Decades-long Dispute over Western Sahara Draws Appeals from Petitioners in Fourth Committee, with Some Saying Impasse No Excuse for Inaction
Decades-long Dispute over Western Sahara Draws Appeals from Petitioners in Fourth Committee, with Some Saying Impasse No Excuse for Inaction
In a meeting dominated by harsh words and displays of raw emotion, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard petitioners on Western Sahara emphasize the urgency of international action to settle the territory’s long-running quest for self-determination and also bolster regional and global security.
As petitioners on behalf of Morocco and Algeria blamed each other for the deadlock, Saharan activists spoke of the daily toil and turmoil that took a heavy toll on the people each day.
Several petitioners spoke of Morocco’s constitutional and legal reforms as a reference point for a settlement in Western Sahara, as well as for region-wide change, while others cautioned against letting Morocco use such praise to skirt its international obligations.
As other petitioners accused Algeria and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario) of stifling dissent in the Tindouf camps, one activist spoke of how young Saharans were attempting to improve their conditions under persistent danger to their lives, even outside the glare of international attention.
One petitioner who had escaped from a Tindouf camp recounted how she was campaigning to improve the situation of current residents, while a Saharan college student in the United States blamed United Nations inaction for the death of his uncle under harsh conditions in a camp.
Yet, another petitioner explained that he had made a point of calling the people there “detainees” and not refugees, and insisted that they be allowed to return freely to their homeland of Morocco.
Activists and campaigners from outside the region made emotion-laden appeals for concerted international action, including one petitioner who said that the Saharan people could not bear to see their children play with rusty cans or survive on humanitarian rations while their homeland was full of resources.
A law enforcement expert from the United Kingdom detailed how criminals, aided and abetted by Frente Polisario and Algerian officials, siphoned off international food aid and risked further destabilizing the wider region.
A petitioner from the United States explained how Morocco was exploiting the natural resources of Western Sahara, often in collusion with companies from the developed world.
Another said that the conflict had lasted too long, but argued that was no excuse for the United Nations to avoid its responsibility to give the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination.
The Committee will meet at 3 p.m. on Friday, 10 October, to continue hearing from petitioners and to hold discussions on other items on the decolonization agenda.
The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) met this afternoon on decolonization issues, for which it was scheduled to continue hearing petitioners from Western Sahara. For further background, see Press Releases GA/SPD/554 of 7 October and GA/SPD/555 of 8 October.
Petitioners for Western Sahara
MOHAMMAD ZIYAD AL JABARI of the Palestinian Moroccan Friendship Society said he was perplexed by ongoing discussions because Morocco was making progress in many areas, including human rights, in coordination with regional and international organizations. The political reforms witnessed in Morocco over the past 15 and efforts to ensure social and economic equity have been hailed as positive steps to resolve the question of Western Sahara. Just as the European Union welcomed Scotland’s decision to remain in the United Kingdom, Morocco was hoping to resolve what he called a “manufactured crisis” for the benefit of the people of Western Sahara and the region at large.
PAUL BUNDUKU-LATHA of the Observatory of Mediation and Conflict Management in Africa said that autonomy was a principle of self-determination according to United Nations texts. The right to self-determination, although limited by the older principle of territorial integrity, could be expressed through referenda. The results of such polling, however, could lead to upheavals, disputes and even civil war, which was why the United Nations seemed to prefer negotiated political settlements. With regard to Western Sahara, the Organization had concluded that a referendum was not possible there. Autonomy was the ideal means to overcome the suffering in the Tindouf camps, and to bring peace to the Maghreb region as a whole.
FERNANDO CALLE HAYN said Morocco’s constitutional reforms provided a reference for the wider Arab world, as they built inclusiveness and openness in a broad range of areas. There was acknowledgement of rule of law, international human rights standards, gender equality and constitutional safeguards. Echoing former Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, he said autonomy was the best hope for Western Sahara, as a fair and genuine settlement within the framework of United Nations resolutions.
