Petitioners on Western Sahara Question Decry Conditions in Tindouf Refugee Camps, as Fourth Committee Continues Discussion of Decolonization Issues

GA/SPD/609
5 October 2016
Seventy-first Session, 4th Meeting (PM)

Petitioners on Western Sahara Question Decry Conditions in Tindouf Refugee Camps, as Fourth Committee Continues Discussion of Decolonization Issues

Some Speakers Applaud Morocco’s Autonomy Plan while Others Urge Referendum

The question of Western Sahara generated sharp debate today as the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) continued its annual hearing of petitioners, with many speakers decrying conditions in refugee camps and the potentially dire consequences for youth and children in particular.

Some petitioners said the lack of opportunity and education in Algeria’s Tindouf camps housing Sahrawi refugees had created a vacuum, and that had turned some young people to organized crime.  The camps were close to major smuggling routes, and youths were being actively recruited into criminal networks.

Petitioners spoke passionately about poor conditions in the camps, including insufficient nutrition for women and children.  Anna Maria Stame Cervone, President of Centrist Democratic International Women, said that testimonies gathered from people who had escaped the camps demonstrated that “survival is almost a miracle” in that inhospitable environment, where even animals could not live.  It was “nothing short of an open-air prison”, she added, noting that those living there had been suffering in silence for more than four decades.

Many petitioners denounced the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario), which they accused of having embezzled international aid intended for the camps, and of having criminalized those with viewpoints opposed to its own.  Nykaky Lygeros noted that Polisario had appointed individuals to high positions without holding democratic elections.  Graciela Lucia Consentino of the Universidad Argentina John F. Kennedy, said children resettled by Polisario suffered political pressure exerted by the movement and risked becoming combatants.  She warned that when those children became adults, they would not know who they were.

Several speakers applauded Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal for Western Sahara as a credible, fair and flexible solution to the dispute over the Non-Self-Governing Territory.  They said it was tailored to reality on the ground and would guarantee Sahrawis a leading role in regional institutions without discrimination.  Morocco could be trusted to deliver on that promise, said Andrew Marc Rosemarine, because it had granted greater freedoms to its own people during the Arab Spring, which had passed without bloodshed in that country.

Other petitioners, however, argued for a self-determination referendum supervised by the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO).  They said Morocco was illegally occupying Western Sahara, had violated Security Council resolutions and was defying the international community by avoiding negotiations.  Eric Jensen, former Head of Mission and Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, added that, while MINURSO had monitored the ceasefire, that alone would not be enough to bring about a lasting solution.  If the original plan could not be implemented voluntarily, the Security Council must take urgent action, he emphasized, noting that reactivating Morocco’s role would be a starting point.

Representatives of Algeria and Morocco also addressed the Committee.

The Fourth Committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 6 October, to continue its discussions on the decolonization cluster.

Petitioners on Question of Western Sahara

AHMED LAKHRIF, Deputé, Chambre des Conseillers, said that, since he had been elected by Sahrawis, he was their genuine representative, with the right to address the international stage on their behalf.  Legislative elections would be held throughout the Territory in October, providing the first opportunity for Sahrawis to cast their ballots, he said, adding that he looked forward to universal suffrage, a great sign of democratic representation.

BRUNO DETHOMAS said registration was a fundamental and inalienable right of all people, and the first step towards their official recognition.  It was also helpful in seeking durable solutions.  The misappropriation and fraudulent use of funds had been conducted through secret enterprises and could not have been done without the knowledge of Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario).

CARROLL EADS said that, over the years, the education of Sahrawi youth in the Tindouf camps had lost priority status for Polisario.  Opportunities to send students abroad for education had diminished, junior high schools had been eliminated and Polisario looked only to embezzle international assistance.  “The lack of educational opportunities created a vacuum that is being filled with hopelessness, frustration, and for some, organized crime,” she said.  Since lack of education created a further generation of youth who depended on foreign aid, there was a great need to shift from aid-reliance to self-reliance, which would provide young people with more opportunities and enable them to adapt to civil society.

JOSÉ MARÍA GIL GARRE, International Security Observatory, said Morocco had improved its domestic mechanisms with a view to ensuring the promotion and protection of human rights.  Expressing concern about the situation in the Tindouf camps, he said the number of abductions had increased.  At the same time, Polisario had criminalized those holding a different viewpoint from their own.  He called upon the Committee to find a lasting solution to the situation in Western Sahara.

