The Western Sahara conflict which broke out in the 1970s has been lasting to date. At present, large parts of Western Sahara are controlled by the Moroccan Government, whereas some 20% of the Western Sahara territory remains controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario state with limited international recognition. The legal status of Western Sahara and the large numbers of Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict are among the key issues of the ongoing peace process.

The Politicon interviews Mr. Lahoucine Khabid, CEO and founder of Atlas Center for Diplomatic Studies, a Conflict Resolution and Mediation expert, who shares his opinion from Morocco`s perspective.

 

Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov

 

 

Huseynov: As of 2016, Morocco governs Western Sahara referring to it as Southern Province and seeing it as integral part. Is there any plan of the Royal Government to ever grant Western Sahara some degree of autonomy to appease Polisario and its supporters?

 

Khabid: Well, anyone following the issue of Western Sahara today realizes that we are facing the second heaviest and everlasting territory-related files on UN desks after the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The issue dates back to 1975 when this former Spanish Colony was annexed by Morocco who claim sovereignty over its southern provinces and Sahrawis who seek self-determination under the guise of indigenous Sahrawi People led by the Fronte Polisario (Polisario Front). After a serious of non-official direct talks moderated by UN officials, negotiations between the two conflicting parties failed to break the political deadlock; as a result the conflict remain unresolved. In 2007 the Kingdom suggested a “Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy statute for the Sahara Region” for what the country sees a win-win based resolution to the conflict as a response to the Security Council calls upon the parties and states of the region to continue to cooperate with United Nations to end the impasse towards a political resolution since 2004. Morocco’s proposal which is alleged to draw inspiration from the relevant proposals of the UN Organizations and from the constitutional provisions in force in neighboring countries with cultural similarities is based on internationally recognized norms and standards; which is a sign of consolation to the Polisario and its supporters. In conclusion the autonomy plan has not reached the negotiating stage yet.

 

 

 

What is Morocco`s present position regarding referendum in Western Sahara? Some claim this issue is outdated and no more on the agenda? Will Morocco ever agree for a referendum in Western Sahara?

 

The king said in one of his recent speeches before the people of Morocco on the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Green March that he will offer no more than autonomy for the disputed Western Sahara , this was shortly after UN chief called for ‘true negotiations’ to end the four decade deadlock over the region. “This initiative is the maximum Morocco can offer” said the king, of course in reference to the autonomy plan proposed by the kingdom and Morocco will keep on refusing any form of plans or adventures with uncertain results that could be of dangerous impact on the alleged “unity of territory”. However, Polisario has planned a Sahrawi republic which is recognized by African Union and some South American countries but by none of the Western powers. If we look at that is happening in the region, mainly after the Arab spring and the situation in Libya and Tunisia one could expect anything to occur and here we should resort to the system of international relations and its impact on geopolitics whether Morocco’s position towards referendum change or not.

 

 

Several international human rights organizations express concern about arrest of Sahrawi activities. How long will the Moroccan authorities keep strong in its position and resist international pressure on this issue?

 

It was highly visible that officials in charge of the Western Sahara file in Morocco committed serious mistakes which obviously led to unrest in the region followed by series violations of human rights; Amnesty International to name one accuses Morocco of continuing to use excessive force against activists and repressing political freedom in Western Sahara. Human Rights Watch came out with a heavy report after Moroccan forces dismantled the protest camp outside Laayoune known as Gdeim Izik crisis when destruction of the camp resulted in dozens of deaths, life sentence imprisonments and also forced disappearances. In my opinion, Moroccan authorities have got themselves in a mess as the trial took place in a military court while all the convicts are civilians in a form of violation of international laws. In response to the international and domestic pressures condemning all forms of violations of human rights in Western Sahara, a new law took effect that ended military trials of civilians and the kingdom granted temporary legal status to UN-recognized asylum seekers. In addition, Morocco has also led a plan for human rights systems promotion by founding the regional branch of the National Council for Human Rights in Laayoune and in Dakhla. Internationally Morocco’s traditional ally, France, with Security Council veto power, always backs the kingdom’s initiative and threatened to use its veto to block any proposals to have UN peacekeepers in Western Sahara monitor the human rights situation. France’s position regarding the Sahara is well known and has never changed since Morocco’s primary interests in what it calls its “southern provinces” are economic. The Western Sahara has more than half of the world’s phosphate reserves, underground water tables and rich fishing grounds off its coast and lucrative businesses in the Western Sahara are owned by Moroccan or French nationals; in the other hand there are rumors on the intense lobbying operations undertaken by the Moroccan government to prevent the EU, individual member states and the UN from interfering with Moroccan administration of the Western Sahara and local activists.

