The question of Western Sahara

From August 2005 to August 2008 I served as personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara. The absence on this website of any mention in English of my thoughts on the 37-year-old question of Western Sahara could originally be ascribed to my reluctance to write or speak in public about Western Sahara after the appointment of my successor, Ambassador Christopher Ross, on January 7, 2009. At first it was my intention to exercise the same restraint in Dutch, but I changed my mind when the ‘Film by the Sea’ Festival in Vlissingen, Netherlands, invited me to give an appraisal in Dutch of Javier Bardem’s feature documentary Sons of the Clouds after its screening on September 20, 2012.

Few people attended that screening and even fewer stayed on to hear my appraisal, but during the days that followed a number of people asked for the text of my speech. As I had already spoken in public anyway, I saw no harm in posting the full text (in Dutch) on my website. But this led to requests for an English translation, which I felt I had to comply with to at least some extent. The speech consisted of three parts: (1) a bit of history, focusing on the role played by France in the days when Algeria was already destined to become part of metropolitan France whereas Morocco was a French protectorate destined to become independent, (2) an assessment of the film, drawing attention to the surprising emphasis it places on the role played by Algeria in Polisario’s armed resistance to Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, and (3) my personal position on the matter. As pointed out on the ‘Welcome’ page, not every article on this website will be available in English. On that basis I considered it reasonable to concentrate on the third part, which in the original Dutch text is covered by the last four paragraphs. The following text is not an exact translation of those paragraphs. My thoughts on the intractable question of Western Sahara are never entirely static, and I have been out of practice at writing about it in English for more than four years. But as of now I think my views can be summarized as follows.

The Security Council is the United Nations’ supreme political organ. It cannot be overruled by any other organ of the United Nations. In the case of Western Sahara this means that it is neither bound by the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion of 1975  nor by the countless resolutions adopted by the General Assembly ever since. However, if the Security Council is of the opinion that Morocco’s deeds constitute a threat to international peace and security, it can take action against it under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Such action may involve the use of force. I mention that extreme contingency to show how inconceivable it is that such a step would ever be taken. The film gives the impression that Morocco can afford to ignore criticism from members of the Security Council because it can rely on the support of France and the United States, but as a matter of fact Morocco has nothing to fear from any of the Council’s permanent members, not even from China and Russia, who surely have no use for a spectacular Security Council debate on whether a given struggle for independence must be regarded as secession or decolonization.

Among most non-permanent members as well, there is little enthusiasm for taking coercive measures to make Morocco agree to a referendum with independence as an option. This group of ten elected members changes composition every year, but ever since 1975 it has manifested more support for the principle of self-determination than for the reality of granting independence to a territory the size of Great Britain which in 1974 had fewer than 75,000 inhabitants.

It must be clear by now that Morocco will never agree to a process that may result in independence for Western Sahara, and that Polisario cannot possibly accept the charade of a referendum in which the option of independence is ruled out. In a situation that is so hopelessly deadlocked, the question may be asked whether well-intentioned countries or organizations really render Polisario a service by encouraging it to stand firm regardless. I am of the opinion that on the basis of the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion, Polisario has the stronger case under international law, but I have always refrained from expressing support for Polisario’s position beyond that view, for fear of raising false expectations. Polisario may be legally right, but this will not influence the position of the Security Council. Supporters of Polisario who are aware of this, yet encourage it never to settle for less than full independence, make the impasse more unresolvable than it would need to be.

Morality does not offer us an easy way out of this dilemma. Yet I would encourage Polisario to at least seriously explore a solution of less than full independence – but then with genuine autonomy (‘an autonomy with teeth’) – and not reject it out of hand on principle. That may well be less immoral than condemning another generation of young Sahrawis to growing up in the camps of Tindouf.