TANYA WARBURG, Freedom For All, called for the registration and census of the people living in Tindouf. The increasing instability across the region threatened the safety of the Saharan refugees, while the lack of opportunity, and the corruption and brutality of Frente Polisario encouraged the radicalization of the youth and their association with terrorists. While Morocco had strengthened its implementation of human rights reforms and worked with the United Nations, Algeria had denied the entry visas of five international non-governmental organizations focused on human rights. Freedom For All believed that the Moroccan Plan for autonomy would deliver Saharan self-determination and provide a lasting resolution to the conflict.
VANESSA RAMOS of the American Association of Jurists said that Western Sahara was subject to United Nations resolutions on decolonization and the people there had the inalienable right to self-determination. Resolution 1514 (XV) compelled Member States to facilitate the process of decolonization, and called on the General Assembly to take up its responsibility where it had not been fully met. Western Sahara had been occupied since 1975 and was divided by a militarized wall while natural resources were extracted illegally through agreements by Morocco, other countries and transnational companies. This was all a violation of the rights of Western Saharans. She called for a transparent referendum to be held under the supervision of the United Nations, and for countries to refrain from violating the sovereignty of Western Sahara by exploiting its resources. She expressed hope that a settlement would be reached that allowed Morocco and Western Sahara to exist in peace and fraternity.
VERONICA JANE BAHAIJOUB expressed concerns over the humanitarian situation in the Tindouf camps and the growing threat of terrorism in North Africa. The escalated instability in the camps had made the youths prime targets for terrorist groups. She recalled the requests made by several international institutions to conduct a census of the camp population. In stark contrast to that situation, Saharans living in Western Sahara were allowed to travel abroad freely. Refugees should be given travel documents and have the right to choose where they live. She stated that the only solution for the refugee camps was the Moroccan proposal for autonomy.
SYDNEY S. ASSOR, Surrey Three Faiths Forum, drew attention to the situation in the Tindouf camps, where more than 90,000 “detainees” had been held for decades. He explained that he had made a point of calling them “detainees” and not refugees, and insisted that they be allowed to return freely to their homeland of Morocco.
STÉPHANE DOMINGUES RODRIGUES said the Security Council had again underscored the worrisome situation in the Tindouf camps, despite the provision of humanitarian assistance by the European Union and other donors. The question remained as to why that assistance had not improved conditions there. It was now clear that much of it had been diverted, something that had been the subject of speculation for several years. A report of the European office shed light on the wide scale of the diversion of aid, which he maintained was organized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario). He stressed that such aid should be monitored and properly distributed.
AHMED LAKHRIF, a Saharan activist, said he and his colleagues were working to integrate the territory with its mother country, Morocco, with the backing of the people. Frente Polisario, he said, could not claim that kind of legitimate backing for the course it was advocating. It was, thus, perpetrating violence and denying the people their democratic right to express themselves. He maintained that neither Frente Polisario nor Algeria represented the Saharan people, and thus, the opinions expressed by their petitioners did not carry much weight.
YARBA ESSALLAMI, noting that he had descended from the Saharan region of Morocco, said he wished to draw attention to crimes committed against his people who were detained in the Tindouf camps. He deplored the shooting death of a cousin and friend perpetrated by the Algerian army at the Mauritanian-Algerian border. In an attempt to justify that crime, the Algerian authorities claimed the two men were smuggling fuel, which was untrue. Every uprising contained murders. Human rights organizations should hold accountable those who had committed that crime. Young Saharans detained in Algeria continued their uprising, which was the beginning of a revolution that would liberate them from the hegemony of Algeria and Frente Polisario. Concluding, he appealed to the United Nations to try the killers of his cousin and friend.
FALA BOUSSOLA of Annahda des Droits des Femmes a Laayoune said that, while she enjoyed the rights and dignity offered to her by Morocco, the same could not be said of members of her community that resided in Algerian camps. Women were easy targets as they could not complain and were separated from their children on various pretexts, she said, criticizing the “scandalous” silence of some organizations benefitting financially from the situation. The fact that they condone inhumane acts must be exposed before the international community. As a defender of human rights and specifically women’s rights, she said she had come to “raise the alarm” for the benefit of those hapless people.
