Western Sahara – What Referendum? – Robert M. Holley

Robert M. Holley
May 19, 2016

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Since Ban Ki-moon uttered the word “referendum” during his March visit to Algeria and the Polisario, a number of seemingly agenda-driven “journalists,” and others with a taste for stirring the pot to get their stuff sold to some media outlet or another, have tried to pretend that a referendum is actually a viable option being currently considered by the Security Council for resolving the territorial dispute in the Western Sahara.

Let me be clear about this. The Security Council took this idea off the table in 2003 and in every resolution of the Council to renew the MINURSO peacekeeping mandate since has urged the parties to negotiate a “mutually acceptable political solution.” Since 2003 there has been absolutely no specific mention of any kind of referendum – and the “political solution” language is now the common feature of all mandate renewals.

For some of you in the media who cannot either read or understand plain English, let me repeat it – the Security Council has, since 2003, endorsed a “mutually acceptable political solution,” not a referendum – however much some of you would like to twist words around and ferret out intentions that simply do not exist.

This started in 1999 when the United States Government during President Clinton’s second term decided that a referendum on the future of Western Sahara was a horrible idea from the beginning that had miserably failed and bore no prospect of ever succeeding. By 2003, not only Morocco but the rest of the Security Council had come to the same conclusion, and since then, never has the word “referendum” appeared in any Security Council pronouncement on deciding the future of Western Sahara. I know this disappoints some of you, but facts are still facts — even in a media environment these days that has little regard for them.

But ok, what about a referendum? Algeria and the Polisario say they want one. But do they really? Well, they want one if and only if their own limited, preferred voter list gets to march to the ballot box on election day.  Otherwise, pretty clearly not.  They made that very clear during the UN’s fruitless, bumbling, nearly decade-long effort to register voters, when the Polisario refused to accept legitimate stakeholders who were members of Sahrawi tribes having their origins in what was formerly called Spanish Sahara. It was “only my Sahrawis are real Sahrawis and yours don’t count.”

But I will go you one better. For those of you out there who are irrevocably attached to the notion that only a general plebiscite can legitimately provide a “democratic” outcome to any question of this sort, and that any politically negotiated outcome is inherently illegitimate, let us consider for a moment what a general democratic plebiscite should actually resemble in Western Sahara.

First off, if we limit the voter list to only those Sahrawis now living in “Western Sahara” we are going to exclude a lot of legitimate Sahrawi stakeholders who live somewhere else. So to be fair, let’s say that all Sahrawis who had their tribal origins in what used to be called “Spanish Sahara” get to vote.  Problem here is that a bunch of these Sahrawis, indeed tens of thousands of them, now live in Spain, France, Mauritania, Algeria, and elsewhere throughout Morocco. So let’s say, for the sake of good democratic practice, that we can agree to include all of them in the electorate. Unfortunately, this also puts us beyond what the Polisario was willing to accept, but I think well within the minimum bounds of what is legitimate and conforms to modern democratic norms. But, is this the limit of a legitimate electorate? Probably not.

What about the several hundred thousand other established, long term resident families of “Western Sahara” who have made their homes, lives and futures there for well over four decades? They have contributed their blood, sweat and tears to the construction of a vibrant and growing society that bears almost no resemblance today to the shanty town misery that had one school, 75 kilometers of paved road, no general hospital and only a barely functional phosphate mine as the only basis of an economy that Spain left behind when it pulled out of the territory in 1975. Indeed, the relative prosperity of this society today owes a tremendous debt to the dedication and hard work of this population. After nearly 45 years of their “all in” investment in the place, should they not also get to vote? I posit that it would be a travesty to any notion of genuine democracy to suggest otherwise. After nearly half a century, these good people and their families are as deeply invested and ingrained in the territory as anyone. It is also their home now. To attempt to suggest otherwise would grossly defy both democratic norms and common sense. After all, just as a point of reference, it only takes five years’ residence in the United States before you can become a citizen.

So, what referendum? The one the Algerians and Polisario keep talking about, as though it was some sort of democratic panacea, is a dead letter. Their version of it wasn’t even democratic to begin with. That is why it failed. Do you think they would accept another version of the electorate that was a genuinely fair representation of vested stake holders? Personally, I think not.

So, for those of you in the media and elsewhere who keep championing the Polisario “cause” and the “legitimacy” of a referendum to resolve the issue, why don’t you go ask them who they think should be allowed to vote and see just how democratic the answer really is.

And by the way, the undemocratic nature of the electorate was not the only reason that Washington decided in 1999 that a referendum was a bad idea. But we can have that discussion another day.


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