SITUATION REPORT: WESTERN SAHARA: OIL ON TROUBLED WATERS
Oil fields found off the coast of the of Western Sahara have
raised the profile of this disputed territory. Among the first indications
was the United
Nations Security Council vote in March to extend by two months the mandate
of Minurso, its mission in Western Sahara. Until the game was changed by
the discovery of oil, the UN was keeping this 12-year-old mission only just
by extending its mandate a month at a time.
The Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara has to all intents and purposes
completed its task of drawing up a roll of the 200,000 Saharawis eligible to
vote in the envisaged referendum on the future of the territory. Morocco has
occupied it in defiance of the UN since 1975. The UN force also polices a ceasefire
that has held since 1991, whereby the Moroccan forces remain behind a sand
wall in the West of the occupied territory. The Saharawi fighters of the Polisario
Front move freely about the rest of the zone.
The bulk of the Saharawis (about 160,000 people) live in refugee camps in
Algeria. They survive on the grace and favour of the UN and a range of mainly
European humanitarian organisations. King Mohamed VI of Morocco confessed earlier
this year that Morocco’s promise eventually to go along with the UN peace
process in Western Sahara amounted to little more than a stalling tactic. Meanwhile,
thorough work by Minurso in compiling the voters’ roll has foiled Rabat’s
attempt to manipulate the process by pouring Moroccan settlers into the occupied
territory and registering them as voters. Moroccans are, however, well aware
that the Saharawis under their heel in the occupied territory would vote with
their refugee compatriots in the camps, and they have no intention of going
through with the referendum, which was proposed by the UN Security Council,
let alone accepting its outcome.
Morocco’s defiant stand on Western Sahara has exacerbated its relations
with neighbouring Algeria, which supports and shelters the Saharawis and has
paralysed the Maghreb Arab Union comprising Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia
and Libya. Morocco has, however, staked everything on France and the United
States managing to strong-arm the Saharawis into accepting less than complete
independence. The Saharawis, with the consistent support of Algeria, reject
any notion of a partial or conditional independence should the people opt for
Morocco’s departure. Herein lies the deadlock: Morocco cannot risk withdrawing
its troops from the occupied territory and have them return to a kingdom that
has unemployment approaching 40%, because it fears that idle soldiers would
only contribute to the seething discontent over the new king’s failure
to deliver promised reforms.
Until now both France and the United States have concurred with this analysis.
They have supported a so-called third way proposed by former United States
secretary of state, James Baker, acting as special envoy for UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan. After failing three times to get UN Security Council approval of
what become known as the Baker Plan, Annan attempted a pressure play and threatened
that the withdrawal of Minurso was one of four options. The second option was
to implement the 1998 peace plan, which would mean holding the election. The
other options were to discuss a division of the territory and to revise the
Baker has no illusions that Morocco will ever agree to any plan that could
result in its having to quit the territory. His new proposal thus still amounts
to a Moroccan wish list and is unlikely to have any more success on a Security
Council that currently includes Spain. Madrid has recently had something of
a crisis of conscience about abandoning its former colony in 1975. In addition,
Spanish relations with Morocco hit an all-time low last year when Moroccan
soldiers had to be ejected from the Spanish Mediterranean island of Persil.
Morocco’s vigorous opposition to the Iraq war has, moreover, soured its
relations with Washington.
Support for the SADR
Not surprisingly, Baker Plan II met with a decided thumbs down from the Saharawis
and their supporters. The Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) is a
member of the African Union and can count the vast majority of African
its supporters. South Africa has given de facto recognition to the SADR,
which has an ambassador in Pretoria. The Saharawis continue to press Pretoria
to fulfil written promises made by former President Nelson Mandela and
Foreign Minister Nkosazana Zuma to establish formal ties between the two
President Thabo Mbeki, who is under pressure from Washington, Paris and
Annan to maintain the status quo, has said he is waiting for an opportune
to do this. In addition to its advocates in Africa, the Saharawis enjoy
significant moral support from political parties in Europe and the Americas.
When the Australian-based Fusion Oil & Gas Company was looking to explore
off the Western Sahara coast, it was pointed to the SADR government by British
civil servants. Fusion struck a deal with the SADR that allowed drilling now
and getting first option after independence to pump any oil it found. Morocco’s
state-owned oil company Onarep, meanwhile, gave exploration rights in the disputed
territory to multinational oil companies Kerr-McGee and TotalFinaElf. This
prompted the Security Council to seek an opinion from UN legal counsel Hans
Corel, who found that Morocco’s illegal occupation of the territory did
not give it any jurisdiction—and certainly no right to issue licences
over its mineral resources.
The Norwegian company TGS-NOPEC has subsequently stopped its seismic exploration
on behalf of the Onarep licensees and admitted that it was imprudent to have
operated in the occupied territory. TotalFinaElf and Kerr-McGee have held their
fire, insisting that the Onarep licence is for exploration not exploitation.
The need to achieve a political solution becomes more pressing as the oilrigs
move in and money blurs the issues.
The UN’s very survival has been thrown into the balance by the attack
of US-led coalition on forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. Another crisis of credibility
would lead yet more people to question the usefulness of the UN. However, this
is exactly what Morocco threatens. The Western Sahara peace plan that was approved
by the Security Council is still on the table. Morocco, having repeatedly promised
to implement it, remains unconvinced.