The United Nations' efforts to resolve the dispute over Western Sahara—with James Baker serving as mediator—is examined to develop lessons learned on international conflict mediation.


  • This study examines the efforts of the United Nations (UN) to resolve the dispute over Western Sahara from August 1988, when Secretary-general Perez de Cuellar submitted the settlement proposals to the two parties—the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario—until June 2004, when James A. Baker III, the secretary-general's personal envoy on Western Sahara, resigned.
  • The settlement proposals were to lead to the holding of a referendum on self-determination for the people of Western Sahara, offering a choice between integration with Morocco or independence. A crucial element in the implementation of the plan was the identification of voters for the referendum, which both sides considered the key to producing an outcome in their favor. The Polisario had a restricted view, expecting the 1974 Spanish census of the territory to be the framework for the identification, while Morocco took an expansive view by trying to include tens of thousands of applicants of Saharan origin now living in Morocco.
  • Both parties found reasons to interrupt the identification process. Throughout the process, the UN tried to break the impasses created by the parties through technical solutions that addressed the problem at hand without addressing the underlying political problem, which was the determination by both sides to win the referendum.
  • After six years of trying to move forward the identification process, Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked James Baker to become his personal envoy in order to steer the parties toward a political solution and away from the "winner-take-all" approach of the referendum. However, because both parties insisted that they wanted to proceed with the plan, Baker helped them negotiate the Houston Agreements, which allowed for the completion of the identification process.
  • In September 2000, seeing that the referendum was not likely to work in its favor, Morocco offered to discuss a political solution aiming at autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. The Polisario, which until the conclusion of the identification had been interested in meeting directly with Morocco, now believed that it could win the referendum and therefore said it would talk only about the settlement plan.
  • After two more years of trying to get the parties to agree to a political solution, Baker informed the Security Council that a consensual approach would not work and requested that the Council ask the parties to choose one of four options, none of which would require the parties' consent, to resolve the conflict.
  • The Security Council was unable to agree on any of the four options and asked Baker to prepare another political proposal that would include self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Baker's final attempt was the Peace Plan for Self- Determination of the People of Western Sahara, which provided for a period of autonomy followed by a referendum on self-determination. Morocco rejected the plan and refused to accept a referendum in which the independence of Western Sahara would even appear as an option.
  • The Security Council, while having expressed support for Baker's efforts in its resolutions, proved unwilling to ask the parties to make the difficult decisions required to solve the conflict. When Morocco rejected the peace plan, the Council, despite having unanimously supported it, did nothing. The study concludes that Western Sahara will remain on the UN agenda for many years to come and offers a number of lessons learned from this failed mediation effort.


The UN's involvement in the Western Sahara issue started on December 16, 1965, when the General Assembly adopted its first resolution on what was then called Spanish Sahara, requesting Spain to "take all necessary measures" to decolonize the territory, while entering into negotiations on "problems relating to sovereignty."

Between 1966 and 1973 the General Assembly adopted seven more resolutions on the territory, all of which reiterated the need to hold a referendum on self-determination. Thus, the UN stated in unambiguous terms from the start that the Western Sahara conflict could be resolved only through an act of self-determination, in keeping with the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This position has been maintained by the organization up to the present day.

When Spain announced plans to hold a referendum in early 1975, King Hassan II of Morocco announced that Morocco could not accept a referendum that included the option of independence and proposed arbitration by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to decide the precolonial legal status of the territory.

The ICJ found no evidence "of any legal tie of territorial sovereignty" between Western Sahara and Morocco but "indication of a legal tie of allegiance between the [Moroccan] Sultan and some of the tribes of the territory." The ICJ concluded that these ties did not affect the decolonization of Western Sahara or the principle of self-determination. The day after the publication of the court's opinion, King Hassan called for the "Green March," in which 350,000 unarmed civilians crossed from Morocco into the territory to press Morocco's claim to it.

