|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Sixty-seventh General Assembly
4th Meeting (PM)
Political Ambiguity over Western Sahara, Polarizing Ideologies, Plight of Refugees
Central to Fourth Committee Debate as Petitioners Appeal for End to Conflict
The political ambiguity surrounding the decades-old conflict in Western Sahara, despite the string over the years of settlement proposals and initiatives to resolve it, again underpinned debate today in the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) as petitioners laid bare both the plight of the Saharans and their potential to secure a positive future.
Eric Jensen, former head of the Western Saharan mission and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Western Sahara from 1993 to 1998, said it was a critical time for the countries of North Africa, and a solution to the conflict in Western Sahara was now more important than ever.
However, holding a fair referendum among Western Saharans was no longer possible, he said, since it could not be determined who should be allowed to vote. While Algeria argued that a unique indigenous character of the Western Saharans meant they must have independence, Morocco had held out hope that the territory could be incorporated into the Moroccan Kingdom. Therefore, regional autonomy was “inevitably” a compromise, but one that was perhaps the only way forward.
The majority of petitioners voiced the opinion that such a compromise was one worth making, and that Morocco’s negotiations were done in good faith. One speaker said that the Kingdom’s proposal for Western Sahara was a “sincere attempt” to implement progress in human rights and autonomy, and should be welcomed. The “shining strength” of Morocco’s new Constitution was its “warm embrace” of all ethnic groups in land, he said, which included Western Saharans.
Another petitioner lauded Morocco as a guarantor of peace and security in the region, pointing out that the country had been hailed in reports, including a United States Department of State’s report on terrorism. With the fall of the Libyan regime, the centre of gravity of terrorism was moving towards Sahel and cross-border criminals and terrorists were gaining control, especially in areas difficult to monitor. The Moroccan authorities were working with the country’s neighbours and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to fight terrorism.
Voicing an opposing view, another petitioner demanded that Morocco release all Saharan political prisoners, clarify the situation of the 651 missing Saharans, and destroy the “wall of shame” that had been separating the Saharan people for more than 30 years. He declared that Western Sahara did not belong to Morocco, and called on the Security Council to impose a solution to the conflict, if none was forthcoming.
Yet another petitioner said she had visited the Tindouf refugee camps and learned first-hand about “Morocco’s systematic agenda of violence and brutality” and the impressive “society-in-exile” Saharans had built to survive the ordeal. It was her profound hope that the stalemate of polarized ideologies and party politics would end and that the United Nations would make good on its promise of 1991 to allow the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination.
The Fourth Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. on 11 October to continue its consideration of decolonization issues.
The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met today to continue its consideration of all decolonization issues. It was expected to hear the remaining petitioners on the question of Western Sahara. For background on those topics, please see Press Release GA/SPD/504 of 8 October.
SUZANNE SCHOLTE, President of the Defense Forum Foundation and Chairman of the US-Western Sahara Foundation, called upon the Committee to help end the illegal occupation and exploitation of Western Sahara by Morocco and to uphold the right to self-determination of the Saharan people. The failure of the United Nations to move forward on the promised referendum made the Organization culpable in the human rights abuses and well-documented violence against the Saharans in Moroccan occupied Western Sahara. In addition, the delay in the referendum had forced nearly 200,000 Saharans to live in refugee camps in Algeria, where they had waited since 1991 for the United Nations-promised vote on self-determination.
Nonetheless, she said, Saharans continued to advocate for their rights through peaceful, non-violent manifestations, trusting in the justness of their cause, the rule of law, and in the United Nations. Those remarkable people had accomplished so much in the most difficult circumstances, and if they did choose independence, a free Western Sahara would be a “beacon of hope”, and proof that conflicts could be resolved through peaceful means.
VINCENT CHAPAUX, a concerned citizen, stated that in the face of the general and systematic destruction of their social and political structures and the dizzying violations of human rights, the people of Western Sahara were calling out for help. The world had remained silent for years while Morocco crushed the Saharans’ identity. Morocco had also systematically prevented the Saharans from exercising their freedom of expression.