RACHID TAMEK said there must be effective counter-terrorism, which could only be realized through integrated and complete cooperation. The borders between Morocco and Algeria were secure, but other borders of Algeria were less so and were vulnerable to drug smugglers and other criminals. He deplored the intransigence of the Algerian authorities, which perpetuated the activities of terrorists. Those responsible must be held accountable. For the past 40 years, Algeria spent more than $250 billion to separate the Sahara from Morocco, depriving the Saharan people of their country’s wealth. Saharans were ready for self-determination, which would be the main solution to the long-standing problem.
MAHJOUBA DAOUDI, a Saharan researcher, said petitioners carrying the separatist banner in Western Sahara were in reality Algerians. Why were the people living in the Tindouf camp not available to express their views before the United Nations? The 2013 United States State Department report and the five leading international human rights organizations had cited restrictions placed by Algeria on its people, as well as on those seeking to study their plight. “Get your own house in order before asking your neighbours to do the same,” she said.
ERIK JENSEN, former Head of Mission and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Western Sahara, said that the census undertaken by Spain 40 years ago was interesting as an historical document, but nothing more. Figures for the camps still awaited assessment by UNHCR. The breakthrough 20 years ago proved that the plan devised by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) at the time could not deliver an outcome that was acceptable to both sides. Ten years ago, it was clear that there was no further alternative plans. In order for negotiations to work, those needed to be realistic, but with sufficient flexibility at the outset in order for aspirations to be expressed.
OMAR DKHIL said that Algeria always said it had no claims to Western Sahara, but it was Algeria and not Frente Polisario that had access to the international forums. If Algeria had no claims to Western Sahara, then it did not make sense for the Algerian President to take part in talks to partition the territory. Suggesting partition did not acknowledge self-determination for Western Saharans. That question was between Morocco and the Saharan people and was not a matter for Algeria to determine. If the decision had been left to those in the camps and Morocco, it would have been solved long ago. Instead, the Algerian authorities were hiding behind Frente Polisario to cause trouble.
MAGHLAHA DLIMI, a former inmate from the Tindouf camps, described the difficult conditions she had endured there. The propaganda campaign of those responsible must not be allowed to mislead the world. She and her compatriots who had fled those camps always denounced the continuing systematic violations of human rights in flagrant breach of all international conventions. She urged the United Nations and the international community to intervene to end the detention of the people in the Tindouf camps. Experts should investigate and highlight the abuses more vigorously in order to ensure respect for the victims’ rights.
BRAIGUNA LAAROUSSI said that, without a civil society that was organized and strong, democracy could never prosper, because it always needed to be protected, defended and guided towards the right path. It was fortunate for Morocco that for a number of years there had been an extended network of governmental and non-governmental organizations to safeguard the Kingdom and support the democracy to which Morocco was committed. She was confident that the new non-governmental organizations, established since the new Constitution of 2011, had achieved a high level of discipline, intellectual integrity and a sense of sacrifice. Moroccans were proud of the vital role they were exerting to establish genuine democratic practices in the Kingdom.
ARAABOUB ABHAI said a new generation of people had been trying to improve their situation in the Tindouf camp under great personal risk from Frente Polisario. The young people was striving to end the nepotism and rotating leadership prevailing in the camps. That they should come under threats from those running the camps was understandable, but what was surprising was the United Nations’ refusal to engage with the group.
JENNY EUGENIA MARKETOU, Western Sahara Resource Watch, called attention to the problems of fishery and phosphate mineral rock reserve in occupied Western Sahara, and asked the United Nations to assume oversight of resource development there. The development of resources from the territory enriched Morocco and served as a pretext for the continued Moroccan annexation of Western Sahara. She recalled two undeniable facts : the International Court of Justice had advised that Morocco had no territorial claim on Western Sahara and that the Saharan people were the territory’s original inhabitants. She also drew attention to the issue of the petroleum exploration in the coastal waters of Western Sahara. The Saharan people had clearly voiced their opposition to that out of fear petroleum would not be available to them in the future and that the economic activity from oil production would entrench an illegal occupation. She asked the Committee to take note of the problem and condemn that activity.
JANET LENZ, Not Forgotten International, Inc., said that the Saharan people could not bear to see their children play with rusty cans, or survive on humanitarian rations, or watch them wasting educational opportunities while their homeland was full of resources. She implored the Committee to do the right thing and give the Saharan people the right to decide of their own future and that of their children.
