Facing Truths in the Sahara Conflict

Mohammad el Ashab    
Al Hayat    
27/04/08

UN Envoy for the Sahara, Peter van Walsum did not reveal anything new when he said that independence was « unrealistic » for the disputed territory. He was preceded to this by the states of North Africa, including Algeria, when they signed the Arab Maghreb Union convention among five countries only. Separatists from the Polisario Front recount having heard candid talk from Algerian leaders along those lines at a time when the conflict was raging. Paradoxically, it is sometimes forgotten that former UN Envoy James Baker once ordered the tight shutting of the doors to the meeting room where he was gathered with Front leaders before he told them to « forget the option of complete independence ». He also did the same thing with Moroccan mediators, insisting they forget the complete integration of the Sahara.

Years after Baker’s resignation, van Walsum reveals the solution key, which consists of combining political reality and international legitimacy. Most importantly, he was honest and conveyed what is being said in the UN, the Security Council, and behind closed doors. Relevant Security Council resolutions called for a « political solution », which was considered a smart reproduction of the idea of deciding the fate of the Sahara based on new foundations. They also left a wide margin for the conflicting parties to agree on everything through a series of negotiation rounds. The fact of the matter is that on the regional level, the Moroccan-Algerian dialogue remained pending with continued disputes on the best ways to reopen the borders in addition to an internal divergence of views around the Sahara conflict. At no point were the Manhasset negotiations expected to make any progress in the absence of a regional understanding between the two neighboring countries. This implies that the new ideas put forth by mediator van Walsum free all concerned parties of any political embarrassment regarding the political solution formula that is accepted in principle without any reserve.

In parallel to this, the UN envoy attempted to combine elements of the solution. On one hand, he fully sponsored four negotiation rounds that resulted in an exchange of ideas about the references of the Security Council resolutions and their scope of implementation. On the other, he visited the North African region to prompt neighboring parties to enter into a peaceful settlement. This made him understand all the obstacles that impede any progress. Consequently, the proposal he submitted before the Security Council is rather intended to reach successful ways to eliminate obstacles.

It is certain that van Walsum is not the side responsible the Sahara problem nor is he a party to the conflict. Consequently, he cannot be blamed merely for thinking out loud. Additionally, Moroccans are not required to consider their thoughts as a victory since the Polisario Front may not see any bias in this. The solution he is advocating is backed by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Security Council, and it mainly aims at reaching an historical reconciliation that would diffuse the threat of explosion and tension form the region and allow for solid peace among the parties to the conflict. His forceful words to the parties that have become accustomed to living with the crisis only reflect his desire to play a greater role in finding a solution to the conflict.

The language and tone used by van Walsum may not be to the liking of parties accustomed to interpretation, but the living conditions in the Tindouf camp have become intolerable, if only from the humanitarian viewpoint. Van Walsum’s proposal is nothing short of a realistic roadmap to understanding the intricacies and causes of an enduring conflict. It is perhaps the first time that the Sahara issue is dealt with in its historical and political context without annulling the rights of any of the parties to achieving objectives that can be tolerated by the region of North Africa.
Everything overdue- such as the propagation of a solution, the unifying visions, the improvement of economic and social conditions of inhabitants, and the progress toward democracy – strongly imposes itself on the region. Although the only positive aspect behind van Walsum’s ideas is the elimination of tensions and consequential depletion of the region’s resources and capabilities, it is the least that should be done. Nonetheless, facing facts is less harmful than facing conflicts that have never brought forth anything beneficial for anyone.

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