You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Justice Undone

I was Kofi Annan's envoy to Africa's last colony. Why I resigned in protest … and why I've decided to speak out.

“Come stai…? Tutto bene…?” This had been U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's opening line since the early days of our professional relationship. I'd heard him use the greeting many times as he rose through the ranks, resorting to it whenever he met an Italian colleague (like me). Still, those words never failed to warm my heart. Walking around his desk Kofi smiled, hand stretched out towards the black leather sofa. It was early September 2006. Both Annan and I were about to leave the United Nations for good. He was leaving after two terms in office. I had just resigned, in protest, from my post as his special representative in Western Sahara. Dashing any remaining hopes, our last conversation turned out to be emblematic of the blandness and ambiguities that characterize U.N. engagement with Africa's last colony. Since then, I have witnessed the organization and its leaders continuing to perpetuate a grave injustice in Western Sahara, contrary to their own promises and obligations.

Half the size of France, Western Sahara lies on the Atlantic coast of Africa between Morocco and Mauritania. A desert land, it has been inhabited since time immemorial by Arab-Berber nomadic tribes. Since the mid-'60s, the United Nations has issued a staggering number of resolutions supporting the Saharawis' inalienable right to self-determination under the U.N. Charter. Yet, when Spain withdrew from what was then Spanish Sahara in 1976, it failed to organize a referendum so that its inhabitants could choose their future status. And the territory was soon swallowed up by a new colonizer: King Hassan II of Morocco.

In invading Western Sahara, the King was pursuing an old vision of greater Morocco and seeking access to natural resources. He launched a "Green March" of some 350,000 Moroccans who crossed the border unopposed by the Spanish army. The subsequent military operation was brutal. Under bombings by the Moroccan air force, tens of thousands of Saharawis began to flee the few urban areas for the desert inland. Morocco started a program of settlements not dissimilar from that carried out by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank after the Six-Day War. A bloody desert war ensued between the occupier and the pro-independence POLISARIO front. It was not until 1991 that the two sides agreed on a ceasefire to be followed within nine months by a referendum for self-determination, facilitated by the United Nations. However, because of Moroccan resistance supported by powerful allies like France and the United States, that referendum never took place.

The price of inaction has been high. Morocco has constructed a wall 1,400 miles long, cutting the entire territory of Western Sahara in half. An amazing sight, the berm separates the territory under Moroccan control, on the Atlantic coast, from an area bordering Mauritania and Algeria, where POLISARIO fighters roam. Over 120,000 refugees who fled the invasion eke out a miserable life in five camps scattered in a forbidding corner of the Algerian desert. On the western side of the divide, Saharawis live in the underbelly of what the West likes to depict as a benevolent Moroccan regime. Freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly are denied; discrimination, arbitrary detentions, and beatings are routine occurrences.  Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice have repeatedly decried Moroccan human rights violations.

Ignoring international norms on resource exploitation in a territory under occupation, Morocco has also been selling the riches of Western Sahara. They range from valuable phosphate to desert sand, shipped in a steady flow to the shores of European beach resorts. In a highly profitable agreement, Morocco has also granted European Union fleets access to Western Sahara fishing grounds, among the richest in the world. And oil may soon be an additional perk for the occupier.

What started half a century ago as a straightforward decolonization issue has become a political maze. The basic question, however, is simple. POLISARIO seeks a referendum with three options: integration with Morocco, autonomy under Moroccan rule, or independence. This was the gist of a plan formulated in 2003 by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker who was then the secretary general's envoy for Western Sahara. Baker's proposal was unanimously supported by the Security Council and accepted by the Polisario. However, in April 2004, Morocco declared that it could not agree to any formula that included the independence of Western Sahara as a possible outcome. Security Council members failed to react to this rebuff. Little has happened since, and Rabat has only offered to grant the Saharawis some sort of ill-defined autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

It cannot be credibly argued that the option of independence should be excluded a priori in post-colonial self-determination. Yet, over the years, Morocco's powerful patrons have favoured political expediency over international legality. France is so unquestioning in its support of Morocco as to block even a reference to Saharawi human rights in Security Council resolutions. Other Council members waver between indifference and collusion. American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an old friend of Morocco, has so far dashed Saharawi hopes despite representing the supposedly principled Obama administration.

Successive secretaries-general have learned from their governmental masters. I witnessed this firsthand when serving as Kofi Annan's representative in the territory between 2005 and 2006. After the bloody repression of street demonstrations in El Aaiún, Western Sahara's capital city, in December 2005, the then head of the UN peacekeeping department ignored my recommendation to express to the Moroccan authorities the concern of the United Nations. As the EU-Morocco fisheries negotiations got under way, the U.N decided not to urge Europe to eschew an illegal agreement that flew in the face of a U.N. Legal Advisor opinion. The U.N. Charter provides that, pending self-determination, the international community should protect the rights of the inhabitants of non-self-governing territories. They should receive priority economic assistance and be helped to develop political institutions. I included a proposal to this effect in the draft of a report to be submitted by Kofi Annan to the Security Council in the fall of 2006, only to see it struck out of the text just before publication.

After resigning my position, I saw the new secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, take an even more opportunistic line. His latest report to the Security Council, issued in April 2010, was so biased as to lead POLISARIO President Mohamed Abdelaziz to openly question the Secretary-General's impartiality.

In recent months, tension has been growing again in the occupied territory and in the refugee camps, a reminder that neglect is no solution for Western Sahara. Indeed, the status of Western Sahara has been such a bone of contention between Algeria and Morocco—Cold War-era foes still vying for influence over the territory—that until the issue is settled, diplomatic relations will remain frozen, and there will be no intelligence cooperation to defeat the local version of Al Qaeda. Thus, by fulfilling its obligations towards the Saharawi people, the international community would put into practice its often-empty rhetoric about conflict prevention. More importantly, U.N. leaders would redress a historic injustice that diminishes both themselves and the organization.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

A former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for peacekeeping, Francesco Bastagli is a senior advisor at the Institute for International Political Studies in Milan.