, but there was continuity in Baker. Given his Republican credentials, his closeness to the Bush family, and the soon-to-be appointment of his close protégé, Margaret Tutwiler, as U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Baker was now even more in control of the process. The plan under Clinton was to pocket the Moroccan acceptance and then begin a process of encouraging Algeria to come to the table to negotiate within the framework agreement.

Baker met with [at right, Algerian President] Bouteflika in November 2001. I thought this was to put pressure on him to accept the framework agreement, but something very different happened. In February of the next year, 2002, Baker went to Rabat to follow up on his Algerian meeting. The King was informed that Bouteflika did not accept the framework agreement and instead Baker was now suggesting a partition of the territory between the parties. I’m sure it was difficult for King Mohammed VI to believe that in less than a year Baker had reversed course. The King had overturned twenty years of his father’s policies, at a very vulnerable time in his new reign, and had taken a chance with the U.S. on a new way forward.

Within a year of the deal, the rug was being pulled out from under him, or at least that is the way it looked. The King came to a terrible realization. Whereas under Clinton the King of Morocco had enjoyed a strong bilateral relationship on the Sahara, as well as a distinct but coordinated multilateral dialogue, most recently through Jim Baker he was being now relegated to a multilateral relationship only. The new U.S. Ambassador, Margaret Tutwiler, came in with a mandate to not deal with the Sahara on a bilateral basis, but instead work through Jim Baker (i.e. the UN only). It was said that even in his briefings on the Sahara as the new Secretary of State, Colin Powell said, “I don’t have to worry about this issue. Baker is handling it.”

Baker II — Laying down an ultimatum

King Mohammed quickly went to Washington for his first official visit with President Bush in April of 2002. Later that spring, Baker proposed four possible solutions to the Sahara:

1) no action, the UN would cease to be involved;

2) the framework negotiations, which Morocco supported and the Polisario and Algerians refused;

3) a partition of the territory, which no one publicly was admitting to support or endorse; and

4) a referendum for independence.

These options languished for nearly a year, until Secretary Baker decided to table an ultimatum. He had laid down yet another proposal in April of 2003 known as Baker II, in which the Polisario would be allowed to administer the Sahara and run the territory for five years under an autonomy regime, after which time a referendum choosing autonomy or independence would then be held among all citizens of the region.

In August of 2003, due to a fairly negative UN resolution against Morocco, and in a direct discussion with Baker, Morocco was threatened by Baker to accept the new proposal offered or face UN Chapter VII [which allows the Security Council to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security”] sanctions. The King, again, was taken aback by such heavy-handed tactics. It was obvious that a bilateral discussion between the U.S. and Morocco on the Sahara was nonexistent and the original agreement with the United States on this issue was deteriorating. Coincidentally and not due to anything in this regard, Ambassador Tutwiler also resigned and returned to Washington that same month.

In September 2003, a definitive and policy-changing meeting occurred between King Mohammed and President Bush during the United Nations General Assembly meetings. This would finally put on track a serious bilateral discussion between both countries regarding the Sahara and lead to the policy that was publicly announced in April 2008.

Between December of 2003 and the following April, Morocco responded to Baker directly on the Baker II proposal but was unable to find a compromise. Baker resigned in April of 2004.

The current policy of the U.S., which is actually the understanding originally stated in 1999, reaffirms that Morocco’s April 2007 proposal, granting autonomy to the people of the Sahara, is credible and serious and should form the basis for negotiations between the two parties. It also states that the only solution to the Sahara can be an autonomy/sovereignty proposal and that independence for the Sahara is not a realistic solution.

The UN has tacitly endorsed the Moroccan proposal and four rounds of negotiations have gone on without any progress, as the Polisario refuses to use the autonomy framework for a basis of discussion and instead clings to independence as an option.

The main contention revolves around the concept of self-determination and what constitutes the right of self-determination, which the International Court of Justice insisted on in its 1975 opinion. The Polisario say that self-determination can only be fulfilled with a vote on independence.