ERIC CAMERON, World Action for Refugees, said 32 per cent of children in the Tindouf camps lacked sufficient nutrition.  Some claimed that those who embezzled supplies intended for the camp population worked within the camp system and the theft of supplies was, therefore, an “inside job”.  Emphasizing that Algeria and Polisario bore sole responsibility for ensuring the camps population was fed and received care, he said Morocco’s Autonomy Plan had been qualified as serious and credible by the Security Council, and was the best way towards a lasting political solution.

ANDREW MARC ROSEMARINE, International Law Chambers of Andrew M. Rosemarine, said Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal was the most likely to bring long-term happiness to the Sahrawi people.  The plan was fair and flexible because it provided a large degree of self-determination with an emphasis on negotiations among all parties.  Based on the rule of law, it was also far-sighted and promoted reconciliation.  Morocco would guarantee all Sahrawis a leading role in regional institutions without discrimination.  Morocco could be trusted to deliver on that promise because it had granted greater freedoms to its own people during the Arab Spring, which had been achieved without bloodshed in that country.

RAFAEL MARTINEZ-CAMPILLO said Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal was a good solution for the conflict because it had been adapted and was tailored to reality.  It was intended to preserve Sahrawi linguistic and cultural heritage under the rule of law.  It also guaranteed sovereignty with sustainable development, he added.

NANCY HUFF said the theft of humanitarian aid revealed serious character flaws, as exhibited by the Polisario leadership.  Corruption was revelatory in nature and telling on many levels, especially among leaders.  Compromised leaders were incapable of entering into proper negotiations to work out a settlement in the best interest of their people.  Several countries provided excellent examples in recent history of what happened when political leaders — after having fought for national independence — had turned to corruption once freedom had been won.  Today, those countries teetered on the verge of becoming failed States, she said, declaring:  “The residents of the Tindouf camps know their leaders are corrupt.”

STACY PEARSON, President, Protected Families LLC, said the Sahrawi were not refugees according to the United Nations definition, which was the reason for the failure to negotiate a solution to the dispute after 40 years.  Camp inhabitants were “human shields and hostages” for guerrillas, and thousands of them had disabilities, she said, urging leaders of the disabilities community to include Sahrawi repatriation efforts in their mission.

NYKAKY LYGEROS said Polisario cared more about financial resources than the camp residents.  It was unfortunate that it had appointed individuals to high positions without holding democratic elections.  Expressing concern about the group’s “totalitarian” policies, he emphasized that Polisario was inhumane to those living in the Tindouf camps.

MANZILA POLA UDDIN described the “abandoned conflict” as beyond rational, expressing regret that the international community had failed to resolve the question of Moroccan Sahara and end the sufferings of thousands of innocent people.  He said that, having experienced war as a child, he believed the Moroccan Autonomy Plan was the best path to self-determination for all Sahrawis and their family members stranded in Tindouf.

MARTHA CHAVEZ COSSIO said that Algeria’s interventionism and Polisario had meddled with Morocco’s legitimate claims.  The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic had never been admitted to the United Nations or recognized as a partner by other regions.  The precarious living conditions in the Tindouf camps contrasted with the full freedoms enjoyed by Moroccan inhabitants of the Sahara, she said, noting that they could participate in free and fair elections.

ANNA MARIA STAME CERVONE, President, Centrist Democratic International Women, said that testimonies gathered from those who had escaped the camps demonstrated that “survival is almost a miracle” in a desertified and inhospitable environment where even animals could not live.  It was “nothing short of an open-air prison”, she said, adding that the people there had been suffering in silence for more than four decades.

MAHJOUBA DAODUI, acteur associative, Association Sahara Media Center, expressed concern about the situation on the ground, recalling a recent attack in which 11 people had been killed.  “How can non-governmental organizations not talk about the victims?”, he asked, noting that they were supposed to be objective and impartial.

STEHANE DOMINGUES RODRIGUES, attorney-at-law, Lallemend-Legros Law Firm, discussed a proposal to deliver humanitarian assistance directly to those in need with a view to avoiding the possibility of fraud, saying Algerian authorities had taxed donations to Sahara refugees.  “It is an issue of millions of euros,” he added.

SABAH LAAROUSSI, actrice associative, said Morocco had reaffirmed, at the highest level, the rights of the Sahrawi people to free elections, and those elected would be focused on the affairs of the population.  A regional policy should be implemented according to the development model promoted by Moroccan authorities, she said, adding that all those who wished to turn the page on the past were welcome.

SAEED BOUCHAKOUK, Association Citoyenneté et Développement Humain, said no one was willing to vote against the leaders of the separatist movement because they feared violence.  Those leaders and their State, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, ruled with an iron fist over 60,000 people, he said, asking why elections were not held by universal suffrage.

