More harm than good

About the author
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as advisory committee chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. His most recent book (co-authored with Jacob Mundy) is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010)

The failure of the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front to agree on the modalities of the long-planned United Nations-sponsored referendum on the fate of Western Sahara, combined with a growing nonviolent resistance campaign in the occupied territory against Morocco's 31-year occupation, has led Morocco to propose granting the former Spanish colony special autonomous status within the kingdom.Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the Middle East / North Africa editor for Foreign Policy in Focus.

He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Zed Press, 2003) and the forthcoming book, co-authored by Jacob Mundy Western Sahara: Nationalist and Conflict Irresolution in Northwest Africa (Syracuse University Press).

Friends in big places

The plan has received the enthusiastic support of the American and French governments as a reasonable compromise to the abiding conflict, which has caused enormous suffering to the Sahrawi people - over half of whom live in refugee camps in neighboring Algeria - and has seriously crippled efforts to advance badly-needed economic and strategic cooperation between Morocco and Algeria as both face the challenges of struggling economies and rising Islamist militancy.

Morocco has failed to live up to the terms of the 1991 UN-supervised ceasefire agreement with the Polisario - a secular nationalist movement that waged an armed struggle against Spanish colonialists and later against Moroccan occupiers - which called for a free and fair referendum on the fate of the territory. A series of resolutions by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, as well as a landmark 1975 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice, have reaffirmed the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.

However, France and the United States have blocked the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions as part of their perceived need to strengthen the Moroccan monarchy, seen as a bulwark against Communism and radical Arab nationalism during the Cold War and, in more recent years, an important ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

Creating more problems than it solves

Unfortunately, the Moroccan plan for autonomy falls well short of what is required in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Moreover, it seeks to set a dangerous precedent which threatens the very foundation of the post-World War II international legal system.

Recently on toD on self-determination and referenda:

Abhoud Syed M. Lingga - "Determining factors", 13 July, 2007
To begin with, the proposal is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that has long been rejected by the United Nations, the World Court, the African Union and a broad consensus of international legal opinion. To accept Morocco's autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the United Nations and the ratification of the UN Charter more than sixty years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country's territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilising precedent.

If the people of Western Sahara accepted an autonomy agreement over independence as a result of a free and fair referendum, it would constitute a legitimate act of self-determination. However, Morocco has explicitly stated that its autonomy proposal "rules out, by definition, the possibility for the independence option to be submitted" to the people of Western Sahara, the vast majority of whom - according to knowledgeable international observers - favour outright independence.

A history of failure

Even if one takes a dismissive attitude toward international law, there are a number of practical concerns regarding the Moroccan proposal as well:

One is that the history of respect for regional autonomy on the part of centralised authoritarian states is quite poor, and has often led to violent conflict. In 1952, the United Nations granted the British protectorate (and former Italian colony) of Eritrea autonomous, federated status within Ethiopia. In 1961, however, the Ethiopian emperor revoked Eritrea's autonomous status, annexing it as his empire's fourteenth province, resulting in a bloody 30-year struggle for independence and subsequent border wars between the two countries.

Similarly, the decision of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to revoke the autonomous status of Kosovo in 1989 led to a decade of repression and resistance, culminating in the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Based upon Morocco's habit of breaking its promises to the international community regarding the UN-mandated referendum for Western Sahara and related obligations based on the cease fire agreement sixteen years ago, there is little to inspire confidence that Morocco would live up to its promises to provide genuine autonomy for Western Sahara.

Pyrrhic autonomy

Indeed, a close reading of the proposal raises questions as to how much autonomy is even being offered. Important matters such as control of Western Sahara's natural resources and law enforcement (beyond local jurisdictions) remain ambiguous.

In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the Kingdom. Indeed, since the king of Morocco is ultimately invested with absolute authority under Article 19 of the Moroccan Constitution, the autonomy proposal's insistence that the Moroccan state "will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King", appears to afford the monarch considerable latitude of interpretation.

There appears to be a growing consensus within the international community that some sort of compromise, or "third way" between independence and integration, is necessary to resolve the conflict, and that a "winner take all" approach is unworkable.

While encouraging such compromise and trying to find a win/win situation is certainly the preferable way to pursue a lasting peaceful settlement regarding ethnic conflict and many international disputes, Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of self-determination for a people struggling against foreign military occupation. The Polisario Front has already offered guarantees to protect Moroccan strategic and economic interests if allowed full independence. To insist that the people of Western Sahara must give up their moral and legal right to genuine self-determination, then, is not a recipe for conflict resolution, but for far more serious conflict in the future.

As a result of the French and American veto threats, the UN Security Council has failed to place the Western Sahara issue under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would give the international community the power to impose sanctions or other appropriate leverage to force the Moroccan regime to abide by the UN mandates it has up until now disregarded. Polisario's unwillingness to compromise should not be seen as the major obstacle impeding the resolution of the conflict.

In the comparable case of East Timor, it was only after human rights organizations, church groups and other activists in the United States, Great Britain and Australia successfully pressured their governments to end their support for Indonesia's occupation that the Jakarta regime was finally willing to offer a referendum which gave the East Timorese their right to self-determination. It may take similar grassroots campaigns in Europe and North America to ensure that western powers live up to their international legal obligations and pressure Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara to determine their own destiny.