13 years and $600 million later, peace nowhere in sight

The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that UN peacekeepers will be pulled out of the Western Sahara next February unless the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front can come to some agreement on how to bring peace to the troubled desert territory.

According to Annan, the international body is left with two options - the ending of the UN presence in the Western Sahara or a continuation of the push for a peaceful settlement.

“After the passage of more than 13 years and the expenditure of more than US$ 600 million,” Annan said that it had become apparent that “the United Nations was not going to solve the problem of Western Sahara without requiring that one or both of the parties do something that they would not voluntarily agree to do."

While the peace has held in Western Sahara for more than a decade, there has been no real rapprochement between Morocco and Polisario. Successive Moroccan governments have used maintained that Western Sahara is an integral part of Moroccan national territory. Polisario has continued to lobby for self-determination for the Saharawi people.

Pressure is now on for the two sides to accept a peace plan put forward by the UN special envoy to the Western Sahara, former US Secretary of State James Baker in 2003.

That plan provides for a referendum to take place in four to five years time. The final vote would offer the inhabitants of the territory a choice between independence, autonomy within Morocco or complete integration with Morocco.

The plan also proposed that, in the run-up to the referendum, an autonomous Western Sahara Authority be made responsible for running key parts of the administration, taking control of local government, taxation, economic development, internal security and other dossiers.

But Morocco would retain control over foreign relations, national security, external defence and all matters relating to the production, sale, ownership and use of weapons during the interim period.

Polisario accepted the UN’s Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara in July 2003.

However, earlier this month it was rejected by Morocco.

Annan recommended to the Security Council his favoured option of trying “once again to get the parties to work towards acceptance and implementation of the Peace Plan."

Since 1991, the UN has been trying to settle a sovereignty dispute over Western Sahara, a 266,000 km square piece of desert territory tucked between Mauritania and Morocco.

The dispute broke out in 1975 when Morocco annexed the territory after Spanish relinquished its colonial grip on the arid, but phosphate-rich parcel of land. The next 16 years were marked by a low-intensity war, which ended with a ceasefire agreement and the UN’s establishment of the - the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).

Over the years, the UN has proposed several draft peace plans, trying to find an acceptable model for a referendum, which have never gained the full support of the two sides. Meanwhile, the costs of the UN-backed peace have continued to pile up while resources run thin.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) provides a basic diet for 155,000 refugees living in desert camps near Tindouf in the south-western corner of Algeria. The 66.6 metric tons supplied costs US$ 14 million per year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has helped with the repatriation of 1249 POWs since 1984. More than 600 Moroccan prisoners are still held by Polisario. After more than 20 years in detention, they are the world’s longest serving prisoners of war.