Global Policy Forum

French Hand Seen in Western Sahara Impasse


By Haider Rizvi

Inter Press Service
October 22, 2008

The United States justifies Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia. The Russians fiercely oppose it. Washington considers Abkhazia as an integral part of Georgian territory. Moscow recognises it as a sovereign nation. Both major powers have no dispute, however, on the question of Western Sahara's independence from Moroccan control. So the question in the mind of many diplomats here is why Western Sahara is unable to exercise its right to self-determination. "The main reason behind the U.N. failure to address this issue is the French support for Morocco," said Ahmed Boukhari, Western Sahara's ambassador to the U.N., in an interview with IPS. "France is behind Morocco. It finances Morocco." Western Sahara is the last decolonisation case in Africa, and has been on the U.N. list of Non-Self Governing territories since 1963 when it was under Spanish colonial rule. Saharans lost much of their territory as a result of the Moroccan invasion in 1976.

Saharans argue that the Moroccan occupation is in violation of numerous U.N. resolutions as well as the 1975 ruling of the International Court of Justice that affirmed their right to self-determination. Following the court's decision, Spain was due to organize a referendum, but failed to do so as Morocco deployed its army in Western Sahara. In response, the Saharans established a resistance group known as Polisario in 1976. In 1991, the U.N. Security Council devised a plan to end fighting between the two sides and a free and fair referendum on self-determination in which Saharans would choose between independence and integration. The plan never worked. After holding a series of discussions, the U.N. General Assembly's political committee, which considers matters related to decolonisation, passed another resolution in which it reaffirmed the right of "all peoples" to self-determination in line with the U.N. Charter.

Those who support the Saharans' quest for freedom are critical of the text of the resolution because it overemphasises the role of the Security Council. The Council is currently pushing the two sides for talks for an "acceptable solution". The increased Security Council role in bringing the conflict to an end seems more desirable for Morocco because then its backer, France, can exert its influence in decision-making process as one of the five permanent members who enjoy veto power. During discussions at the General Assembly's political committee meeting, Morocco and its supporters argued that the question of Western Sahara needs to be addressed with "realism", which means Rabat might be willing to offer an autonomous status to Western Sahara, not the choice for independence. "Which kind of realism they are talking about? Kosovo or Abkhazia? We are not going to renounce our right to self-determination. We want a free and fair credendum. If people do not want independence, we will accept that," said Bukhari, who sees French backing as a major factor behind Morocco's attempts to bury the issue of Western Sahara's independence.

Last week, Morocco's delegate said the draft resolution was in line with "legitimate expectations", and that it would align the General Assembly with the Security Council regarding the issue of Western Sahara. He described Morocco's approach to the conflict as a "sincere and serious means by which to solve this regional dispute". But those who have closely watched the U.N. discussions on decolonisation argue that if the Security Council is seized of the question of Western Sahara, then there is no need for the other U.N. bodies to consider this issue and that it would only create more complications. "Morocco offers its so-called autonomy as the only option in Western Saharan decolonization process and dares to place it as a precondition," said Boukhari. "We are not a Moroccan province. [Our] people are entitled to freely choose between independence and any other option including integration into Morocco. This is the U.N. doctrine. The opposite will be the doctrine of double standards."

During discussions in the committee meeting on Western Sahara, like many other delegates, Algeria's representative held that the question of Western Sahara was a question of decolonisation, and the Saharans have the right of self-determination. There are more than 100,000 Saharans who are currently living in refugee camps in Algeria. U.N. officials responsible for monitoring human rights violations acknowledge in their reports that the question of human rights abuses is derived from the fact that the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara has not been accepted. Polisario leaders claim that the whereabouts of over 600 civilians and about 150 militants are still unknown 1975 due to alleged atrocities committed by the Moroccan military.

In response to a question, Bukhari described the U.S. role in the past as "positive", but noted that after the Iraq war, "they came to the old Cold War thinking and established a special relationship with Morocco." The Saharan envoy said the Moroccans are unwilling to leave their territory because it is extremely rich with natural resources, such as phosphate, uranium, gold, and diamond. "We have the best phosphate in the world," he said. "If we were free, we would be 40 times richer than Kuwait." "Morocco is illegally exploiting our resources, and it is doing so with the French support," Boukhari told IPS. "Why is France backing Morocco? It's not a party to the conflict."

More Information on the UN Security Council
More Information on Western Sahara


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