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LISA MULLINS: It's fair to say that the concerns of South Asia attract attention. The same could not be said, though, for Western Sahara. That's the arid but mineral-rich desert in northwest Africa. It's one of those troubled parts of the globe that barely gets noticed. The World's Alex Gallafent caught up with a man in Manhattan who's been trying to get the world to care about Western Sahara.
ALEX GALLAFENT: There's a hotel opposite the United Nations building in New York City. It's one of those big chain hotels complete with a standard-issue bar that time forgot. It's bright mid-morning outside. Down here, underground in the bar of plush velvet and low lighting, it could be any time at all. This is where I've come to meet Ahmed Boukhari, the delegate of the Polisario Front to the United Nations. Every inch the diplomat â€“ mini bottle of mineral water, restless cell phone, and a general sense of being a very busy man â€“ his job hasn't changed in years: get international support for a referendum on the future of Western Sahara.
AHMED BOUKHARI: We are in a very long process of persuading member states to help.
GALLAFENT: That's a bit of an understatement. Western Sahara is perhaps the United Nations longest-running failure. Here's the abbreviated story. Western Sahara is a coastal region of Africa bordered by Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria. Spanish colonial rule ended in the mid-1970s. Since then, there's been a dispute over who it belongs to â€“ Morocco, which moved in shortly after, or the Saharawi people, represented by their self-declared political leadership, the Polisario Front. The two camps fought for a decade. Thousands were killed. Much of Western Sahara's population fled to refugee camps, where they remain today. A ceasefire was reached in 1991, and the United Nations moved in to keep the peace. It also got both parties to agree to a referendum on independence for Western Sahara, planned for the following year. Polisario delegate Ahmed Boukhari delivers the kicker.
BOUKHARI: So far, that referendum even promised by United Nations in 1991 never took place.
GALLAFENT: At first, they couldn't agree on who was eligible to vote. Soon, waiting, inertia, and deadlock became the status quo. The UN kept trying to get things moving. Former US Secretary of State James Baker served as the UN envoy to the region. Here he is speaking in 1997.
JAMES BAKER: This is going to be a referendum that's going to have equal access to media, that's going to have freedom of assembly, freedom of press, international observers and all the rest. So I think we've made some really substantial progress.
GALLAFENT: He was wrong. Eric Goldstein is research director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.
ERIC GOLDSTEIN: Politically, there's been no movement, and one UN special envoy after another has come and been unable to bridge the gap between the two sides.
GALLAFENT: The Polisario blames Morocco. Morocco doesn't officially recognize the Polisario, so Polisario delegate Ahmed Boukhari sits in the bar of a hotel opposite the United Nations, trying to be heard.
BOUKHARI: We are a full member of the African Union, but we are not a member of the United Nations still â€“ and there is some difficulties in reaching all people.
GALLAFENT: He can access the UN building, but that doesn't translate into access. The United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with the Polisario, but Boukhari is trying to get a meeting with the new US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.
BOUKHARI: I requested through appropriate means and ways to see her two months ago, and still I am waiting.
GALLAFENT: In recent years, Morocco changed tactics, offering limited autonomy to Western Sahara under Moroccan rule. The Polisario rejected that idea out of hand. It's still holding out for the referendum. Boukhari says its latest hope is President Obama.
BOUKHARI: We would like to see change in which we can believe.
GALLAFENT: He's even prepared to cast himself as a kind of Polisario John Adams to make his case.
BOUKHARI: I am attracted by American history. And at that time, US representatives were going to Europe by sea. To reach Europe, it was 2 months, and going, returning, coming back. Now, it is easier in that term of technology and sophistication â€“ Internet. What is not easy to overcome that. At that time, the nation was very sensitive to any just freedom, struggle for freedom. Now, they are more sensitive to business.
GALLAFENT: That's Boukhari's realistic side coming through. Here it is again.
BOUKHARI: I am sure that Western Sahara is not the highest priority in the West's agenda.
GALLAFENT: Eric Goldstein at Human Rights Watch says Western Sahara has long suffered from neglect by the international community. He draws a contrast with another long-running crisis, the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
GOLDSTEIN: And there's endless resources put to trying to resolve that, and this one involves fewer people. It involves a region that is considered more peripheral. But the suffering is there, and it's dragged on since the 1970's. There just is not yet the political will to try to resolve this particular conflict.
GALLAFENT: Political will tends to emerge out of self-interest. Goldstein mentions one issue that might push Western Sahara up the western agenda.
GOLDSTEIN: Although there's been absolutely no proven link â€“ no link at all between Al Qaeda and the Polisario or the western Sahara conflict, people say that it's important to resolve this piece of the puzzle to help to secure the region against any kind of infiltration by international terrorism.
GALLAFENT: There's already concern over Islamic militant activity in Northern Africa. US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, recently commented that the long-running impasse in Western Sahara was preventing regional cooperation on â€œurgent and emerging issues.â€ If Western Sahara became a pressing issue for the United States, the US might move to end the deadlock, in favor of either Morocco or the Polisario. Either way, the long wait of Ahmed Boukhari would end, too. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent, New York.