Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN decolonization specialist that worked on Western Sahara’s peace process from 1994-2004, has followed both the Settlement Plan and Baker’s seven-year peace effort from start til finish, she is one of very few to really know the Sahara negotiations game inside out.
She is categoric when she says that with the autonomy initiative, the current impasse will go on for some more years. Given the absence of will by members of the Security Council to take a clear and determined position and the general preference for « make believe » action, this is quite probable. The UN has had a reasonable plan on the table that met all the specifications laid out by the Security Council to Baker when he was asked in July 2002 to pursue his efforts to find a political solution. It has expressed its readiness to consider any approach that would allow for self-determination. After initially supporting the Baker Peace Plan, the Council changed its position once one of the parties raised objections. Instead of taking a firm position, it vacillated.
What she hints at but doesn’t say is: that starting endless, pointless negotiations in order to gain time, is in fact Morocco’s first hand-option, and will remain so for as long as the UN will not surrender self-determination as a principle of decolonization. That is precisely the reason for this.
Morocco’s current autonomy proposal, while not much different in substance to what was given to Baker in December 2003, follows a different strategy. Claiming to be open to negotiations, it does not go into the details of the previous autonomy project. Instead, it defines the outline and principles governing autonomy, allowing for the proposal « to be enriched by the other parties during the negotiations phase. The conflict has been stuck since 1991 precisely because the two parties cannot agree on the definition of anything.
Morocco’s strategy appears to be to normalise its occupation of Western Sahara by appearing to give ground by granting autonomy, while in actual fact consolidating its control and neutralising the efforts of the international community to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region. If the UN adopte his autonomy plan that means a recognition of its souvereignity over a non self autonome territory.
Anyone who thinks that Morocco would ever allow the Sahrawi to control any of the territory’s mineral or fishing wealth is seriously suffering from naivety illness. It just won’t happen. The Moroccan military, elite, and monarchy have been happily stealing Western Sahara’s abundant resources for over thirty years and are not about to relinquish their cash cow.
They are floating it because it is essentially a propaganda exercise designed to give the impression that Morocco is a progressive nation seeking and end to a long-running conflict, up against an intractable foe (i.e. the Polisario Front).
So, the autonomy plan either changes nothing on the ground, or is a prelude to war. It is possible that Morocco is seeking to legitimize its « ownership » of Western Sahara in the eyes of the international community so that it can complete its conquest of Western Sahara and claim it is just dealing with an uprising by « separatists » in territory that everyone recognizes as Moroccan. However, this would risk conflict with Algeria and regional destabilization. But we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the autonomy plan is a precursor to further aggressive military activity on the part of Rabat.