ERIC DAVID, President, Centre de droit international (CDI), Universite libre de Bruxelles (ULB), said it was commonly known that Morocco was violating the cardinal rules of international law and jurisprudence. But it was also important to remember that since the occupation of Western Sahara was illegal, the activities undertaken by Morocco there, either directly or tacitly, were also unfounded. The exploitation of wealth and natural resources without the express authorization of the Saharan authorities was illegal. If a company extracted products from Saharan soil or waters, that company was participating in a pillage of Saharan resources. Member States were obliged to inform their companies that they were participating in illegal activities, lest they be accomplices to the Moroccan Government in its exploitation of Saharan resources.
PIERRE GALAND, Coordination europeenne de soutien au Peuple sahraoui, said that while the United Nations agencies worked hard to alleviate the situation of the refugees in the Tindouf camp, the Committee must spare no effort to ensure the self-determination of the Saharan people. Twenty-two years after the promise of the referendum, it was up to the Committee to ensure that it came to fruition. The African Union had already recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
CONSTANTINOS KOLIOPOULOS, of PanteionUniversity in Athens, Greece, said that the Moroccan proposal for advanced autonomy of the Western Sahara within Moroccan sovereignty offered an ideal framework for the resolution of the conflict. Democratic governance would be ensured by universal suffrage and protection of women’s rights, and the autonomy proposal contained some strikingly advanced clauses that would allow regional authorities to exercise full control over their budgets and taxation, among other things. Moreover, there would be considerable latitude for further advancement of regional autonomy, since the final statute would be subjected to negotiations and a referendum by the populations of Western Sahara. Independence was unrealistic, and autonomy would be implemented anyway. The initiative by Morocco was “bold and innovative”, and it was up to the international community to lend a helping hand to implement it.
ANDREW M. ROSEMARINE, lawyer, said that Morocco’s proposal for Western Sahara was a “sincere attempt” to implement progress in human rights and autonomy, and should be welcomed. He quoted a passage from the Moroccan Initiative for Negotiating an Autonomy Statute for the Sahara Region, which describes the “privileged position” and “leading role” that the all Saharans would hold. The “shining strength” of the new Constitution of Morocco was its “warm embrace” of all ethnic groups in the Kingdom. Of course, much work remained, but the recent progress in Morocco was tangible.
JEAN-PAUL LECOQ, Mayor of Gonfreville l’Orcher in France, speaking on behalf of the Association of Friends of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, said that both the Saharan and Moroccan people had “everything to gain” from the end of the conflict and the establishment of mutual respect. He described his personal efforts to support the Saharan people, particularly those suffering violence at the hands of the Moroccan army in response to peaceful protest, and he called for Moroccan authorities to respond to requests for investigations. He also called on France to facilitate the expansion of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), and pointed out the duplicity of many Governments, which, with their strong political and economic ties to Morocco, were effectively supporting the Moroccan standpoint yet also approving the United Nations resolutions that contradicted it.
ANDREA MARGELLETTI, Chair of the Center for International Studies, said that threats in Western Sahara affected the whole world. He knew from visiting other conflict regions that threats such as those seen in Western Sahara could have an impact on the Mediterranean basin as a whole. He strongly agreed with the Italian Prime Minister, who had declared during the General Assembly debate that it was necessary to lay a foundation for a shared approach to the shared realities in North Africa and the Sahel. A common problem could only be approached through shared solutions, and new threats seen in the region could be more dangerous for the region’s stability and security than ongoing, frozen conflicts. Collaboration between different actors should aim to defuse those dangers, including by ceasing hostilities towards indigenous communities and compromising their cultural rights. He asked whether the international community was ready to implement a real policy of cooperation, and whether the world was ready to share those challenges.
BRAHIM LAGHZAL, ConseilNational des Droites de l’Homme, said he wished to share from his modest experience as a local member of the Western Saharan people and National Human Rights Council in the region, which had been created pursuant to Security Council resolution 2044 (2012). He was a victim of past human rights violations in Morocco and had spent numerous years in prison. However, the reconciliation committee, a pilot project, had helped him to regain his rights as a citizen and as a fighter for freedom and dignity. He had received compensation, although it was not commensurate with the suffering he had endured. Still, it helped to redress the wrongs. He was convinced that the Sahara had always been Moroccan, and its future must be in that context. Saharans were seeking self-determination and a dignified solution to the conflict to avoid a hotbed of tension or terrorism in the Territory.
