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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Western Sahara: Houston Agreement

Western Sahara: Houston Agreement
Date distributed (ymd): 970928
Document reposted by APIC

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Region: North Africa
Issue Areas: +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains the issue for September 14-20 of the weekly newsletter of the Association in Support of a Free and Fair Referendum in Western Sahara, reporting on the agreement signed in Houston between Morocco and Polisario clearing away disagreements on implementation of the referendum to decide the territory's future independence or integration into Morocco. It also contains brief excerpts with additional background from the following issue of the newsletter and from an article by Javier Valenzuela of the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

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ARSO (Association de soutien a un referendum libre et regulier au Sahara occidental),
CP 2229, CH-2800 DELEMONT 2, Switzerland;
Tel./Fax: +41 32 422 87 17;


WEEK 38 14.-20.09.1997

14. - 16.09.97 Houston negociations: Agreement between Morocco and the Polisario Front

After 3 days of talks behind closed doors in Houston, the UN Special Envoy Mr. James Baker III announced on September 16 that the parties involved in the conflict came to an agreement that laid the groundwork for an end to their dispute over Western Sahara by agreeing to a code of conduct governing a referendum that would decide the fate of the territory.

The U.N. mediator said the accord would be presented to the United Nations to decide whether a referendum could be held, and when. At issue is whether Western Sahara is incorporated into Morocco or becomes independent, as supported by the Polisario Front. "We have agreed upon pretty much everything that is necessary for the United Nations to reinstitute the (referendum) process", he told. Baker, who described the Houston talks as "fairly difficult", said the issue of who would vote had been decided, but it was a "very, very complicated issue". "It depends on tribes and tribal groupings and a whole host of other things. I can tell you that I would estimate we would probably see a total electorate in this case of something in the neighborhood of 80,000 voters, " he said. In his opinion the vote could take place in "10 or 11 months", and he affirmed that both sides had agreed to give the United Nations "all the authority that it deems necessary in order to organize and conduct a free and fair referendum." He said also there was no guarantee that everything agreed to in this latest round of talks would be fully implemented. "The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, " he added.

The agreement concerns following points:

  1. Transitional period

The two sides recognize the authority of the UN during the transitional period in order to allow the organization of a transparent, free and fair referendum. The agreement is included in a declaration about the function and presence of the UN in the period between the end of voter identification and the vote.

2. Code of conduct during the electoral period (3 weeks)

This agreement includes the possibility for both parties to have an equal access to the medias and warrants freedom of speech and movement during this time. International observers will be allowed to watch the electoral campaign as well as the members of the Polisario support committee, in which the international solidarity groups will be present.

3. Voter identification (8 - 10 months)

This point is matter of an other agreement setting the conditions of the resuming of the voter identification and the appropriate criterias. Morocco renounces to present global lists. The members of the contested tribes can participate to identification but only as individuals without beeing convoked. The Polisario accepts oral testimonies as identity evidence. This formula is supposed to bring a total electorate of something around 80,000 voters. The identification process could be resumed in 4 - 6 weeks.

4. Agreement on confinement of Moroccan and Saharawi troops.

5. Agreement on release of POWs and political detainees.

6. Agreement on return of the refugees actually in the camps near Tindouf.

Comments and reactions

Polisario Front

Mr A. Boukhari, Polisario Representative at the UN said the agreement gives a new dynamism to the referendum and he reaffirmed the will of full cooperation of the Saharawi part in order to realize a fair and free vote. He repeated that the referendum will decide if Western Sahara will be independent or a part of Morocco.

President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic SADR and Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz said that agreement reached with Morocco laid the ground for resolving the Western Sahara conflict and ending a colonial situation of injustice and suffering lasting 23 years. "Hope is now permitted..." He appealed to the international community "to support the implementation of these agreements."


Mr Filali, who led the Moroccan delegation, told the Maghreb Arab Press (MAP):" I believe, based on what has been decided since the first meeting and after the conclusion of this round, and also on the basis of the declarations made by both sides, that Morocco can look with optimism at the future of its territories". Commenting on the talks during this round, Mr Filali said they were not easy because there were some tense and difficult times. "However, I believe that despite everything, we have reached a logical compromise which will enable the organization of this referendum, because this is what we wanted, and because this problem, which has lasted for more than 20 years, must end..."

United Nations

"The Secretary-General is extremely pleased that, through the good offices of his Personal Envoy James A. Baker III, the parties to the dispute in Western Sahara have reached agreement on issues that have held up the implementation of the Settlement Plan for nearly two years. The SecretaryGeneral congratulates the parties and expresses his high appreciation to Mr. Baker for his skill in achieving an agreement on these difficult and complex issues. The Secretary-General looks forward to the parties' cooperating with the United Nations in fulfilling the commitments they have made so that the Settlement Plan can be implemented."


