I served as Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Given that background, I’ve been asked repeatedly what I think of President Trump’s recent proclamation recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.
This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.
The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.
It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.
The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on “mission impossible”.
If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty weakens any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.