MOHAMED KHAYA, President of L’AssociationProvinciale des Oeuvres Sociales, Culturelles et Sportives de Boujdour, noting that he was from a southern province, said Morocco had lived through “social and economic transformations of great scope” for the past 10 years, and reforms had led to a new Constitution. The crucial characteristic of that text was its aim to promote human rights, as internationally defined, since that underpinned democracy. He highlighted the value of civil society engagement, victim compensation, and the creation of the commission for reconciliation and a national council for human rights. Those institutions were strengthened by a national observatory for human rights and for women’s rights. The new constitution had crowned Morocco’s efforts, mainly begun in 1990, to promote human rights, which was now a daily reality throughout the country.
ANNA MARIA STAME CERVONE, Christian Democratic Women International, asked the Algerian leaders to loosen their 37-year-old grip on the camp. At the current rate, the situation could only get worse in the Maghreb. Tragic events were occurring relentlessly in the region, and the Tindouf camps were the only ones in the world where the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had not been able to obtain the authorization of the Algerian Government to conduct a census. Given the lack of security in the zone, the region must be enabled to escape from the control of armed groups. Mali had suffered that scenario, with numerous armed groups taking advantage of the security gap and the indifference of the international community to take control of northern Mali.
KOUNTA SIDY EL MOCTAR, a concerned citizen, said that his country had been cut into two. Cross-border criminals and terrorists were gaining control, especially in natural spaces that were difficult to monitor. With the fall of the Libyan regime, the centre of gravity of terrorism was moving towards Sahel. The Moroccan authorities had condemned those terrorist actions and were working with the country’s neighbours and NATO to fight terrorism. Morocco was a guarantor for peace and security in the region and had been hailed in reports, including the United States Department of State’s report on terrorism.
SIDI SALEH DAHA, Directeur de la Coopération Internationale & des Affaires Economiques a l’Agence du Développement des Provinces du Sud, said that he was a native of Layoune and wished to counter the ill-intentioned allegations regarding the pillage of resources. Water was a rare resource in the Sahara and food and irrigation depended on it. The State was making many efforts towards desalinization of water and ensuring potable water supply. Morocco had spared no efforts, and thanks to that, the Saharan people were moving ahead economically and socially, with territorial integrity intact.
KATLYN THOMAS, former Chair of the United Nations Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, said that after examining every available legal argument, the Association had concluded that Morocco could not claim a legal right to Western Sahara on the basis of any historic relationship it had with the Territory prior to its colonization by Spain. In contrast, the rights of the indigenous population were well-established and could not be seriously disputed. The exercise of self-determination, in whatever form it might take, must include the possibility of independence as the final status of Western Sahara.
As for how the right to self-determination could be exercised, she identified three options that were consistent with international law: enforcement by the original United Nations — Organisation of African Unity 1991 Settlement Plan; enforcement of a version of the Peace Plan advanced by the former United States Secretary of State James Baker III, or of a similar plan; or United Nations-ordered negotiations on a “political solution” with certain preconditions. Each of those options would require a mandatory order by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which might be problematic politically, but it might be the only means of enforcing the self-determination principles that applied to the dispute.
MIGUEL CASTRO MORENO, representative of the Spanish movement of solidarity with the Saharawi people, declared that Western Sahara did not belong to Morocco. He called upon United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to intervene urgently to stop the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Moroccan authorities against the defenceless Saharan population, and requested the Committee to establish a mechanism within MINURSO to monitor and protect human rights. He called on the Security Council to impose a solution, if there was no alternative to resolving the conflict. Finally, he demanded that Morocco release all Saharan political prisoners in their custody, clarify the situation of the 651 missing Saharans, and destroy the “wall of shame” that had been separating the Saharan people for more than 30 years.