ABDOUL LATIF AIDARA, Professor, Centre d’Études Diplomatiques et Stratégiques, said the world was far different now than it had been 56 years ago.  While the concept of security had changed over the years, one thing remained valid:  if a State could not protect its people, it was not a real State.  The Moroccan initiative had given Western Sahara an opportunity to decide on its future, he said, emphasizing the need to support those living in the Tindouf camps.

ERIC JENSEN, former Head of Mission and Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara, expressed concern about the security situation in the Territory, emphasizing the key importance of concerted regional action in moving forward.  While the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) had monitored the ceasefire, that alone would not be enough to bring about a lasting solution.  If the original plan could not be implemented voluntarily, the Security Council must take urgent action, he said, noting that reactivating Morocco’s role would be a starting point.

SOLOMON SIDNEY ASSOR, Surry Three Faiths Forum, said nothing he had said to the Special Committee on Decolonization over the years had been able to move it to address the tragic state of affairs caused by four decades of “incarceration” in the Tindouf camps.  Pointing out that the latest proposal by King Mohammed VI of Morocco had been hailed as the most advanced, he urged Member States to give the “prisoners” hope for a better future “by closing these dreadful camps”.

CHARLES WILSON, Coordinating Director, International Sahrawi Friendship Association, expressed regret that human rights abuses and the theft of natural resources persisted, saying a referendum was needed in order to resolve those problems.

JANE BAHAIJOUB said the international community should apply pressure on Polisario to open every area of the camps and conduct a long-overdue census.  While Morocco was constantly under scrutiny and working hard towards an equal and democratic country for all, Polisario continued to operate a closed-door policy, she said, adding that conditions prevailing in the camps, including abuses, remained the responsibility of the host country and the international community.

TANYA WARBURG, Freedom for All, said the lives of the tens of thousands of refugees living in the Tindouf camps had not improved and conditions were deteriorating.  Basic human rights, including freedom of movement and the right to leave the camps, were still ignored.  Demanding that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) be granted immediate access in order to identify, register and assess the refugees’ needs, she said Morocco’s “serious and credible” autonomy plan for the Sahara would unlock the region’s entrepreneurial talents, reduce dependency and lead to greater stability and prosperity.

SAID AYACHI, President, Comité National Algérien de Solidarité avec le Peuple Sahraoui, said Morocco had illegally occupied and shamelessly pillaged Western Sahara for 41 years, and was engaging in manoeuvres to avoid serious official negotiations.  It was also defying the international community and undermining the plan to hold the self-determination referendum under the supervision of the United Nations.  Questioning Morocco’s authority to oppose and refuse to accept the presence of a Special Representative, he emphasized that a self-determination referendum must be organized for the Sahrawi people, who were recognized by the entire international community.

MOHAMMAD ZIYAD AL-JABARI, President, Palestinian Moroccan Friendship Society, said a conference held in Laayoune had considered the situation in the southern region, which had been developed thanks to the establishment by King Mohamed VI of a polytechnic university and his investment of $77 million.  Morocco’s proposal for self-determination was the best option; it was supported internationally and described as a credible measure.  Any kind of settlement reached should not ignore the fact that Algeria was the major cause of the conflict, he stressed.

The representative of Algeria said any official delegation present would never agree to mention a single country, or to the singling out of a country involved in a conflict unless it was a direct party to such a situation.  He expressed hope that Algeria would not be singled out again.

The representative of Morocco described the statement that Algeria was not a party to the conflict as erroneous, saying that country had triggered military hostilities.

The representative of Algeria replied that he had made a point of order on a procedural issue, and was not present to listen to personal attacks, adding that he did not want fingers pointed.

The representative of Morocco said that, during the previous session, accusations had been levelled against States, and they had listened because of the principle of freedom of speech.  Petitioners had travelled to testify about situations with which they were familiar, he noted, calling for delegates to listen carefully without interruption, following the previous model.  He added that even the Secretary-General had said Algeria was a party to the conflict.

The representative of Algeria said he was compelled to take the floor on a point of order relating to procedure because no petitioner was allowed to refer to his country outside the status recognized at the United Nations — an observer country to the process.  That had been upheld by United Nations regulations and should be respected.

The representative of Morocco said that the President of Algeria, in addressing the General Assembly in 1974, had been a concerned party in the issue.

The meeting was then suspended briefly to discuss the procedural matter.

