Western Sahara and Lost Causes

Earlier today I had the chance to talk with Frank Ruddy, the former deputy chairman of the U.N. Peacekeeping Referendum for Western Sahara, in the context of my WPR article about yesterday’s U.N. Security Council vote on the disputed region.

Western Sahara is at the center of Africa’s longest running territorial dispute. For more than 33 years the Polisario Front has fought and negotiated for the region’s independence. But the dispute rarely gets covered in the press anymore, and even the U.N. mediator to the talks between the Polisario Front and Morocco seems to believe that independence is a lost cause for the region.

So I asked Ruddy why he remains so passionate about Western Sahara, and he quoted Clarence Darrow saying, “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

Why is Western Sahara a lost cause? The story Ruddy tells is one of gross mismanagement at the U.N., a well-funded Moroccan lobby, and a lack of interest from the press.

Ruddy was hired to manage the referendum on Western Sahara’s sovereignty in 1993 that is at the heart of the U.N. mission (it even is at the center of the name of the mission), but quickly learned that the U.N. was not going to be able to hold a referendum because of Moroccan interference.

Ruddy likened the Moroccan government’s actions to the mafia in our interview, like he did before in congressional testimony on the issue. He said when he first visited the region he expected that it would be much like what Morocco described, but he found it to be much of the opposite. He described Morocco’s attempt to repopulate the area with Arabs from the north, but when they went to register for the referendum they stuck out because they couldn’t pronounce common Sahrawi phrases.

Still, the U.N. basically handed the referendum process over to Morocco, which then promptly removed the option of independence for Western Sahara. This killed any chance that the referendum would go forward, since the Polisario Front would not agree to such a stance. Naturally, Ruddy quit.

Jim Baker was brought in to salvage the plan. He came up with what looked like a sweetheart deal for Morocco — autonomy for five years, then a referendum. But Morocco rejected it, even though the Polisario Front accepted the concept of delaying the vote for another five years.

Since then the issue has largely remained out of the press. Washington and France have backed Rabat in return for its cooperation on other issues (the “war on terror” and business ties, respectively), giving Morocco the power to hold out indefinitely.

Ruddy likened the situation in Western Sahara to that of Equatorial Guinea, where Washington cozied up to one of the world’s worst dictators after oil was discovered off its coast. Ruddy reminded me of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s role in bringing down Riggs Bank a few years ago, a scandal that did not stop Condoleezza Rice from calling him a “good friend.”

Yesterday, South Africa and Costa Rica stated their objection to the U.N. resolution renewing MINURSO, but voted for the measure anyway. Their votes and their inability to alter the test of the referendum make it seem unlikely that the U.N. is going to force Morocco to respect the terms of the original ceasefire, not to mention the 1975 World Court decision that said it had no claim to the territory.

So it would seem that Western Sahara might just be a lost cause, but the Web has helped bring together a community of activists that refuse to give up hope. There is Will Sommer, a Georgetown student, who writes a blog on the issue, One Hump or Two?, which often links to the great blog Western Sahara Endgame. Western Sahara Occidental is an excellent site for information on the situation, and there are Australian and Norwegian sites dedicated to the cause as well.

Will this online community ever be large enough to shame the U.S. and France into changing their positions on Western Sahara? Maybe then the cause would no longer be lost.

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