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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

20 April 2007

With the Security Council poised to take up the situation in Western Sahara before month’s end, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the disputed region expressed hope today that the powerful 15-nation body would call for direct talks between Morocco and the independence-seeking Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario), in a bid to end the long-standing impasse.

“This is a very sensitive and unpredictable moment”, Personal Envoy Peter van Walsum told reporters at a Headquarters press conference. Although each side now appeared ready, in principle, to talk to the other, wide differences remained over the future of the former Spanish colony, claimed by Morocco as its own, and for which Frente Polisario seeks independence.

Mr. van Walsum said that, while the Council had failed to act on the Secretary-General’s earlier call for direct talks -– its last resolution on the situation had been a “technical rollover” of the mandate of the 16-year-old United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara -- it was now considering two proposals proffered by each side earlier this month. But the fact that the two parties were willing to negotiate, even with all the limitations, meant there was a window of opportunity, even if it was only a small one. The parties could only take advantage of that if they did not use “irreconcilable” views as a starting point for the talks.

“The parties should be encouraged to initially focus on the negotiating process itself,” he said, expressing hope that the Council would adopt a resolution in line with the Secretary-General’s call that it encourage direct talks “with a view to achieving a mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”.

Citing the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Western Sahara situation, he said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had received a “proposal of the Polisario for a mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara”. He had also met separately with Moroccan diplomats who had given him a letter transmitting the “Moroccan initiative for negotiating an autonomy statute for the Sahara region”, which contained an initiative by King Mohammed VI on the autonomy proposal. The cover for the proposal characterized the Moroccan initiative as one that could serve as a “basis for dialogue, negotiation and compromise”.

Mr. van Walsum stressed that he agreed with his predecessor, James Baker, that, all too often, it appeared that the parties were “sitting back and waiting for the United Nations” to put forward proposals so that they could then present a list of the recommendations with which they disagreed, without coming up with any options on their own. “I have unlimited faith in direct negotiations,” he added.

He said that, to that end, he had encouraged the Council last year to step back and encourage the parties to do the hard work themselves. The advantage of direct negotiations was that the parties shaped their own consensus, being closer to the political reality and therefore able to draw on the political will and creativity required to drive any reconciliation process forward.

Providing some background on the situation, he said he had been “absolutely astonished” by the near-total disagreement between the parties, adding that, having been privy to negotiations in East Timor and many other “seemingly impossible” situations, he had found the positions on Western Sahara “really very far apart”.

The Personal Envoy said that, shortly after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had tapped him to help find a way out of the political impasse, he had, while realizing that he obviously could not take sides, that there was no middle course: Morocco wanted Western Sahara to be an autonomous region under Moroccan sovereignty and Polisario wished Western Sahara to be an independent State.

“Those demands are mutually exclusive. They are irreconcilable,” he said, adding that the Security Council’s similar reluctance to take sides further complicated the situation. Since 1975, it had been clear that the Council would not impose a solution and wanted the parties to come up with their own way out.

From 1991 to 2004, the aim had been to establish a mechanism that would make it possible for the people of the region to hold a referendum, he noted. But those efforts had been dealt a blow in 2004, when Morocco had made it known that it could under no circumstances accept a referendum with independence as an option. At the same time, Polisario had obviously insisted -- and still held -- that a referendum without the option of independence was not a real referendum

He said that, after his first briefing to the Council last year, he had reminded its members that it had not spoken on the matter in nearly two years and that it had not reacted in any way to Morocco’s rejection of the independence option.

“I thought that was surprising,” he said, adding that perhaps that attitude fit in with the Council’s position that the parties should reach a consensus decision. With that in mind, there had really been only two options: letting the impasse continue indefinitely –- a “default option” -– or direct negotiations between the two sides. That conclusion had been the basis of the recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s three most recent reports on Western Sahara.

“I personally take quite a positive view of these new developments”, he said, pointing out that, even if the proposals were still very far apart part or irreconcilable, the interesting new issue was that both parties were prepared to enter into direct negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. Inevitably, as one might expect, both plans contained implicit pre-conditions, Morocco insisting that Western Sahara could be an autonomous region operating within a framework set out by Morocco, and Polisario demanding a referendum with an independence option. But the Secretary-General had noted previously that such negotiations would not get off the ground unless the Security Council made it absolutely clear that the exercise of self-determination was the only agreed aim of the negotiations.

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For information media • not an official record

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