CLARA RIVEROS, political scientist, said Morocco had adopted a social approach to integrating the Saharan people.  It had emphasized the plurality of voices and free elections, but as in any society, inherent clashes would also exist.  The Moroccan Government had established a regional economic system that addressed the needs and well-being of people living in Western Sahara, she said.

RICHARD JOSÉ VARGAS OSORIO, Observatorio de la Democracia, said Polisario could not represent the people of Sahara, because its representative nature as a movement had been expunged.

MOUFIDA BOUSSOULA acknowledged that the camps received a large amount of humanitarian assistance, yet little had reached the residents.  While expressing appreciation for the support given by donors, she asked about possible ways to ensure that it was sent directly to those in need.  However, the major priority for refugees was not food and water, but the lifting of the embargo imposed on them, she emphasized.

JOSÉ RAÚL VÁZQUEZ DE LARA CISNEROS, Head of the International Relations Department, Autonomous University of Puebla, said the Moroccan initiative had enabled recognition of Sahrawi cultural rights.  It was essential to increase related activities.

ADALBERTO CARLOS AGOZINO, Instituto Argentino de Estudios Estratégicos, said Morocco had the right and obligation to defend the sovereignty of Western Sahara.  Expressing concern about Polisario’s activities, he said the group undermined the region’s peace.  “The Front has never been democratically elected,” he noted, adding that residents of the Tindouf camps were suffering.

GRACIELA LUCIA CONSENTINO, Universidad Argentina John F. Kennedy, said Polisario were holding people in camps against their will.  They lived in tents without food or water, with little access to education and in the “shadow of violence”.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had pointed out that some children in the camps suffered from poor brain development, and in cases where children were resettled by Polisario, they suffered the political pressure that the movement exerted on them.  Those children faced an awful fate, at risk of becoming combatants, she said warning that when they became adults, they would not know who they were.

MANUEL VIDAL GARRIDO, journalist and researcher, said that, since the beginning of the conflict, Polisario had provided a distorted view of what was happening within the movement.  An example of their strategy was their enthusiasm for turning anyone into a martyr, he said.

DONNA SAMS recalled that the Secretary-General had called for fair reporting and cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concerning human rights issues in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf camps.  To be fair and unbiased, reporting would require on-the-ground investigations into issues in both locations.  The 2014 Human Rights Watch report on the camps had been based on observations over a period of two weeks, yet that did not constitute a fair appraisal of the issues, and the monitoring would have been better if an investigative team had spent more time on site, she said.

SURAIYA IT said that peacebuilding required sustained commitment on the part of the warring parties, assistance from the international community and third-party involvement.  Aceh had been fortunate to have the former President of Finland helping to design a strategy based on data, political analysis and cultural understanding to solve disagreements.  In addressing conflicts such as the one over Western Sahara, the United Nations should study the experiences of Aceh in order to embolden the Moroccan proposal for self-determination, she said.

GALE SHERRILL said the collapse of the Qadhafi regime in Libya had created a shift in power, which in turn had led to alliances between nomads and terrorists and emboldened illegal trade in the region.  The Tindouf camps were near major smuggling routes and young inhabitants were being actively recruited to join criminal networks.  She also noted the absence of calls for transparency on the part of Polisario, which was responsible for reporting its own human rights abuses in the camps.

GARY ANDRES AYALA OCHOA, Conjeso Peruano de solidaridad con el Pueblo Saharaui, said his country would host the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Lima, with the motivation of promoting peace and democracy.  While the Millennium Development Goals had been inspirational, it was unfortunate that they had not been applied to the Sahrawi people.  In addition, the Moroccan Government had violated the relevant Security Council resolutions.  In that regard, he called upon the United Nations and Member States to develop a policy that would provide compensation for the Sahrawi people.

JUAN CARLOS MORAGA DUQUE, Executive Director, Rehabilitación y Esperanza, called attention to the suffering in the Tindouf camps, emphasizing the pressing need to change the status quo.  Expressing support for the Moroccan autonomy initiative, he said it was the most realistic way to bring about a lasting solution.

ANDREA PANNOCCHIA, independent journalist, said the lack of consensus regarding the Tindouf refugee camps was one of the main threats to the peace process in Western Sahara and to the stability of Morocco and the Maghreb-Sahel region.  She called upon both Algeria and Polisario to allow a census of the Tindouf camp population.

VANESSA PELLEGRIN, trustee member of Mimouna, said women in the camps were treated like slaves, raped and left at the mercy of the separatist movement, which used them in its “procreation machinery”.  The perpetrators must be prosecuted, she stressed.

