The UN envoy for Western Sahara said he believes a peaceful solution to the decades-long conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front is possible.
Horst Koehler, a former German president, told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that he was “very pleased to announce that the delegations have committed to engaging further,” adding that all sides promised to meet again for a similar “roundtable” in the first quarter of 2019.
The talks, which were attended by the foreign ministers of Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and representatives from the Western Saharan Polisario secessionist movement, are the first to take place since 2012.
“From our discussions, it is clear to me that nobody wins from maintaining the status quo, and it is my firm belief that it lies in the interest of all to resolve this conflict,” Koehler said.
Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita agreed that the atmosphere was productive but stressed that that in itself was “not enough”.
“A good atmosphere should be translated into genuine will…this moment will have an end if there’s no political will,” Bourita said.
The disputed Western Sahara region is split by an earth wall with territory east of the structure falling under the control of the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
Spain relinquished control of the territory in 1975. Morocco and Mauritania then stepped in and claimed the territory as their own.
Mauritania withdrew its claim to the territory and proceeded to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1984.
Morocco, which controls roughly 90 percent of the territory including its three main towns, insists it is an integral part of the Kingdom.
A UN-backed 1991 ceasefire plan included a referendum to allow the Sahrawi population to determine their own fate but it never took place.
One of the most contentious issues delaying the vote is the eligibility of voters. The Moroccan government has convinced many of its citizens to relocate to the territory through generous subsidies and tax exemptions. As such, it isn’t clear who would partake in any future referendum.
Rabat says that an independence vote is not on the table, suggesting that regional autonomy is the only alternative for the 500,000-strong Sahrawi population.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees live in camps near the town of Tindouf in western Algeria, not far from the Moroccan and Western Sahara borders.
Considered a “non-self-governing territory” by the UN, the SADR-run Western Sahara is recognized by 84 states. The territory is also recognized by the African Union, which Morocco rejoined in 2017 after a 33-year absence.