VIVIAN SOLANA, of the University of Toronto, asked the Committee how much longer the United Nations would “play deaf, silent, blind” in regard to the situation of the Saharan people. Having lived in the refugee camps of Tindouf for over a year conducting research for her doctorate degree, she had witnessed first-hand the misery of their lives and how the United Nations was losing all credibility there, especially among young people. Nevertheless, new generations of Saharans were emerging in the camps with fervour for national independence, and they would continue to fight daily to regain their futures, their dreams, and the aspirations that had been stolen for them.
ALBERTO ABELLO MORENO, Secretario General de la CoordinadoraEstatal de Asociaciones Solidarias con el Sahara, said that the Moroccan democratic model was focused on development and social progress. Governors were working hard to foster human rights, and Morocco was the only Arab country that had implemented a process of reconciliation. He had been in Morocco during the referendum and had seen an orderly, civic event that held its legitimacy with 70 per cent of the population participating. The constitution had been adopted with more than 90 per cent in favour. It ensures equality for women, and it prohibits torture and other human rights violations, such as wrongful imprisonment and forced disappearances.
He said that the King of Morocco was working to recover full territorial unity, by overcoming the problems of decolonization. That process could lead to solving the question of the Sahara within Morocco, allowing for further democratization of the Maghreb. Those in the refugee camps should return to their countries of origin. Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, was part of Morocco and should benefit from its order and liberty. It was essential for peace that Morocco included the Saharan area.
ERIC JENSEN, former head of the Western Saharan mission and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Western Sahara from 1993 to 1998, said that at this critical time for the countries of North Africa, a solution to the conflict in Western Sahara was more important than ever. Morocco wished to reintegrate the territory into its own land, but Algeria argued that in the interim years a unique indigenous character had developed, which must be respected. As for a Western Saharan referendum, it was now impossible to determine who would vote. It was obvious that the parties needed to find alternate routes to self-determination for Western Saharans.
He said he had arranged a “secret encounter” in Geneva between the now King of Morocco and members of a Polisario delegation, in order to negotiate a compromise and reach regional autonomy. But the proceedings “did not lead on”, and the timing “may have been premature”. The Polisario was undoubtedly interested at the time, as was later confirmed, but they changed their tune when the Settlement Plan was resuscitated. Efforts to have the Security Council impose a solution had been repeatedly rebuffed.
Parties must work towards an agreement that was just, lasting and mutually acceptable, he said. Morocco’s new constitution provided additional assurances and managed to advance democracy while also advancing human rights. Regional autonomy was inevitably a compromise. It did not deliver the independence sought by the Polisario, but it was the most realistic prospect for solving the conflict, and perhaps the only way forward.
SYDNEY S. ASSOR, Surrey Three Faiths Forum, said that the individuals in the Tindouf camp were not refugees, but detainees, unable to vote with their feet. Morocco had remained willing to negotiate on the basis of the principles repeatedly confirmed by the Security Council. The autonomy initiative, to which Morocco remained committed, had been deemed serious, realistic, and credible by the international community. But the Polisario were materialistically, fraudulently, and unashamedly benefiting from the illegal sequestration and hindering a solution to an artificial dispute endangering the whole region.
M’BARKA BOUAIDA, a concerned citizen, said that misunderstanding about the Sahara conflict impeded progress towards a realistic solution. Those present today should look at the various reports and declarations and ask the crucial questions, including why the international community avoided discussing the illegal status of the Tindouf camps and why the Polisario refused the identification of the refugees there. Were there 70,000, 85,000, 90,000 or 100,000 refugees? How could the international community avoid talking about the high risk of militarization or of human rights violations in the camps? Why did non-governmental organizations deal with the Saharan issues from a single point of view, and why avoid talking about the embezzlement of humanitarian supplies?
She challenged all to ponder those questions, as she considered the refugees as family. They were victims, and the key issue in the conflict was Algeria, which had a personal perception of regional hegemony and the role it wished to play. After four decades, it was time to stop the conflict and stop confusing the issues, which drew attention away from the region’s social and political realities; there were terrorist groups, weapons trafficking and kidnappings. It was important to consider the welfare of the Western Saharans and stop speculating about their destiny. Morocco was a sovereign State, which had made remarkable efforts, especially within the last decade, and could make a real difference.
