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Western Sahara – Who Should Vote? – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
November 30, 2017

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

No one pays much attention to this issue these days, but at some point in the future, under almost any likely resolution scenario, there will have to be a reckoning with this question – again. It is not too early to give it some deeper thought.  It might even be productive in pointing the way forward.

I came late to the Western Sahara conundrum nearly 20 years ago.  At that point, the United Nations “Settlement Plan” was already well into its eighth year of frenetic immobility, following 16 years of armed conflict. My first “step-back-and-take-a-deep-breath” moment came the very day of my arrival, my travel bags barely unpacked, when a French diplomatic colleague asked me at a garden party whether I thought the United States would be willing to dispatch the Sixth Fleet to oblige Morocco to accept a vote on the future of the territory.  I was not new to French provocations, but the question was so off the wall that it did make me wonder straight away just what sort of mess I had stepped into.

Barely settled into the Political Counselor’s corner office at the embassy, I was soon engaged in a series of perpetual and never conclusive conversations with my new Moroccan contacts about who should be allowed to vote in the U.N.’s plan to hold a referendum on the future of the territory. Apparently, that conversation had been seriously heating up lately, after eight years of little progress.

Who should vote? How did they not have that question settled already? How was it not settled before anyone ever agreed to have a vote in the first place? And how could they still be arguing about it eight years later?

I soon discovered that both sides to the conflict had diametrically opposed views about who was a legitimate voter.  For the Polisario Front it was only those included in a 1974 Spanish census of the territory.  For Morocco, it was anyone of voting age legitimately belonging to any Sahrawi tribe whose origins were in the Sahara, irrespective of current residence. Polisario believed it would win with a highly restricted voter list. Morocco believed it would win with a more democratic and inclusive approach. There was no middle ground. In late 1998 the UN team on site ended its voter registration effort with roughly 90,000 registered voters and nearly 145,000 pending appeals.  There was no agreed process to adjudicate the appeals.

At the time, no one gave any consideration to the tens of thousands of non-Sahrawis who had been living in the territory, working, starting businesses and raising their families for, at that point in time, nearly a quarter of a century. It was like they had no legitimate stake in the outcome of any such vote.  Well of course they did, but no one seemed to want to include their very real and potentially life altering interests in any conversation about whither Western Sahara.

I had spent some years previous to my posting in Morocco talking frequently with senior officials, politicians and others in the three Baltic states about minority rights and the need not to attempt to disenfranchise and exclude from public life long time resident Russians in those countries if they had any serious aspirations to becoming full members of such Western institutions as NATO or the European Union.  I could not help but recall those many difficult conversations, at least to myself, when I was talking to Moroccan or Polisario officials about who should vote in the Sahara.

In the end, the voter registration issues fell aside when Washington and, eventually, the UN Security Council finally acknowledged that their referendum idea had utterly failed and decided to move on in search of some “mutually acceptable political solution.”

Obviously, since then – nearly two decades ago – no such compromise political solution has yet been found.  But, those tens of thousands of resident non-Sahawis who have made major contributions to the development and well being of themselves, their families and the Sahara more generally are now pushing toward their fifth decade of residence in the territory. That is a very long time, and certainly long enough to state a firm democratic claim to a legitimate right to an equal voice in any further discussion and ultimate decision on whither Western Sahara.

That is worth thinking about. I said in the opening to this piece that this question could potentially be useful in pointing a way forward.  I will return to this subject in a future Sahara blog.  As I suggested in a previous recent blog, it is time for some imagination on this question if we are going to get past this four decade stalemate.

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