BRIAN JAMISON, international sales representative for Gibraltar, said nothing could be compared to the harshness of the Sahrawi living conditions.  Rather than pointing fingers, it was time to find a solution to the conflict.  Sahrawis were patient people, he said, wondering: “Who would live under such conditions?”  Noting that Imams, Polisario leaders and Government officials had joined in dialogue for the past 10 years to discuss their differences, he said most Sahrawis were suffering in “abject poverty, waiting to return to the land they were forced from over 40 years ago”.

TAMMY LEA FABIAN, President, Date Palm Consulting, said she had visited the refugee camps in Algeria, where people had been living in shelters for more than 40 years.  She said that she had been amazed that, during her visit, the Sahrawi people had shown great hospitality despite the little they had been given.  “The Sahrawi foster world peace, and we all can learn from them,” she added, urging the international community to find a way to help them return to their homeland, Western Sahara, since there was no greater joy than to be at home.

AVA-MARIE MARINO said her main concern was the health and well-being of the Sahrawi refugees living under harsh conditions in the camps.  If agreement could be reached on that issue — and if the Committee could move past Charter and resolution violations from long ago — there would be a better foundation for a return to negotiations.

BRAHIM EL AHMADI, drawing attention to the upcoming elections, said they would provide the first opportunity for the Sahrawi to cast their ballots.  The voters would show their commitment to the Constitution through their massive participation, he added.

JANET LENZ, Not Forgotten International, Inc., said her organization’s greatest concern was the cruel impact of Morocco’s occupation of Sahrawi youth.  With hope plummeting, their anger was growing and their bitterness deepening, all while radical groups attempted to woo them into violence, she warned.  Citing several examples of young people who had committed themselves to fighting peacefully for justice, she called upon the Special Committee on Decolonization to listen to their voices and “give them this referendum”.

CYNTHIA BASINET, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and social change activist, warned that 16 years into a new century, the international community could “ill afford the cost of the voiceless”.  The world could not flourish if societies were alienated, she said, adding that “our enemies are those whom we alienate and not embrace, for they, too, are part of the solution”.  She said the struggle of the Sahrawi had strengthened her own fight, she said, emphasizing that the time had come for a referendum in Western Sahara, as agreed in 1991.

FOUAD BOUDJEDRA said the Committee had before it the case of an entire people forced to become refugees and living under colonization over the last 40 years.  Every day they were denied their basic rights, including the right to express themselves.  Injustice, oppression and poverty would only lead to growing restlessness, anger and frustration, he said, warning that could open the door to radicalization.  Security and stability could only be achieved when justice and equality had been achieved, he said, adding that “when you take our dreams as youth, make us live in despair, you cannot expect us to step down”.

TAHA MERGHOUB reminded the Committee of the undeniable right of nations to self-determination.  Western Sahara had been denied the ability to proceed to self-determination for many decades, and the people had been subjected to poor police conduct and torture.  The welfare of refugees living in camps must be of utmost concern to the Committee, he said, warning that the poor condition of the Sahrawi population would eventually lead to radicalization of the young generation.

CHRIS SASSI voiced his full support for the right to self-determination and for the Sahrawi people.  It was unfortunate that the world observed the colonization of such people in silence while Morocco systematically destroyed their society.  Describing the Sahrawi as the last colonial victims, he said that by occupying the Western Sahara, Morocco had violated the rules of international law.

MIGUEL ANGEL ORTIZ ASIN, Forum Canario Saharaui, said it had been more than four decades since the residents of the Tindouf camps had been living there.  They had no running water or sanitary services, and they were also suffering from malnutrition.  In addition, young people had been born and grown up in exile, amid rising levels of fanaticism and violence because of Polisario.  Among other things, he expressed regret that women in the camps were subjected to abductions.

BRAHIM BOUNAB SAIDA said that, for 40 years, the Moroccan occupying Power had misled the international community and violated the ceasefire, as well as its own international commitments with regard to the referendum.  While Algeria had always sought to establish friendly relations, 40 years had passed and the time had come for the international community to bear its responsibility and put an end to all illegal practices by the occupier.  A neutral international mechanism should be established to monitor efforts to resolve the conflict, she said.

SAADI LYES, Congressman, said the occupier had committed flagrant violations of human rights, which had been condemned by the international community as crimes against humanity.  The people of Western Sahara had also suffered due to the harsh environment of the region.  There must be a mechanism in place to monitor conditions, he said, calling for a self-determination referendum that would provide protection for the Sahrawi people, he said.

For information media. Not an official record.