The UN Settlement Plan

Before the UN, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) had tried to resolve the Western Sahara dispute. The UN settlement proposals of 1988 were almost identical to those originally made by the OAU, laying down the broad guidelines for an internationally supervised cease-fire and a referendum offering the choice of independence or integration with Morocco. King Hassan's response to the OAU resolution was a rather ambiguous acceptance, promising to accept a controlled referendum whose modalities should do justice simultaneously to the objectives of the OAU and to Morocco's conviction regarding the legitimacy of its rights. Although the king's statement was viewed by some as a breakthrough in that he accepted the idea of a referendum, statements before and after the speech should have left no doubt that he had a restrictive interpretation of the referendum plan as a "confirmative" one for Morocco. Such statements by the Moroccan authorities regarding the "Moroccanity" of Western Sahara have continued over the years.

At the urging of Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar, on July 20, 1985, King Hassan accepted a referendum for the self-determination of the inhabitants of Western Sahara, under UN auspices. In August 1988, the UN delivered to the parties the settlement proposals. The proposals were accepted "in principle," along with comments and observations by both Morocco and the Frente Popular para la Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y del Rio de Oro (Polisario), representing the people of Western Sahara. As Perez de Cuellar admitted in his memoirs, the two parties' comments were diametrically opposed to each other. For example, the Polisario wanted an enhanced role for the UN and the abrogation of all Moroccan laws in the territory during the transition period, while Morocco wanted to restrict the powers of the special representative during the transition period, especially his responsibility for the maintenance of public order.

Perez de Cuellar and Issa Diallo, a close confidante, kept to themselves the parties' actual comments on the settlement proposals, while the task force created to draft the implementation plan was not privy to them. The plan, with its very tight and unrealistic timeline for all the tasks the UN would have to accomplish before the referendum, was therefore drafted by persons who did not have firsthand knowledge of the parties' negotiations with the secretary-general. Some have suggested that the two felt that it would be pointless to go back and convince the parties to change their positions. In addition, as Perez de Cuellar admits in his memoirs, while discussing the settlement plan, he was trying to persuade King Hassan that autonomy would be preferable for Western Sahara. He had received an initial positive response from the king and the Algerian president, whom he had asked, at the king's direction, to approach the Polisario.

Lessons Learned

Until Secretary-general Kofi Annan assumed his duties, there is no evidence that a policy discussion about a strategy to resolve the Western Sahara conflict had been held in the Secretariat. The result was that members of the Secretariat and MINURSO had been working in a contradictory manner, often sending confusing messages to the Security Council and the parties as to what the UN was trying to achieve. It is imperative that upon assuming responsibility for resolving a conflict, the Secretariat hold a policy discussion on goals and strategy. Upon agreeing to the settlement plan, Morocco made it clear through public statements that it expected a referendum that would confirm its "sovereignty" over Western Sahara. The Polisario, on the other hand, constantly invoked the principle of self-determination, which in the statements of its officials had become synonymous with independence. MINURSO, the Secretariat, and the Security Council ignored the parties' public statements and actions and proceeded with the notion of holding a referendum on self-determination that could only result in one of two diametrically opposed outcomes. The UN should have listened to the parties' global statements and most important, paid attention to their actions. it should not have allowed oral, confidential concessions given to the negotiator to overcome a temporary obstacle guide strategy.

While the Security Council was kept informed of difficulties in the identification, at the same time it was told of MINURSO's tireless efforts to resolve the parties' objections. The Council would end up having a more optimistic picture of the situation than warranted, until further problems caused complete breakdowns. While it is natural to wish to give the Security Council positive reports on developments in a peace process, the Secretariat should ensure that the Council is also aware that resolution of current problems cannot address future serious impediments. it should not gloss over them in the hope that something in the situation will change.

