Western Sahara: A Maghrebi Commonwealth?

It was a bit like telling a rape victim to stop struggling. Peter van Walsum, the Dutch diplomat who is the UN representative to Western Sahara, told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Western Sahara will never achieve independence, even though he admitted that international law and successive UN resolutions have called for self determination in the vast desert country mostly occupied by the Moroccans.

He castigated Spanish civil society — which is very active on the issue since Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony that Franco threw to the Moroccans to protect his own “Gibraltars” in Morocco, the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta — for encouraging the Sahrawis in their resistance.

Van Walsum almost has a point when he says the UN security council “is not ready to exercise its authority under article VII of the UN charter, and impose it.” But why is he attacking the victims and their friends? One would have thought a Dutch diplomat, with the record of acquiescence to “facts on the ground” in Srebrenica, would be more circumspect. Why has he not pilloried Morocco and its friends in the Security Council — the US, France and Britain?

The silence of the UN Secretariat over the years has been stunning, since Morocco reneged on its 1991 agreement to allow a referendum in the territory. Indeed, there has often been complicity and connivance, as when then UN secretary-general Perez de Cuellar, in his last week in office tried to get the security council to adopt a pro-Moroccan resolution over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

I was at the press briefing back in 1991 when Johannes Mantz, the Swiss diplomat charged with heading MINURSO announced that it would only take a year to identify the voters and hold the referendum. I asked him at the time if he had consulted the King of Morocco, who had made it plain that the only referendum he would allow was one that he was guaranteed to win. Since then, Hassan and his heir Mohammed each refused to allow the referendum while the UN has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the sand dunes in preparation for it.

There is a deafening sound of silence about Morocco’s refusal to accept international law and security council resolutions, let alone honour its own promises. Initially backed strongly by France, Morocco now has American support, which nowadays always carries automatic British acquiescence as an added bonus.

At least partly, Washington’s support is because Morocco is Israel’s closest partner in the Arab world, even though the King hedges his bets by being chair of the Arab League committee on Jerusalem. The latter position ensures that Arab states perennially concerned about Palestinian refugees and the separation wall are calmly insouciant about the Saharan refugees and the huge sand berm that Morocco has built across the territories it has occupied.

However, there is a solution from the example of the British Commonwealth, which has been endlessly inventive in finding ways to maintain symbolic ties without real authority or responsibility. When the Moroccans referred the issue to the World Court, the ICJ, the judgement found no evidence “of any legal tie of territorial sovereignty” between Western Sahara and Morocco and said that the territory needed an act of self-determination. Neverthless, it did detect “indication of a legal tie of allegiance between the [Moroccan] Sultan and some of the tribes of the territory.”

So, enter King Mohammed of Western Sahara, with all the powers and honours of Queen Elizabeth in her realms of Canada, Australia, Barbados and so on. The security council can then tell the King that he gets his due, while the Western Saharans clearly get what they want: effective independence. Polisario would surely be happy to offer a 21-gun salute and a few garden parties every time the King visited — maybe even build him a royal sand-castle somewhere.

But first, the western members of the security council have to put some truth to the rumours they keep spreading about their attachment to international law, democracy and the rights of small countries not to be bullied and occupied by their neighbours.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, the Financial Times and the Guardian. Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.

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  1. mohamed fadel emhamed said on August 22nd, 2008 at 11:43am #

    Estimado Williams,

    Siempre lei con satisfaccion los articulos que recurrentemente escribe sobre el conflicto saharaui, y por ello quiero expesarle mi admiracion y mis sinceros agradecimientos por sus esfuerzos por romper el bloqueo informativo impuesto a la causa saharaui. Usted tiene acceso a medios de prensa de mucha respetabilidad, y por ello su labor sumamente generosa con ese pueblo que se debate por el respeto de sus derechos.
    Animos,y muchas gracias.