Why Was Morocco’s Autonomy Initiative Devised?

By Chasli

This view that Morocco’s autonomy initiative for the Western Sahara should be supported because it is a commendable and reasonable compromise to once and for all overcome “the deadlock in United Nations’ mediated negotiations” has been getting a lot of play time recently by the pro-Rabat forces. The view is unacceptable and should be soundly rejected because its basic premise — that the “deadlock is the result of a “fail[ure] to reach a mutually-acceptable solution — is just not true. The reality of the matter is that the current deadlock is based totally on the failure of Morocco to abide by the “mutually-acceptable solution” that was reached by Rabat and the Polisario in 1988, approved in its final form by the Security Council (S/22464, “Settlement Plan”) in 1991, and refined further by the Houston Accords signed by both parties in 1997. The autonomy initiative is a joke because it ignores the reality that it is Morocco that has created the current deadlock by refusing to implement the far-reaching solution that was agreed to by all the parties to the conflict (Morocco, Polisario, Algeria, and the UN) two decades ago.

With the 20th Anniversary of that historic agreement coming up in August it is I think an appropriate time to look back at the Settlement Plan. I will quote liberally from the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) June 2007 report, Western Sahara: Out of the Impasse, which gives a concise, accurate, and well-written analysis of the referendum years (all quotes below are from that report with page numbers noted).

In August 1988, both Polisario and Morocco declared that they accepted a UN proposal (based on an earlier OAU proposal) for a ceasefire, exchange of prisoners, repatriation of refugees and the withdrawal of Moroccan forces from the territory, to be followed by a referendum on self-determination, with the choice being between independence and integration into Morocco. A final version of this proposal, known as the Settlement Plan, was approved by the Security Council in 1991. (p.1-2)

I was following the issue at the UN in Geneva in the early 1990’s and remember the euphoria accompanying the Settlement Plan. The Polisario and Hassan II had met for the first time; a mutually-acceptable plan to resolve the crisis had become a reality; MINURSO was in place to register voters; and the referendum was expected within a year. The euphoria, however, proved to be short lived. With the ink on the Settlement Plan still wet, Morocco embarked on a pattern of obstruction that would eventually result in the scuttling of the Plan a decade later. The ICG continues:

Morocco and the Polisario Front had formally agreed in 1988 that the referendum should be based on the electorate as defined by the 1974 census of the territory….But in April 1991 King Hassan of Morocco insisted that the voter rolls be expanded well beyond what has previously been agreed and include people who had long been settled in Morocco. (p. 2)

Had King Hassan allowed MINURSO to do its work per the Settlement Agreement, the referendum would have taken place in 1992 or 1993 and the crisis would have been over. Instead he chose to pursue a strategy of trying to pad the electoral roles with pro-Rabat Moroccans “in order to maximize Morocco’s chances of winning the referendum.” (p. 2) The Polisario of course resisted this attempt to rewrite and circumvent the agreement, and by mid-decade the referendum process had made little progress. Then along came James Baker III to try to save the day.

When the process seemed in danger of coming to a stop, the personal envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, managed to rescue it through intensive diplomacy. In a series of meetings which he held with Morocco, Polisario and Algeria in April 1997, all three parties reaffirmed their commitment to the 1991 Settlement Plan. Further rounds in London and Lisbon paved the way for a final meeting in Houston on 14-16 September 1997. There, agreement was reached by the parties on all the issues blocking implementation of the Settlement Plan, including the key issue of voter identification. (p. 2)

With a new agreement in hand,
MINURSO was able to resume the registration of voters. “In January 2000, MINURSO, after years of meticulous work, at last arrived at what it regarded as a fair determination of the valid electorate for the proposed referendum, namely a total electorate of 86,386.” (p. 2) At that point, once again the end of the crisis was in sight and the referendum could have been held in short order. But
Rabat had other ideas. MINURSO was “promptly faced with no fewer than 131,038 appeals against its decisions…, the vast majority of these Moroccan-sponsored applicants.” (p. 2) The Settlement Plan was dead.

Reluctant to dismiss these appeals and accordingly faced with the prospect of, in effect, having to begin the voter identification process all over again, the UN tacitly dropped the 1991 Settlement Plan…. (p. 2)

Again, my reason for returning to this history of the Settlement Plan is to counter the view of the pro-Rabat people that autonomy is a fine compromise justified by the elusiveness of a “mutually-acceptable solution.” As you should see from the above, the parties mutually accepted two major solutions in 1988 and 1997, and Morocco obstructed, undermined, and ultimately trashed both. Again, the ICG is eloquent on this:

There is a clear asymmetry in the behaviour of the main parties. The Polisario Front signed up to the 1991 Settlement Plan and, having made a number of concessions on the voter identification issue and on certain secondary matters, was clearly prepared to abide by its outcome…. It cannot be said of Polisario that it went back on any of its undertakings. But Morocco repeatedly did so with impunity. Whenever matters came to a head, Morocco demonstrated that it did not accept UN arbitration ofimportant issues if this arbitration went – or threatened to go – against it. AndMorocco also, and above all, repeatedly demonstrated that it accepted the principle of self-determination only if the result of its exercise in a referendum could be guaranteed in advance to be in Morocco’s favour. (p. 5)

Why was the autonomy initiative devised? Tanya Warburg’s view that it has to do withMorocco’s desire to find a “mutually-acceptable solution” to break the deadlock is pure nonsense. Once again, such a solution was reached years ago and Morocco showed itself to be a thoroughly dishonest and duplicitous negotiating partner. The autonomy initiative is nothing more than a cynical attempt by Morocco to leverage its friendship with the U.S. and France to prevent self-determination in the ex-colony and to gain formal recognition of its illegal annexation. I say “cynical” because history has proven that Morocco and its apologists such as Tanya Warburg couldn’t care less about the well-being of the Western Saharans. If they did they wouldn’t be so insistent on denying them the right to vote on their future.

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