Self-determination struggle in the Western Sahara continues to challenge the UN


Ian Williams and Stephen Zunes of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC, online at look at the latest developments in one of the world’s longest-running colonial wars.

After much wrangling from the French, the UN Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1495 right on the July 31st deadline for the rollover of the MINURSO peacekeeping operation in Western Sahara. In the best diplomatic tradition, the resolution affirmed the commitment to provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara, even while it seriously compromised on it by supporting a peace plan that would allow the Moroccan settlers in the territory to vote on independence in five years. As with Israeli settlers on the West Bank, these Moroccan colonists are there in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits countries from transferring their civilian population onto territories seized by military force.

The Security Council had fought off a similar plan last year, but this time former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's special representative, adjusted the plan to provide for a genuine Sahrawi autonomy in the five years before the proposed referendum. This was an ominous sign for the increasingly autocratic rule of King Mohammed in Morocco itself, not to mention leading to uncertainty about the result of the referendum: one fixed principle of Rabat's policy has been never to allow a vote that its principals cannot control.

The Polisario Front and its principal ally Algeria had surprised everyone two weeks earlier by supporting the new plan. It may even be that they supported the plan precisely because they knew Rabat would oppose it. For weaker states, it is sound diplomatic strategy to manoeuvre your opponents into defying the United States and the rest of the world.

In the longer term, it looks as if Polisario and Algeria have scored a significant diplomatic victory by playing along with Baker's peace proposals and the resolution that was moved by the United States. Morocco's one small victory was that the resolution cited Chapter VI of the UN Charter dealing with the peaceful settlement of disputes, rather than Chapter VII which would have implied mandatory implementation of UN decisions.

There are some striking similarities between Morocco's takeover of Western Sahara and Indonesia's takeover of East Timor that same year, giving some hope that--as with East Timor--international law and basic principles of justice might win out over realpolitik. Indeed, the Polisario has had far more diplomatic support than the Fretilin ever did, with their Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic being formally recognized by 75 countries and the SADR sitting as a full member state in the Organization of African Unity.

However, there are two factors working against Sahrawi independence. One is that despite their impressive efforts at building well-functioning democratic institutions in the self-governed refugee camps where the majority of their people live, the Sahrawis have never had the degree of international grassroots solidarity that the East Timorese were able to develop, which eventually eroded support of the Indonesian occupation by Western powers. Secondly, the Moroccan monarchy from the beginning has used its conquest of what it calls "the Sahara provinces" as a means of maintaining its nationalist credentials and popular support despite its autocratic and corrupt rule and the nation's struggling economy.

The United States has long seen the Moroccan monarchy as a linchpin in advancing Western interests in the region, first as a bulwark against Communist influence and more recently against radical Islam. If Morocco lost the referendum for Western Sahara after pouring in such a tremendous amount of financial resources and lives for the sake of controlling the territory, it could lead to enormous instability and perhaps even the monarchy's overthrow.

In addition, there is the economic interest in the mineral-rich territory: The Moroccans have just given an exploration contract in the territory to an American oil company, Kerr McGee, which has strong links to Vice President Dick Cheney and the Texas oil gang in the administration, which includes Baker. Of course, one would, in the best spirit of Casablanca, be shocked, shocked, to think that this had anything to do with his or the administration's public espousal of the Moroccan position. The granting of a concession to TotalFinaElf naturally helped make France's already strong support even more fervent.

However, Morocco's case was hindered rather than helped by the contracts. In response, the Security Council asked for a legal opinion from UN Under Secretary General for Legal Affairs, Hans Corell. His low-key report was nevertheless devastating for the Moroccan legal position, reminding council members that Morocco's occupation was in defiance of rulings by both the International Court of Justice and the Security Council itself, since no valid act of self-determination has yet to take place.

After alienating much of the international community for undermining the United Nations' authority and running roughshod over international legal principles in regard to Israel/Palestine and Iraq, the Bush administration may be reluctant to push its luck too far in making it possible for its Moroccan ally to get away with such an illegitimate territorial aggrandizement. Such moderation in U.S. foreign policy, however, may be possible only if the international community and the American public make it politically difficult for the Bush administration to do otherwise.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco, and serves as the Middle East editor for the IRC’s Foreign Policy in Focus Project (online at He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage, 2002--available through the FPIF/IRC Bookstore, online at Ian Williams contributes frequently to Foreign Policy in Focus on U.N. and international affairs. You can read more of his stuff at  This article is excerpted from a new policy report available in full at