However, the UN and international legal experts recognize other forms of expressing self-determination, such as elected leaders of a group leading a negotiating team, for example the Polisario. Or, a negotiated settlement that can then be subjected to an up or down, yes or no vote of the Saharawi people. There are many ways to address the issue of the Polisario wanting to find a solution that fulfills the concept of self-determination. One has to wonder, however, whether they are more concerned about a struggle for power….

In preparation for the Moroccan autonomy proposal, the King set up an extensive consultative committee among the 12 major Sahrawi tribes and dozens of sub-tribes to get their views of an autonomy proposal before endorsing and proposing such a solution. Ideally, once an autonomy agreement is worked out, the proposal negotiated by the parties could be subjected to a vote, up or down, of the Sahrawi people living in the region….

The photos of the return of the POWs, after twenty-five years in captivity, still make me cry”

There are two tiers of players. In the first tier are the U.S., France and Spain. Those three countries are very important. The next tier is the rest of the Security Council, which includes Great Britain, Russia and China….

France has traditionally agreed with Morocco’s position on the Sahara and has been its most ardent supporter. Although Spain has privately agreed that a sovereignty/autonomy solution is the most favorable way to deal with this situation, they have enormous ties to the region and carry guilt of abandonment as well. Spain will have to play a quiet but deft role, but their acquiescence of late gives Morocco hope. The U.S. is obviously a key player on the Security Council and can greatly affect any given outcomes. Russia and China seem to play a quieter role, never tipping their hand on this matter nor wanting to take too aggressive of a role for the UNSC.…

The ultimate question on the Sahara will remain whether we have enough leverage with Algeria to ever get them to move in a more constructive manner that would benefit the region and their own people…. All the intelligence reports at the time seemed to indicate that Algeria was content with using a proxy – the Polisario – to agitate the Moroccans. The Algerians themselves kept their hands somewhat clean. The Polisario live in Algeria. Algeria also provides them with arms and money and controls their movement.

Algeria, however, has not shown an otherwise aggressive military stance against Morocco, but recently there is a great deal of worry about military escalation in the region. Algeria just purchased more than $7 billion worth of arms from Russia in what was Russia’s largest post-Cold War sale. Morocco is reacting in kind and purchasing a whole new line of F-16 jet fighters from the U.S.

The Algerians also kept Moroccan POWs inside Algeria against international law for a number of years….

During my time in Morocco, we were able to free approximately a quarter of the more than 2,000 prisoners of war. Until this time, only hardship cases were freed, such as the sick and dying. King Hassan had a very difficult time dealing with this problem since the POWs were used as a way of somewhat forcing the King into concessions on the Sahara. Every time he suggested they be released, the Algerians would use it as an opportunity to highlight the defeat of Morocco’s air force and as leverage on the political situation concerning the Sahara. So every time the humanitarian issue came up, the Polisario and Algeria turned it into a political issue.

King Hassan didn’t like the Polisario making news out of the release, as they would offer to release a hundred of the POWs from time to time. This was usually due to a payoff by an NGO [non-governmental organization] or an attempt to embarrass King Hassan. We believed the King didn’t need to play into these tactics of the Polisario. At our request, the U.S. Embassy in Algiers demarched the Algerians every chance they got and highlighted the plight of the POWs often. Bigger tranches of POWs were offered every time a U.S. visitor went to Algeria. In the end, nearly 600 POWs got out during my tenure.

But the most fulfilling and emotional result was the release of all remaining POWs in 2004, when an effort we led with the great support of Senator McCain resulted in the Algerians releasing the POWs to Senator Lugar, who led a mission to Algeria to bring them home to Morocco on a U.S. transport plane. The effort to force Algeria, by highlighting the plight of the POWs and otherwise embarrassing them, was led by Senator McCain, who obviously had personal interest in this issue.

The photos of the return of these men, after twenty-five years and more in captivity, still make me cry.