Cautious optimism over Western Sahara talks in Geneva

UN Envoy for Western Sahara Horst Koehler hailed “a first, but an important, step” towards finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Realistic approach. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita speaks during a news conference about the final communique of the initial Roundtable on Western Sahara, December 6. (AP)
Realistic approach. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita speaks during a news conference about the final communique of the initial Roundtable on Western Sahara, December 6. (AP)

CASABLANCA - Talks in Geneva to reach a peaceful solution to the decades-old Western Sahara conflict concluded with cautious optimism.

“There has been a very good atmosphere during the talks but it is not enough… A good atmosphere should be translated into a genuine will to change this situation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said. He warned that the momentum could falter unless there was sufficient political will.

“We have to be pragmatic. If we are ready for a compromise, Morocco is there and an autonomy plan is on the table,” he said.

“If we would like to make the process an end in itself, we should be careful because I think this momentum is not granted and this momentum will have an end if there is no political will.”

Kathri Addouh, the head of the Polisario Front’s delegation, said he was hopeful about the talks and insisted that the Sahrawi people have the right to self-determination.

Before the second day of talks, Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel affirmed his “optimism.”

Six years after direct talks broke down, representatives of Morocco and the Polisario Front, which fought a war over the region until a 1991 ceasefire, took part in two days of UN-led discussions along with officials from Algeria and Mauritania.

UN Envoy for Western Sahara Horst Koehler hailed “a first, but an important, step” towards finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

“From our discussions, it is clear to me that nobody wins from maintaining the status quo and it is my firm belief that it lies in the interest of all to resolve this conflict,” said Koehler.

“A peaceful solution to this conflict is possible.”

Koehler said he expected a second round of talks in the first quarter of 2019.

Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and maintains it is an integral part of its country. The Algeria-backed Polisario Front began an armed conflict with Morocco for an independent state that lasted until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

Rabat has proposed a form of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty for the territory. The proposal was rejected by the Polisario Front, which insists on the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination in a UN-monitored vote.

An estimated 100,000-200,000 refugees live in dire conditions in camps near Tindouf in western Algeria.

Sabri Lhou, an expert in international law, migration and the Western Sahara conflict, said that the world was waiting for a peaceful resolution to one of the longest conflicts.

“Geneva talks are a positive step towards resolving the conflict. Morocco wants better living conditions for the thousands of refugees who live precariously in Tindouf camps,” said Lhou.

Bourita said that he took part in the talks with a sincere desire to revive regional integration, to work with all countries “so the Maghreb can finally be an actor of peace, stability and development for its immediate environment for these countries and for the five peoples of the Maghreb.”

Lhou said integration “is key to the region’s political, economic and social stability that will play a major role in fighting terrorism and illegal migration.”

The last direct talks began in 2007 but faltered in 2012 over the territory’s status and the proposed referendum.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI in November called for “direct and frank” talks with Algiers to settle longstanding differences that have impeded ties between the two neighbouring countries.

There has been no official response from the Algerian government, apart from Algeria’s request for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the moribund Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).

The World Economic Forum criticised the AMU for failing to ensure the free movement of goods in a free trade area that in­cludes Morocco, Mauritania, Alge­ria, Tunisia and Libya.

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