It is now 30 years since the United Nations referendum mission for Western Sahara, known as Minurso, was created, and I was one of the original staff members.
Starting in 1971, Sahrawi students in Morocco started a movement for the independence of Spanish Sahara. The Sahrawi are the Indigenous people of the western region of the Sahara Desert, and the political arm of the Sahrawis is the Polisario Front, which was formally constituted on May 10, 1973. The first attack by the Sahrawi movement against Spanish positions occurred on May 20, 1973.
Less than two years later, in October 1975, Spain began negotiations for a handover of power with leaders of the Polisario. However, to pre-empt this step, on Nov. 6, 1975, Morocco invaded Western Sahara. The Spanish government did not want to fight and signed a tripartite agreement with Morocco and Mauritania on Nov. 14, 1975, to transfer the territory to both countries. But the Polisario kept fighting Morocco from its base near Tindouf, in Algeria.
In April 1991, the UN managed to get an agreement for a cease-fire between the two parties. The plan provided for a referendum to be held in which the Sahrawi people would decide whether they wanted to be independent or Moroccan, and the UN created Minurso (which stands for, in French, Mission des Nations Unies pour le Référendum au Sahara Occidental).
The head of Minurso was a Swiss diplomat, Johannes Manz, and his deputy was a former Pakistani UN staff member, Zia Rizvi. As a first step, the UN created the Identification Commission for the crucial responsibility of deciding who would be allowed to vote in the referendum. Once the list of voters was established, the Commission would change its name to the Referendum Commission and would then organize and supervise the vote.
I was officially detached on Aug. 1, 1991, from the UN Population Division to the Identification Commission of Minurso. The chairman of the Commission was Macaire Pedanou, a UN staff member from Togo, and there were five vice-chairpersons, including myself.
The cease-fire was scheduled to start in early September, and it was decided that the vice-chairpersons of the Commission would leave New York City for Laayoune (the capital of Western Sahara) on Sept. 7, 1991. The remainder of the Commission, about 30 people, were to join us later.
We boarded a Royal Air Maroc plane in New York City, on Sept. 7, with 100 kilograms of luggage each, enough for an expected six months in the desert. When we arrived in Casablanca, on the morning of Sept. 8, however, we were not allowed to proceed to Laayoune and were taken by force to Rabat, the capital, by the Moroccan secret police. We were kept there for nearly two weeks, until Sept. 21, for what amounted to daily brainwashing sessions with people justifying Moroccan possession of Western Sahara. We found out that our abduction had been organized by the minister of interior of Morocco, Driss Basri, with the agreement of Zia Rizvi, who was waiting for us in Rabat.
Rizvi had become de facto head of the UN mission in Morocco because Manz had given an interview to the media that the Moroccan government viewed as supporting the Polisario position, and he was no longer welcome in Morocco. While Manz initially planned to be full time in the country, he spent only two full days there.
On Sept. 21, 1991, we flew to Laayoune. There, instead of staying in a tent in the desert, we were put in a five-star former ClubMed hotel!!!
During the next three weeks, from our base in Laayoune, we were very busy visiting the five regions of Western Sahara, as well as Tindouf, in Algeria, where the Polisario had their offices. I also went to Nouadhibou in Mauritania, where there were also Sahrawi refugee camps. The purpose was to discuss with the local authorities how to implement the identification of those who would be allowed to vote in the referendum.
On Saturday, Oct. 12, back in Laayoune from a trip to Boujdour, a seaside town in Western Sahara, we were told by Governor Azmi, who was designated by the Moroccan government to handle Minurso, that Rizvi had instructed him that we should all go back to New York City on Monday, Oct. 14. No reasons were given.
That day, as ordered, we took the plane for Casablanca and from there to New York City, where we arrived on Oct. 15.
I later found out that just a couple of days before Rizvi ordered us to go back to New York City, another vice-chairman on the Commission, Gaby Milev, had found a solution to a practical problem that we had to solve in order to start the identification of voters. He had showed it to Rizvi, who ordered him not to mention it to anyone and took from him all the documents related to it. Two days later, we were ordered to go back to New York City.
While we were no longer in the Sahara, we were still members of the Identification Commission, and we worked on a report about how to go on with our job, to be presented to the Security Council through Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.
In November, our chairman, Macaire Pedanou, presented our report to Pérez de Cuéllar, who asked him to modify it to make it more friendly to Morocco. Macaire replied that it was not his report but that of the Commission, and that he would convey the request to the other members of the body. We met and all agreed not to modify our report.
Nevertheless, the secretary-general had the report modified before it was presented to the Security Council. The main change was to say that the UN would execute the referendum “after agreement of the parties” (Morocco and Polisario), instead of “after consultation with the parties.” It meant that Morocco was given the power to stop the UN from organizing the referendum.
In a separate issue, I found that in May 1991 Rizvi had been fired, because of serious financial irregularities, from his UN post in Afghanistan. But he was then offered the post of deputy to Manz in Minurso by his friend Virendra Dayal, who was the director of the executive office of the secretary-general.
To make things even weirder, later in 1992, Pérez de Cuéllar, who had retired on Dec. 31, 1991, was offered a position with a company controlled by King Hassan of Morocco, the Omnium Nord-Africain (ONA). He resigned from it as soon as his role became public.
Manz was unhappy with what was happening, and he resigned from his position as special representative of the secretary-general for Western Sahara on Dec. 20, 1991. The members of the Identification Commission were sent back to their original posts in the UN on Jan. 31, 1992.
There are two possibilities to explain what happened. The one that seems the most likely to me is that Pérez de Cuéllar modified the report to the Security Council at the request of France, whose president, François Mitterrand, was openly backing Morocco (although his wife, Danielle, was the head of an organization to support the Polisario), and of the United States, which officially favored the right of people for self-determination but did not want an independent Western Sahara close to Algeria, Libya and the then-Soviet Union. The less likely possibility is that Pérez de Cuéllar had been given incentives by Morocco to stop the referendum.
In summary, if Manz had not given his interview to the media in 1991, he — and not Rizvi — would have been in charge of the daily operations of Minurso in Morocco. As a consequence, we would not have been sent back to New York City after five weeks, and we could have proceeded with our mission to organize the referendum, according to the authority given to Minurso by the Security Council.
The independent country of Western Sahara would have been created in 1992.
After the Identification Commission was disbanded on Jan. 8, 1992, Minurso continued to have an office in Laayoune, its only purpose being the monitoring of the cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario.
In April 1993, the UN decided to reactivate the Identification Commission, and appointed Erik Jensen, a UN staff member, as its chairman. I was the only member of the original Commission to be asked to join the new one, and I was assigned to train the new members, as they had no knowledge about the background.
To my big surprise, I discovered that all the files from the Identification Commission had disappeared from the UN office in New York City. Fortunately, I had kept very good files with me, which allowed me to give detailed information to the new members.
I was transferred full time back to Minurso on May 16. However, I could not leave right away because I was getting married on May 31. I left on June 16, one day after my wife and I came back from our honeymoon. I stayed there for five months, half the time in Laayoune and half the time in Tindouf, and I went back to my regular work in New York City on Nov. 16, 1993.
As of September 2021, Morocco is still administering Western Sahara as part of Morocco, while the African Union considers that it is an independent country occupied by Morocco, and Minurso is still there with the mission of organizing a referendum. The Security Council is planning to renew its mandate yet again, on Oct. 29.