ANNA MARIA STAME CERVONE, President of Centrist Democratic Women International, said that women in the camps faced human rights violations daily. The camps were totally isolated from the international community, and many women, particularly widows, suffered sexual violence when they went to collect their rationed food aid. She called on the United Nations and the international community to intervene to end the torment of those detained women in the Tindouf camps. They and their children must be given the chance for a more dignified life that respected their rights to freedom of expression, movement and the voluntary return to their country of origin. It was the shared responsibility of Algeria and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect them.
LUC DELESTRE, speaking on behalf of Comite d’Establissement Regional SNCF de Normandie, accused the Moroccan Government of committing brutality in Western Sahara. History reminded the world that chaos led to worse things, he said. Holding the long-promised referendum, therefore, was vital to break the “wall of silence”. His organization in France supported activities that instilled hope among the Saharans about their future. Until peace was found, his organization would continue to demolish the “wall of shame” constructed by Morocco. The world needed to hear that message of peace and do all it could to advance it.
AANDALLAH SALMA, coordinator for families of Saharan victims killed in the Tindouf camps, said that, on 5 January, a dozen persons had gone to visit their families and get supplies. They were then shot at with live bullets by Algerian soldiers hidden behind the dunes. Some were hit and killed, as seen by witnesses who panicked and fled the scene so as not to meet the same fate. The families of those killed had demanded an inquiry into what happened, but the bodies of the victims were buried without any follow-up to the requests for autopsies. Nor had the perpetrators been brought to justice. He demanded an investigation into that incident and the prosecution of those responsible.
ROBIN KAHN read the statement of Kneita Buddah Mohammed, a Saharan woman living in Tindouf refugee camp, who was born and raised in refugee camps, where hunger, disease, thirst and heat were every-day conditions. The “wall of shame”, separating the territories of Western Sahara occupied by Morocco and the refugee camps in the south-east corner of Algeria, divided both her family and country. She recalled that women were the foundation of society and, with their own hands, they built the refugee camps, sewed tents and clothes, and carried water. She asked the international community to end that painful situation and find a political solution.
CYNTHIA BASINET, singer and actress, said that she had been petitioning on behalf of Western Sahara for more than 10 years, while many had been doing it for decades longer than that. Ten years ago, there were no iPads, iPhones or “selfies” to distract from the issue, and yet, change still had not occurred. She asked what could be done for the United Nations to be invested in aggregating the necessary change to “live the oath and pledge” that it had undertaken.
EVA PFOSTL stated that, for the sake of regional stability, the dispute over the Western Sahara could not continue to be relegated to the status of the “forgotten conflict”. Territorial autonomy, she said, met the fundamental right of ethnic groups to enjoy self-determination without changing international borders. The Moroccan proposal to implement territorial autonomy and the advanced regionalization programme could create a sustainable solution to the Western Sahara conflict.
MARINA CRISTINE PENTOJA highlighted the effort made by Morocco to empower the Saharan people in terms of economic, human development and job creation. To encourage local entrepreneurship, Morocco guaranteed freedom to do business and liberty of circulation of goods and persons in the southern region. Showcasing the company Phosboucraa, the largest employer in the Sahara, she illustrated the progress on job creation. Regarding human rights, social protection and gender inclusion, she noted that non-discrimination and promotion of gender equality, women’s access to employment and primary education for children were showing better results in southern provinces than in other parts of the country.
KIRBY GOOKIN, Western Sahara Human Rights Watch, said the people of Western Sahara, a colonial country, were the responsibility of the United Nations, as was the solution to the conflict. He noted that the International Court of Justice had decided that a referendum for self-determination should be held. The delay in the implementation of the decolonization process affected human rights in Western Sahara; the civil and political rights, economic rights and social and cultural rights were also systematically violated. He concluded that the conflict had lasted too long, but that was no excuse for the United Nations to avoid its responsibility to give the people of Western Sahara the right to self-determination.