HASSAN HAOUIDEG, Association de Régionalisation et d’Oued-Eddahab-Laqouira, said that it had been more than 37 years since Arab Morocco had been divided and fragmented, and that this ran the risk of a criminal rift between brothers and sisters. Were it not for the wisdom of Morocco during that period, things would have been worse. Since the beginning of that “artificial conflict” concerning the Moroccan Sahara, Morocco had tried to solve the matter peacefully, despite Algeria’s refusal. Morocco had given so many painful concessions, including giving autonomy to the Western Saharan region, in order to save face for all. That proposal was welcomed by many capitals around the world, and in the Security Council, which had been describing it as serious and credible since 2007.
He said Morocco had stuck to the proposal because it was the last and only hope for solving the conflict and the only way to spare the region from a war that would consume everyone. However, the proposal had been with the United Nations for five years, because Algeria refused it on principle since their only solution was the independence of Western Sahara, which they wanted for the sole purpose of controlling it and gaining access to the Atlantic Ocean.
JANE BAHAIJOUB, Chair, Family Protection, stated that the Sahara region was fraught with instability. Kidnapping for ransom, arms proliferation, and smuggling for profit had exacerbated since the fall of the Qaddafi regime. That could lead to the destabilization of neighbouring countries. In contrast, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spoken at the US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue about “Morrocco’s stability and strong economic foundation”. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had repeatedly requested permission for conducting census in the camps but had been denied. Fundamental human rights were routinely abused in the camps with husbands and wives separated and no freedom of movement. Additionally, no one had travel documents.
LALLA LAÂLIA SIBBA, Coordinatrice Locale de la Coalition Nationale pour la Défense et la Protection des Valeurs Sacrées de la Nation, said that various civic-minded organizations were working in the province of Western Sahara on children’s rights, environmental preservation, and other issues. The work of those organizations was facilitated by the democracy which prevailed throughout the country and was supported by the State. Morocco safeguarded the security of the region and the draft autonomy solution provided stability for all parties.
TANYA WARBURG, Freedom for All, expressed concern about the deteriorating conditions in the Polisario-run refugee camps in South-West Algeria, where 65,000 men, women, and children were forcibly detained and deprived of their basic human rights. No accurate data existed as to their numbers, composition, and needs. Despite generous supplies of international aid, the refugees remained poorly fed with women and children seriously anaemic. The Tindouf camps were becoming centres for criminal activities, due to growing links between Al-Qaida and other extremists, threatening the whole of the Maghreb, the Sahel, and the African continent.
TEGUH SANTOSA, lecturer, State Islamic University at Jakarta, Indonesia, likened the Western Sahara dispute to the situation that Indonesia faced in the last decade, and said that just as Aceh and Papua now enjoyed special autonomy status within that country, Western Sahara could enjoy the same under the special autonomy proposal offered by Morocco. Having recently visited the southern part of Morocco, he had witnessed many positive developments on the ground in Laayoune, Boudjdour, and Dakhla — evidence that democracy was indeed functioning in Western Sahara. That was not so in Tindouf, however, where people were denied basic human rights. He concluded that it was the obligation of the international community to give the people of Tindouf an opportunity to experience democracy in Morocco.
FERNANDO ROSAS-MOSCOSO, Peruvian historian and professor, said that Moroccans had historic rights to the Western Saharan areas. There were many aspects at play, he said, and a comprehensive argument had been substantiated at various points of the conflict process. The history of Morocco could not be understood without understanding the history of the Sahara, and vice versa. Historically, the people of the north and south had worked together in a social and economic network, sharing common objectives and mobilizing efforts for trade routes. Together, they collected taxes and helped the then-authorities. A Eurocentric vision misunderstood that historical relationship and gave priority to sedentarism over nomadism. Those Eurocentric misconceptions had led to many of the region’s modern problems.
For years, he said, Morocco had tried to achieve recognition of its right over the Western Saharan region. Today, there was no “bipolar world” of nomads versus sedentary populations, and a political and economic integration process was part of the current reality. However, Morocco had submitted proposals to overcome the impasse, and those present should note that the autonomy plan met the right to self-determination. All the problems of Western Sahara were created artificially and were not founded on history. Instead, they were fuelled by actors outside Morocco. The historic rights of Morocco were unquestionable; no other entity had rights over that area.
