Renewed push for peace as Western Sahara talks open in Geneva

AFP , Wednesday 5 Dec 2018

Horst Koehler
File Photo: UN envoy Horst Koehler (C) visits a camp for Sahrawi refugees on the outskirts of Tindouf, Algeria on October 18, 2017 (Photo: AFP)

The first UN-backed discussions on the disputed Western Sahara region since 2012 open in Geneva Wednesday, but expectations remain low, with the meeting seen as just a first step towards resuming dialogue.

Six years after direct talks broke down, Morocco and the Polisario Front, who fought a war over the region until a 1991 ceasefire, will take part in two days of roundtable discussions along with Algeria and Mauritania starting Wednesday afternoon.

The talks will be hosted by UN envoy Horst Koehler, who in an October invitation letter insisted it was "time to open a new chapter in the political process".

And on the eve of the meeting, UN chief Antonio Guterres called in a statement on all parties "to engage in good faith, without preconditions and in a constructive spirit in the discussions."

A former Spanish colony, phosphate-rich Western Sahara sits on the western edge of the vast eponymous desert, stretching around 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) along the fish-abundant Atlantic coastline.

When Spain withdrew from the North African territory in 1975, Rabat sent thousands of people across the border and claimed it was an integral part of Morocco.

The following year the Polisario Front declared Western Sahara the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), with support from Algeria and Libya, and demanded a referendum on self-determination to resolve the dispute.

But as the stalemate continued, Morocco built razor-wire-topped concentric sand walls in the desert that still ring 80 percent of the territory it controls.

A 1991 ceasefire saw the UN deploy a peacekeeping mission which has perpetuated the line of control, but the international community has long intended a referendum be held to decide the territory's status.

Rabat currently rejects any vote in which independence is an option, arguing that only granting autonomy is on the table and that this is necessary for regional security.

- Living in limbo -
Awaiting a settlement, between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees live precariously in camps in western Algeria.

The last round of direct talks were launched by the UN in 2007 but collapsed five years later over the territory's status and the proposed referendum.

Koehler -- a former president of Germany who has led the diplomatic efforts since 2017 -- will host the foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania on Wednesday, as well as a Polisario delegation headed by Khatri Addouh, the speaker of the Sahrawi National Council, or parliament.

The UN has described the meeting as "a first step towards a renewed negotiations process with the aim of reaching a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable solution" for Western Sahara.

But while all sides signalled goodwill ahead of the meeting at the UN's Geneva headquarters, they appeared to be sticking to their positions.

While supporting a "durable" political solution marked by a "spirit of compromise", King Mohammed VI said in a recent speech that Morocco will not yield on its "territorial integrity", including control over Western Sahara.

And key Polisario official Mhamed Khadad told AFP ahead of the Geneva talks that "everything can be negotiated except the inalienable and imprescriptible right of our people to self-determination."

Reflecting its status as the Polisario's main supporter, Algeria likewise speaks of this "inalienable and imprescriptible" right.

Diplomats and others with insight into the process have meanwhile played down the prospect of any real breakthrough.

A diplomatic source stressed that the roundtable was "not a negotiation" but rather a meeting "that will make it possible to test the real will of the parties, and to determine if they should move forward" or not.

And Nour Bakr, with non-profit Independent Diplomat which advises the Polisario Front, told AFP that while it was "positive that these talks are happening ... real progress will be difficult."

"Morocco's actions to date have left a clear impression that they are not going to Geneva to negotiate."

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