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Western Sahara Referendum: A Question for the Polisario – Robert M. Holley

Polisario militia Photo: Alberto D.V.

Robert M. Holley
February 13, 2019

Robert M. Holley, Senior Policy Adviser, MACP

Despite a renewed emphasis in the Security Council on the need for the Parties to be “realistic” and willing to “compromise” in order to achieve a “mutually acceptable political solution” to the problem in Western Sahara, the Polisario has remained stubbornly intractable on its core position. In the 20 years I have been following this problem on a daily basis, I have yet to see the least indication that the Polisario has accepted the counsel of any of the UN Personal Envoys on the issue of “compromise,” dating back to James Baker at the turn of the century.

Morocco offered to compromise when it accepted James Baker’s invitation to bargain a political solution on the basis of his first proposal – the Framework Agreement. The Polisario refused. Morocco again offered a compromise when it put forward its own autonomy initiative in 2007. Again the Polisario refused.

Throughout the tenures of four UN Personal Envoys (James Baker, Peter van Walsum, Chris Ross, and now Horst Kohler), the Polisario has insisted on holding a referendum on independence for Western Sahara with a voter’s list of their preference. They have not deviated one iota from this position despite the urging, encouragement, or even the insistence of the Security Council on the need for “realism” and “compromise.”

It is hard to credit the recent reports of a new optimism in the Security Council about prospects for a solution to this issue in the face of such intransigence.

So, I have a question for the Polisario that may provide them an opportunity to show a little cooperation with the Security Council and Mr. Kohler. My question accepts as a starting premise the Polisario’s preference for a vote on independence for Western Sahara and is based on the original reason why UN efforts to facilitate such a solution failed so miserably.

First, a brief review of why the UN’s effort collapsed. When the UN terminated its effort to construct an agreed list of voters for a referendum, there were roughly 90,000 registered voters and 145,000 pending appeals to the registration process.  The UN was unable to create a final voters list because it could not get agreement between Morocco and the Polisario on how to adjudicate those appeals. After eight years of trying the bridge the gaps on a voter list, the process simply collapsed and the international community decided to move forward to find a political solution to the problem through direct negotiation among the Parties. So far, that has also failed.

So, let’s revisit the original question in the current context.  If the Polisario wants a referendum on independence – who gets to vote?

In his final proposal to the Parties and the Security Council, James Baker established a new principle that he insisted must be taken into account when he stipulated in that proposal (which he called his “Peace Plan”) that any final referendum on Western Sahara would have to include all those who had been resident in the territory since 1999 – a somewhat arbitrary date even then, but which coincided with the termination of the UN registration process.

This principle took into account the idea that any vote that excluded stakeholders who had been resident in the territory for generations, regardless of their origins, could not be expected to be seen as democratic or credible and thus also could not be expected to be sustainable. Twenty years later, in the current context, that principle is even more critical today than it was then. Many of a whole generation of stakeholders have died in the last two decades and a new one has been born and come of age. If the principles of democracy and credibility and sustainability were relevant in 1999, they are even more so today.

So, my question for the Polisario is – if you still insist on a referendum on independence, who gets to vote? The voter list you supported in 1999 is simply not credible today, nor democratic, nor is it likely to produce a sustainable outcome. Are you willing to revisit that question? If so, what ideas do you have today that would make such a vote more democratic, credible, and sustainable?

I am not suggesting here that I have any reason to believe that Morocco would be willing to have this conversation with the Polisario. Nevertheless, the Polisario owes it to the international community, to the Security Council, and to Horst Kohler to demonstrate that it is willing to be “realistic” and to “compromise” in the search for a solution. If the Polisario remains unwilling to accept an outcome that does not include a referendum on independence, it at least needs to recognize that it must now address the original question of who gets to vote in the context of today’s radically different circumstances in Western Sahara.

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