TheAlgerian government exprimed its satisfaction calling the agreement of "major importance" and affirmed its will to support its application.


The Spanish government declared also to be happy about the agreement and underlined that it gives a real perspective of solution.


Des Sahraouis utiles, Boher Anne, L'Autre Afrique, No 16, 10.09.97

Le Maroc et le Front Polisario sur le terrain des concessions, Ahonto Lucien, L'Autre Afrique, No 16, 10.09.97.

Declaration de Mohamed Abdelaziz, President de la RASD, Secretaire general du Front Polisario, 17.09.97 (

Acuerdo entre Marruecos y el Polisario para celebrar un referendum en el Sahara en 1998, Valenzuela Javier, El Pais, 17.09.97

El acuerdo logrado en Houston no aclara si el referendum permitira un Sahara independiente, Valenzuela Javier, Pedro Canales, El Pais, 18.09.97

Un referendum sur le Sahara occidental d'ici un an, selon M. Baker, Journal de Geneve, 18.09.97

Einigung zwischen Marokko und der Polisario, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Zuerich, 18.09.97

Toter Punkt Ueberwunden, Wandler Reiner, Der Bund, Bern, 18.09.97

A Big Step in the Western Sahara, International Herald Tribune, F-Neuilly-sur-Seine, 18.09.97

Marokko und Polisario einigen sich auf Referendum, Haubrich Walter, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 18.09.97

Baker brokers referendum plan for Western Sahara, Khalaf Roula, Financial Times, London, 18.09.97

Accord en vue au Sahara occidental, Le Monde, Paris, 19.09.97.


WEEK 39 21.-27.09.1997 (Excerpts only)

24.09.97 The Report of the Secretary General on the situation concerning Western Sahara, S/1997/742
(full text

In his introduction Mr Annan underlines that neither party had indicated any willingness to pursue any political solution other than implementation of the settlement plan. He exposes the details of the mission of his Special Envoy and the content of the agreements reached in the different discussion rounds. He takes stock of the actual situation in the region. ...

The agreements of Houston create the conditions to proceed towards the full implementation of the settlement plan, starting with the resumption of the identification process. Mr Annan proposes to send at the beginning of October a technical staff in the region in order to prepare the resumption of the voter identification. The Minurso should rapidely be provided with the needed human and financial ressources. By the end of the identification process the list of persons judged eligible to vote would be published, and the transition period could begin shortly thereafter, upon completion of other steps required by D-day in accordance to the settlement plan. On the basis of the original timetable the referendum of self-determination would thus be held within a year.

The Secretary General recommends to the Security Council that the mandate of the MINURSO will be extended for three weeks until October 20 1997, and that it will be extended thereafter for a period of six months until April 20 1998. The S.G. will submit a comprehensive report in November including a detailed plan, timetable and financial implications for the holding of the referendum.

25-28.09.97 International Conference of Support to the Peace Plan for Western Sahara

More than 200 guests, among them Peace Nobel Prize winner Ramos Horta and members of Parliaments of different countries, politicians of different parties and NGO delegates, participate to this Conference in the refugee camps near Tindouf. In his opening speech Mr Bachir Mustafa Sayed (full text spanish: linked to some aspects of the agreements, like a lack of precision and of sufficiant warranties for the application, which ask to be careful.

As open questions Bachir Sayed listed, under others, the control of the northern borders of W.S., the control of the airspace, the presence of the Moroccan settlers, the freedom of action during the referendum. The Saharawi Minister of Foreign Affairs appealed for the constitution of a "Task force" which would supervise the application of the agreements and warrant the final result. He proposed James Baker as leader.

Mahfoud Ali Beiba, Saharawi Prime Minister explained that the identification could be finished in 6 months, adding that the transitional period would be of 4 months. Probably the refugees would vote in the Saharawi controled liberated territories. He estimed that the direct contacts with Morocco should be continued in order to overcome difficulties.

El Pais, September 17, 1997

(excerpts translated by APIC)

The disagreement on the number and the identity of voters in the self-determination referendum has until now blocked implementation of the poll. Since the cease-fire of September 1991, which should have led to a poll in 1992, the Sahara peace process presided over by the UN has been at a standstill due to the controversy between Rabat and Polisario over who should be considered Saharan when the vote takes place. Finally, the number can be set at 80,000 people.

Morocco argued that the Spanish census of 1974, which identified some 75,000 people, was faulty, given that at that time there were many Saharans who, for political or economic reasons, did not live in the territory. Polisario at the time accepted a modest increase in the number of potential voters, but the list presented by Rabat--with more than 100,000 people not included in the Spanish census--seemed to it much too large. The UN insisted that the number of voters should not exceed 100,000.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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