An Opening for Peace in Western Sahara

HAVING rolled back Iraqi aggression and nullified the annexation of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council has decided that another desert conflict, the 16-year war in Western Sahara, will be solved by a plebiscite. On April 29, the Security Council unanimously authorized the establishment of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to plan and implement an act of free choice for the indigenous Sahrawi people. This culminates a six-year effort of UN Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to make peace between the two parties vying for control of Western Sahara: Morocco and the Polisario Front. The Sahrawi people will choose between independence and integration with Morocco.

On May 20, the UN General Assembly is expected to appropriate $200 million for MINURSO, setting in motion a 36-week timetable for the mission. Meanwhile, Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar will commence the identification of voters, which includes updating the controversial 1974 colonial census undertaken by Spain. That count listed only 74,000 Sahrawis. Currently, there are 165,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, some 50,000 ethnic Sahrawis in Morocco and Mauritania, and perhaps 30,000 Sahrawis inside Western Sahara. Also, there are sizable Sahrawi communities in the West. MINURSO will spend 27 weeks considering applications from Sahrawis who claim they should be allowed to vote.

By September, a formal cease-fire should come into effect. Morocco will then undertake a substantial reduction of its military presence in Western Sahara, from 160,000 to 65,000 troops, which will be completed in 11 weeks. The Moroccan navy will continue to patrol the West Saharan coast and some army logistic and support units will remain in the territory's capital, El-Ayoun, and in Dakhla and Smara. In addition, the Moroccan air force will provide radio communication, meteorological services, and air-t raffic control, though a better choice would have been to assign such tasks to Spain.

Polisario combatants also will be confined to MINURSO-designated locations. All Sahrawi military personnel who are eligible voters, however, will be required to leave their functions. MINURSO will station 1,700 peacekeeping troops at selected Moroccan and Polisario outposts.

STILL, it will be difficult for such a small UN force to prevent incidents and clashes in a territory the size of Britain. Furthermore, there will be nearly one Moroccan soldier stationed in Western Sahara for every eligible Sahrawi voter, making it critical that there be a climate of fairness, not intimidation.

P'erez de Cu'ellar's plan aims to provide some confidence-building measures. A general amnesty will be declared for political prisoners, detainees, and returnees. The International Committee of the Red Cross will work with the UN to secure the release of all prisoners of war. Also, an independent jurist will seek to free all Sahrawi political prisoners and detainees three weeks before the referendum. As yet, however, the UN has made no provisions to locate some 800 disappeared Sahrawi civilians.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will organize the repatriation program for Sahrawi refugees and individuals who live outside the territory but are eligible to vote. Returnees will enter through selected points protected by UN peacekeeping forces. The difficulty, however, is that UNHCR independently must raise the $34 million necessary for this operation.

Finally, P'erez de Cu'ellar's special representative, Johannes Manz, will implement the entire referendum process. To an extent, he will control Western Sahara at its turning point. Yet the challenges he will face over a 36-week period are enormous. For example, 100,000 Moroccan civil servants and settlers in Western Sahara will outnumber civilian Sahrawis at the time of the vote. No independent observers nor press coverage, save UN radio and TV, are planned.

Still, the world must pay attention to the Sahrawi people as they make their first democratic choice. Recently, the Polisario leadership pledged that an independent Sahrawi state would be a multiparty democracy with a free-market economy.

This is an opportunity for key officials in the United States and Spain to become involved in a UN effort to solve another third-world conflict. But more is required than lending verbal support or pledging funds to MINURSO and UNHCR budgets.

Both US and Spanish personnel should be attached to MINURSO. This would help alleviate regional tensions and strengthen moderate forces within the Sahrawi and Moroccan communities.

A success in Western Sahara could help move the UN another step toward its envisioned role as world peacemaker.

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