RABAT // It is chilly today in New York, and possibly chilliest in a suburban room where rival North African diplomats are squaring off over the disputed Western Sahara after three decades of war, failed peace plans and bad blood.
Morocco controls most of the desert territory, contested by the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed independence movement. New talks launched in August have since stalled as Morocco has arrested prominent Saharawi activists it accuses of working for the Polisario and the Polisario has accused Morocco of endangering the peace process. Today the two sides are meeting in the New York suburb of Armonk to resume efforts to end the conflict, which cripples economic growth in North Africa and divides 200,000 Saharawis between Western Sahara and refugee camps in the Algerian desert. Both have vowed to make diplomacy work. But analysts say a lack of new ideas threatens to prolong the dispute.
"I feel the reason they're having talks is because nobody has a better idea what to do," said Jacob Mundy, a North Africa expert and co-author of a forthcoming book on the Western Sahara conflict. "These aren't negotiations; this is more like therapy." The UN has billed today's meeting as the second in a series of informal icebreakers meant as a prelude to full-blown negotiations. That allows Moroccan and Polisario leaders to reassure their constituents that diplomacy is under way despite the lack of concrete advances, said Anna Theofilopoulou, a former UN official who worked on Western Sahara negotiations during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
With plenty of grievances on offer, today's talks "could turn into a shouting match, which would reduce the possibility of having more negotiations," Mr Mundy said. The trouble started in 1975 when Spanish colonisers withdrew from Western Sahara, and Morocco and Mauritania invaded, claiming historical ties. That kicked off a 16-year war with the Polisario, which had previously contested Spanish rule.
Mauritania surrendered, but Morocco annexed most of the territory. In 1991 the UN arranged a ceasefire to allow a referendum on the territory's future, but the vote foundered on disagreements over voter lists. A further setback came in 1999 with the death of the Moroccan king, Hassan II, after three decades on the throne. "The peace process that led to arrival of the UN began with the secret meetings in the 1980s between Polisario and Moroccan officials," Mr Mundy said. "It took a long time for the trust to build up."
Hassan's son, King Mohamed VI, swept into power with reformist moves that included firing his father's dreaded interior minister, Driss Basri. However, that also led Morocco to reshuffle its diplomatic team for Western Sahara and abandon Hassan II's commitment to a referendum, Mr Mundy said. In 2004 Morocco rejected a UN peace plan calling for a period of autonomy followed by a referendum in which both Moroccan and Saharawi residents of Western Sahara would vote.
Morocco now rules out independence and proposes autonomy for Western Sahara, which it says would provide self-determination for Saharawis. The Polisario still wants a referendum with independence as an option. Neither has shown willingness yet to back down, analysts say. "The Polisario hasn't indicated how much power-sharing it might contemplate," Mr Mundy said. "But it won't do that unless Morocco recommits to a referendum with the option of independence."
For the past few years, sporadic meetings have alternated between accusations of human-rights abuses by Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara and mutual cries of bad faith. A report last month by Human Rights Watch said Morocco had backtracked on human rights in 2009, including in Western Sahara, after several years of improvements. Morocco said the report was unfair. Since October, Morocco has jailed or detained prominent Saharawi activists it says are working for the Polisario. In November it expelled the activist Aminatou Haidar to Spain; she was allowed to return to Western Sahara following a month-long hunger strike in a Spanish airport and eleventh-hour diplomacy by the United States and France.
The Polisario responded with warnings that the round of talks begun in August were in jeopardy, seen by some analysts as a veiled threat to withdraw. Meanwhile, Morocco is planning to devolve some power to its regions - a move it says will enhance development and democracy, but which is widely seen as a tactic to undercut the Polisario's call for an independent Western Sahara by implementing a repackaged autonomy plan.
All of that has left little occasion for the diplomacy to advance. "The Polisario knew and understood and worked with Hassan II's negotiating team," Mr Mundy said. "They haven't had much chance to work with Mohamed VI's negotiating team." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org