The UN's preferred modus operandi to resolve the impasses created by the parties throughout the identification process was to present technical solutions. These solutions aimed to address the problem at hand (resume the identification) without addressing the underlying political problem, which was the determination by both sides to win the referendum. A political solution would have sought to resolve the differences between the parties concerning the final outcome of the dispute and would have asked each side to make compromises while providing the other side with a face-saving way out. The UN should have taken into account that when presenting a technical solution to resolve a problem or break an impasse, the political implications should be well thought out. otherwise a technical solution risks creating additional problems. Moreover, both the Secretariat and the Security Council should have been careful not to miss an opportunity to move toward a political solution by giving in to the temptation of the quicker results of a technical one.

At the start of Baker's mandate, the Security Council appeared unanimously supportive of his efforts to help resolve the Western Sahara conflict. The first cracks in this support emerged when the Council was informed that the settlement plan no longer appeared likely to resolve the conflict, and the idea of finding a political solution, asking for compromises from both sides, was floated. The partisanship within the Council on behalf of one or the other party became more evident, and nowhere did it express itself more clearly than when it was asked to decide among the four options that would not require the consent of the parties. This the Council refused to do. The Council asked instead for another plan that would provide for self-determination, which it supported unanimously. However, when Morocco rejected the plan, the Security Council took no action and started talking again about searching for a consensual solution, despite the fact that it had been clearly told that this was not possible. When faced with a strong and unified position by the Secretariat and the Security Council, parties to a dispute tend to cooperate and make compromises. The Secretariat and Security Council need to remain unified and consistent and avoid changing their position under pressure from one or the other party.

Scene from Dakhla City, Western Sahara
Scene from Dakhla City, Western Sahara

Throughout the period that the Security Council has had Western Sahara in its agenda, many of its members have acted in a partisan manner on behalf of one or the other party. This was the case both during the identification process leading to the implementation of the settlement plan and even more so when the need for a political solution became evident. As mentioned above, Council members' bilateral relations with one side or the other took precedence both when the Council was asked to decide on one of the four nonconsensual options and when Morocco rejected the peace plan, which has resulted in a continuation of the impasse. While it is understandable that in some situations members of the Security Council will act out of self-interest due to bilateral relations with one or the other party to a dispute, taking partisan positions on behalf of one party will serve only to perpetuate the conflict.

Over the past fifteen years both the Security Council and the Secretariat have oscillated between implementation of the settlement plan with its two stark choices or finding a political solution asking for compromises from both sides. This has not only hindered the efforts of the mediator, it also sent conflicting signals to the parties as to what the UN was trying to achieve. The Security Council and the Secretariat should have clear expectations as to the outcome of a dispute and should not send conflicting messages to the parties. the parties will only exploit such situations and play the Security Council and the Secretariat off against each other. Throughout Baker's tenure, the Security Council expressed strong support and confidence in his ability to find an equitable solution to the conflict. However, when asked to make hard decisions and act on its professed support, especially with respect to the political solution, the Council did not act in a unified manner that would have sent a clear signal to both sides as to where it stood. Once it became clear through resolution 1541 that the Council was diluting its support for his efforts, Baker resigned. The Security Council must support the efforts of a mediator without equivocation. It should not expect the mediator to achieve miracles when given vague and ill-defined mandates.

About the Report

The Institute's recently created Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution has placed high priority on developing lessons learned from recent efforts to mediate international conflicts. The case of the United Nations' efforts to mediate an end to the seemingly intractable conflict in the Western Sahara is particularly instructive. Several mediators have been employed over the duration of this effort, with the most important being former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker from 1997 to 2004. His efforts as the UN's mediator are highlighted in this report. During this mediation Baker was the secretary-general's personal envoy on Western Sahara.

The author of this Special Report, Anna Theofilopoulou, was ideally placed within the UN system to both observe and participate in this mediation effort. She covered Western Sahara and the Maghreb region in the UN's Department of Political Affairs from 1994 to 2004. She assisted Baker in his role as secretary-general's personal envoy on Western Sahara.

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