KIRBY GOOKIN, professor at New York University, said he had visited the Saharan refugee camps in Tindouf and the settlements in Western Sahara’s Liberated Territories. He attested to the harsh life in the camps, including the lack of water, food and health care, and harassment by the Moroccan police against innocent Saharans. He had come to ask the United Nations to include a human rights component to MINURSO’s mandate, and to enforce its resolution permitting the Saharan people to vote on self-determination. It was shameful that inaction was perpetuating a humanitarian crisis that was directed entirely towards a specific ethnic population, in contradiction to the very mission upon which the United Nations was founded.
ROBIN KAHN, concerned citizen of the United States, said she had become familiar with the daily struggles endured by the Saharans living in the Tindouf camps when she had been invited to participate in an arts festival there in 2009. She had witnessed and learned of “Morocco’s systematic agenda of violence and brutality” by speaking with many of the victims and reviewing much documentary material. She had also learned how the Saharans had built an impressive “society-in-exile”, with an educational and cultural infrastructure contributing to the 99 per cent literacy rate. She asked the Committee whether the international community was not complicit in the suffering of the Saharans through its silence. It was her profound hope that the stalemate of polarized ideologies and party politics would end and that the United Nations would make good on its promise of 1991 to allow the people of Western Sahara to exercise their right to self-determination.
MOHAMMED CHEIKH ISMAAILI, a concerned citizen, stated that the people in the camps had no rights as travellers. They could not return to their cities and did not have freedom of expression. The Polisario controlled the refugee camps, and according to the Polisario charter, freedom of association was not allowed. There was also the problem of kidnappings by the Polisario militia. All that had led many youths to join terrorist activities in the Sahel and the Sahara.
GIANNI GIANASSI, Mayor of Sesto Fiorentino in Florence, Italy, said that ever since 1984 his city had been a “twin-town” with the Saharan city of Mahbes and it supported the right of the Saharan people to self-determination. In 2011, he had visited Western Sahara and witnessed the difficult conditions the people there were enduring, including unpunished acts of torture and violence by the Moroccan army and police. He had denounced what he had seen to the Italian Government and now called on the Committee to support and accelerate the self-determination process of the Saharan people. Their peaceful and democratic fight represented a hopeful moment in a world full of war and terrorism, he concluded.
SAADANI MAOULAININE, a concerned citizen, said that she was present as a victim of the “artificial crisis” that she and her family had suffered through for years, enduring the worst human rights violations. She saw her father tortured, and she had been separated from her family for 16 years, forced to live in difficult conditions and cut off from all communication. Her father had died, and her mother had returned to her country. It was very difficult for the speaker to assimilate and see the people who had tortured her and her father and who were responsible for his death, and for them to continue with impunity. Thus, she had devoted her life to fighting those grave violations.
In August, she said, representatives from the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights had visited Morocco’s southern provinces to see first-hand the human rights violations there. However, they would not find that because those living in the southern provinces were not subjected to such violations. Instead, they enjoyed all political, economic and social rights, which made her conclude that there must be a clear bias towards the Frente Polisario. Morocco was stronger than “all those lies and allegations” and had a solid democratic system in place. The only fair solution was to ensure a dignified life through autonomy.
SEMLALI AABADILA, President of L’Association Arrai de Dakhla, said he had lived on both sides of the conflict. He was from Morocco but lived for some time in the camps as well. He had lived a very peaceful life there, but the Polisario used allegations of human rights abuses by Morocco to manipulate support from the public. Unfortunately, the press was complicit in that. However, the Polisario had been caught in their own lies. They had published pictures of children allegedly killed by Morocco, when in fact they had been murdered by a mentally ill individual. The killing was not done for a political cause. The family complained and was compensated for the misuse of that tragedy to further political goals.
CYNTHIA BASINET, a singer, actress and humanitarian, said there was a recent trend “spoken aloud and unabatedly” asking what percentage of care, value and support was owed to the marginalized. The question was posed as to what percentage of people could justifiably be left behind. She asked the United Nations, “this “percentage of deciders” to show honour for the fate, self-determination and safety of the people of the Western Sahara.
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