WASHINGTON, April 30 (UPI) -- Conceived and negotiated between 2000 and 2005, the Baker plan was named after former U.S. secretary of state and U.N. special envoy James Baker. The first version, Baker I, was meant to give the people of Western Sahara self-determination and a large degree of autonomy within Morocco. Except for defense and foreign policy, all other capacities were to be the responsibility of a local government. Morocco accepted the plan, while Algeria and the Polisario Front -- the group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara -- rejected it.
The second version, known as Baker II, was aimed at instituting Saharan self-rule in a Western Sahara Authority. After a period of five years, a referendum was to be held, with all populations of Western Sahara voting.
The provision that the Western Sahara Authority would be elected only by a special voter roll alienated Morocco. After initial hesitations, Algeria and the Polisario accepted the plan, especially after Morocco rejected it.
The rejection of Baker I by Algeria and the Polisario Front and Baker II by Morocco prompted Baker to resign. He was the second U.N. envoy to Western Sahara to leave his post. Baker claimed it was no longer possible to implement the peace agreement provisions.
Those present at a Global Panel Foundation session disagree with Baker's assertions. They see a new window of opportunity for negotiating the Western Sahara. "If Morocco were permitted to manage the issue, the Western Sahara issue would long have been solved," said a leading U.S. representative.
It remains undisputed that Spain's restoration of Western Sahara to Morocco was legal. The supporters of the Sahrawi -- who are mostly Algerians and European 1960s throwbacks -- have used the question of human rights as an instrument for forcing the issue of Western Saharan secession and independence.
The Moroccan proposal for extended autonomy submitted to the United Nations has been praised by experts -- but rejected by both the Polisario and Algeria. The Bush administration has been hostile and has demanded direct negotiations without preconditions. Those present considered this a euphemism for keeping the Algerian-Polisario demands for secession and independence on the table.
Western Sahara has been on the U.N. agenda since 1965. There has been no marked improvement since then. If anything, things have gotten worse. But Morocco knows it cannot complete the modernization of society and internal reforms while the Western Sahara question remains unresolved.
There is no legal reason for Morocco to accept the secession of Western Sahara -- and U.N. formal resolutions do not demand this either.
Morocco is ready to include U.N. recommendations regarding human rights in its internal reforms. However, it believes these reforms must be applied to all Moroccans -- from the Mediterranean shores in the north to the Mauritanian border in the south.
Morocco's approach, which respects the letter of the U.N. resolutions, puts an end to the logic for the Western Sahara secession. As a result, Algeria and the Polisario -- and their supporters -- are being obstinate at the United Nations. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Sahrawis consider themselves Moroccans and participate in state and political affairs.
King Mohammad VI is adamant about resolving the Western Sahara issue. He sees the resolution as a prerequisite for completing the modernization of Morocco. He has embarked on a process of fundamental domestic reforms and democratization. This process will climax in Morocco's September parliamentary elections.
The consensus at this Global Panel session is that the Western Saharan question is best left to the principals involved. "The United Nations," noted a ranking European diplomat, "would best serve the needs of all concerned by removing itself from the entire question. The principal parties should negotiate among themselves and can call on external expert help -- should the need arise."
Rabat has promised to implement human rights, democratization and personal freedoms throughout Morocco -- not just in the Western Sahara.
Let us give Morocco the time and authority to carry out these promises.
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party. e-mail: Ellenbogen@globalpanel.org)