Cohen: Changes Offer Positive Sign for Western Sahara

Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:06am

You may wonder what these very different places on the globe have in common: Manhasset, Long Island; Vienna, Austria; and Valletta, Malta.

Unfortunately, all three represent an enormous piece of diplomatic failure that now helps prolong a decades-old dispute that threatens to put a damper on the most positive outcomes from the Arab Spring while thwarting movements toward democracy, peace and economic development in a key part of the world.

The Western Sahara, a piece of territory the size of Colorado, has perhaps 500,000 people within its borders living, voting and participating under Moroccan sovereignty. The area has been a source of enormous contention for decades, essentially since the Spanish pulled out in 1975. The primary parties are Morocco, the Polisario — whose members live in refugee camps in southern Algeria and number fewer than 100,000 — and the Polisario’s principal backers, Algeria.

This week, the United Nations-sponsored negotiations between the parties resume in Manhasset, the ninth such session in the past several years.

Chris Ross, the U.N. secretary general’s special envoy for the Western Sahara, has publicly asked for the parties to negotiate in good faith “with the help of the international community.”

Interestingly, he has also asked that parties respond to concrete proposals that any party makes aimed at resolving the crisis.

One party — Morocco — has put forward just such a proposal. It’s been on the table for years. The kingdom’s proposal — for autonomy for the people of the Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty — has gained the endorsement of the past three U.S. administrations — Clinton, Bush and Obama. A majority of Congress has signaled its support on more than one occasion. The previous U.N. special envoy also called for negotiations to be conducted solely on autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

Is there another serious conflict in the world where there is such overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for a path to resolution? We think not.

But during the past eight negotiating sessions, no progress has been made. There’s been no serious response by the Polisario or their Algerian backers to the Moroccan approach. No suggestions for how to amend it, shape it, even to fundamentally change it.

But this negotiating session should be different. This session should be the one that suddenly changes the equation and leads to a resolution. Of course, it will take a change in behavior by all parties, but particularly the Polisario.

Why is there a chance to move rapidly forward to a settlement? Because it takes place with an entirely new political and social backdrop in North Africa.

What is this new paradigm that makes settlement of the Sahara dispute such an urgent — and achievable — priority?

First, the main advocates for the Polisario are either gone or are severely weakened. Start with Moammar Gadhafi. Polisario-recruited mercenaries fought to keep him in power, but he’s gone. The new Libyan government has endorsed the Moroccan approach.

Moreover, former Polisario supporters are now backing away from them. The Polisario’s human rights record has been recently criticized by the French. The Spanish government is no longer a major backer.

And the Polisario is faced with a mounting protest from within, particularly from its youth groups and their frustration over the Sahara stalemate. The recent “re-election” of the Polisario’s leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz, with 96-plus percent of the vote, seemed an anachronism, a throw-back to a period — not long ago — when elections across much of North Africa were rigged.

The many crises spawned or exacerbated by the unresolved Sahara issue — human trafficking, drug trafficking, al-Qaida recruitment — have now reached a level where the reformed, democratic governments in the region realize they must be confronted.

Lastly, Algeria is becoming increasingly isolated by its pro-Polisario position. All across North Africa, democracy and promotion of human rights are marching forward. Algeria continues to lag far behind. If the Sahara conflict is resolved, it will pave the way for a “new Algeria” joining with its neighbors, most notably Morocco, to promote social and economic integration in what promises to be a much more stable region — a dynamic one in the best sense of the word.

So we hope that the parties now sitting together in Manhasset are serious about this session being very much unlike all those others. Both parties need to be serious. But only one, thus far, has brought forward a serious proposal aimed at a resolution. At the very least, those who oppose it need to explain why and present a workable alternative.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is a member of the Judiciary Committee.