KEVIN HARRIGAN, a United Kingdom law enforcement expert, highlighted how food aid intended for the Tindouf camps was being illegally diverted to places such as Mali and Mauritania. Members of Frente Polisario and Algerians were involved in the illegal act, he said. The World Food Programme (WFP) provided 125,000 general food rations per month, but those living there remained malnourished because criminals systematically took possession of the supplies and then siphoned off portions for illicit sale while inflating refugee numbers. The international community must conduct a thorough investigation to prevent further destabilization in the wider region.
JOSÉ MARIA GIL GARRE, Global Security Institute, said there was an undesirable situation in the region due to the erratic conduct and lack of prospect within the United Nations. Frente Polisario was a dictatorship that was being supported by the international community. The Saharan region was now seeing a very unstable situation, with the presence of armed groups and Jihadist terrorism. Representatives of Algeria had made threats “in a very unsettled way”, and some of their speeches before the Fourth Committee were no less than provocative. A group that was part of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS) was part of a group involved with Frente Polisario. That issue must be addressed, as the door was opening up to a much worse situation, such as had been seen in Mali, Libya and Syria. Jihadist terrorism would be the greatest cause of international instability imaginable. The southern provinces of Morocco were already constitutionally endowed to assume territorial governance and autonomy, so now the United Nations could, once and for all, be consistent with Morocco’s proposal, which was real, serious and offered the possibility of getting rid of the spectre of instability.
JAVIER A. GONZALEZ VEGA, Asturian Monitoring Centre for Human Rights in Western Sahara, said successive United Nations resolutions established various dimensions to the right of self-determination, including over natural resources, which continued to be flouted. Morocco was exploiting the natural resources of Western Sahara without consultation with the people. Parties that signed agreements with Morocco were equally guilty of breaches.
INÉS MIRANDA NAVARROA, General Council for Spanish Advocates, said that Morocco was the occupying Power of Western Sahara and continued to alter that territory’s population. That country employed arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and torture. The breach of legal order by the occupying Power included actions taken against defence attorneys. Such trials were contrived and served to imprison activists and defenders of human rights in Western Sahara. Legitimate actions were tried “as offences” when they should be enshrined by international legislation for the population of the occupied territories.
MARÍA DOLORES TRAVIESO DARIAS, Canaria Juristas por la Paz y Derechos Humanos, said that the Saharan region was illegally occupied by Morocco. There were many “anti-legal” elements systematically imposed on the Saharan population in its pursuit of self-determination for Western Sahara. Additionally, the Saharan identity was being killed off. The legal observers had denounced the arbitrary arrests of Saharans and trials without due process, as well as the dispersion of detainees across the territory of Morocco. At the same time, Morocco continued its arbitrary policy of imposing penalties on the Saharans, such as unjust life imprisonment. Effective action was needed to ensure compliance with international law and the protection of human rights in the region.
JOSE REVERT CALABUIG, International Association of Jurists for Western Sahara, said that the international legislation of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination had been violated by Morocco’s military occupation in 1975. That occupation had not even been recognized by the Spanish court, and was, therefore, technically still the administering Power. Today, almost 39 years later, the Saharan people had not achieved self-determination, he said, adding that now was the moment to stop being neutral.
CHRISTOPHER EDWIN BRAHAM, International Association for Strategic Studies, said his petition was on behalf of Morocco. The Western Sahara conflict was a security threat to North Africa and the Sahel. Citing a report to the British Parliament, he said that the Frente Polisario-controlled camps in Tindouf were a fertile ground for the recruitment of Jihadists. Increased crime had made Tindouf a refuge for jihadists forced from northern Mali, following a crackdown there on Islamist extremists. In 2012, another report, by CNA Corporation Strategic Studies, cited evidence that Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had infiltrated the Tindouf camps, and that people from those camps had joined Mali-based terrorist groups. Algeria was obliged to allow observers into Tindouf to assess the danger.
MULA IHFID SID AHMED, a Saharan college student in the United States, spoke of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Moroccan regime in the occupied territory and the plunder of its natural resources in violation of international law. Citing the recent death of an uncle in a refugee camp amid severe conditions and shortage of equipment, he said he blamed the United Nations’ inaction for the tragedy. How long would the Saharan people have to wait for a solution? What the United Nations would allow was what would continue, he concluded.