 

 

Tens of thousands of original inhabitants of Western Sahara have become displaced as a result of the conflict. What are the plans to help them return their homes?

 

There are estimated 100,000 refugees of Sahrawi origin from both the area covered by the dispute and also from Morocco’s recognized southern cities such Assa, Tata and Guelmim. Life in the refugee camps in Tindouf is tough amid the extreme desert climate, and living conditions become difficult as the donors had to cut on aid due to the global economic crisis. It is clear that Sahrawis expect the International Community to assume its responsibility and urge the MINURSO which was sent to arrange for the referendum and not only observe the ceasefire between Morocco and Polisario. These Sahrawis have high hopes for the international community to recognize their alleged republic now that Morocco is in a situation of isolation due to its crisis with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who called the kingdom “occupier” during his visit to Algeria this year and also regarding certain issues Morocco has with African Union including diplomatic confrontations with several other countries who support Polisario. One should not deny the open support Morocco has had through the years from France, this last has always reiterated that the Moroccan plan is a serious and credible basis a negotiated resolution to the Sahara issue and welcomed initiatives taken by the Moroccan government on human rights, calling for a populations census in Tindouf camps, yet again the Sahrawi refugees count on UN to resolve the long-lasting differences and start talks between conflicting parties so that Sahrawi refugees can return home to Western Sahara with dignity as promised by UN Secretary General during his visit to Mauritania in April this year and now Moroccan intellectuals have concerns that Morocco has left negotiations without clear path forward.

 

 

According to some claims, Western Sahara is somewhat an economic burden for Morocco, as the authorities carry out a large subsidy program, inject millions of dollars into the territory. How do Moroccan citizens regard to Western Sahara: do they support this type of exclusive aid to the region or would better get rid of it?

 

It is often announced by Moroccan officials that the kingdom has invested what is estimated to be 3 billion USD to help promote the region in various sectors, including infrastructure, hospitals and schools, and recently the king launched an over 1.5 billion USD investment plan in the so-called southern provinces driven by the state-owned phosphate company OCP which extracts the majority of its exported phosphate rocks from the disputed region; however, the Moroccan public opinion in this regard is split. In this context, Moroccan elite sees the kingdom has put in place an impressive array of policy and institutional means to promote investment and leverage developmental goals in Western Sahara; others firmly state that Morocco does not have financial capacities to invest and subsidize Western Sahara’s economy to dampen its political aspirations; and decision-makers still seek most convenient economic approach with realistic expectations of both short-term and long-term investment strategies. Morocco in the frame of seeking credibility and internationally supported roadmap for the future status of the territory, the kingdom focus on economic development in Western Sahara in an attempt to build support for its rule among residents. Nevertheless, there are unknown costs of maintaining the settler population in the towns of Western Sahara, many of thousands of northern Moroccans and ethnic Sahrawis from southern Morocco transferred to Western Sahara province subsist for most part of government jobs and government subsidies; settlers receive tax breaks, subsidized goods and services, those given jobs receive high rates while those with no work get hand-outs through the government’s workfare scheme.

 

 

What is Algeria`s interest in this conflict? To what extent does Algeria`s active involvement and open backing of Polisario influence Algeria-Morocco relations?

 

Algeria and Morocco share linguistic, cultural, historic and religious ties. They have similar population sizes, scarce economic resources, and political clout in regional and international circles. Both are marked by the experience of French colonialism; while these similarities should engender a relationship of cooperation and mutual interests, the reality is far from this:  since their independence, Morocco and Algeria have been engaged in a contest for regional supremacy. States, in order to protect their populations and interests must ensure stable borders, because without them their sovereignty is not absolute.  In much of the global South, borders, usually artificially drawn during colonization, are either contested, or areas of little interest. In North Africa, this is reflected in the Morocco-Algerian border conflict. The Western Sahara conflict is the one point of contention that requires its own set of resolutions before long term stability can be achieved. In its contemporary phase, this conflict is characterized by the refugee activity in the border town of Tindouf, Algeria, and past violence between the Polisario forces and Moroccan troops along the Morocco-Algerian border. Yet, even if there were no Saharan issue, Algeria and Morocco would still be very much at odds.  Both countries remain in a competitive struggle to achieve political and economic dominance in the Maghreb region, the Sahrawi issue serves as a convenient excuse to settle scores on regional sovereignty matters. Since the 1991 coming of the MINURSO and the cease fire agreement, the conflict has been a virtual stalemate, but the lack of resolution has continued to influence their adversarial relationship while the public supports better relations with its neighbor, they should not be at the expense of the Western Sahara. That is to say, the people are less antagonistic amongst themselves than the two governments.  Meanwhile the people would like to have better relations; this should not be to the demise of one side winning the Western Sahara debacle.

 

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