Representatives of Western Sahara's Polisario Front (the Saharawi liberation movement) and the Moroccan government met in Manhasset, New York, on August 10 and 11 with a view to "achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara" — the words of UN Security Council's Resolution 1754, adopted on April 30.
Western Sahara has been recognised as a non-self-governing territory by the UN since 1965. In that year it was decided that Spain, the de jure administrating power of the territory, should cooperate with the international community in a decolonisation process recommended by the Security Council and the UN General Assembly.
A referendum on self-determination was supposed to take place under the auspices of the UN since 1975. However in that year Spain, Morocco and Mauritania signed an illegal tripartite agreement — the Madrid Accords — under which the Spanish administration unilaterally pulled out from the territory, leaving it to the two neighbouring countries, but maintaining a privileged position in the exploitation of Western Sahara's natural resources. This illegal act was blessed by both France and the US, but condemned by the UN in more than 70 resolutions.
The August 10-11 negotiations on the fate of Africa's last colony were tense. The members of the Saharawi delegation stated that their Moroccan counterparts were set on their illegitimate proposal of Western Saharan autonomy, the Moroccan king having declared on July 30: "Morocco is and will remain ready to negotiate on autonomy, and nothing but autonomy; second, the consensual autonomy solution can be conceived only within the framework of the kingdom's full, non-negotiable sovereignty and national unity, and its indivisible territorial integrity."
The Moroccan delegation refused to discuss anything outside their proposition, yet Peter Van Walsum, the UN secretary general's personal envoy for Western Sahara, stated in a final press release after the talks that he was "pleased that we were able to hold substantive talks in which the parties interacted with one another and expressed their views"!
The head of Polisario's negotiating team, Mahfud Ali Beiba, a founding member of the Saharawi liberation movement, said the negotiations were "useful" despite the Moroccan intransigence and gave his movement the opportunity "to present the outline and advantages for the region of its proposal regarding a just and lasting solution to the decolonisation conflict of Western Sahara" and to present "the view and policy of the Frente Polisario regarding the management of natural resources of the country and administration of local communities", after the Saharawi state recovers full sovereignty over its occupied territory.
In brief, the negotiations were another round of talks between two completely different visions and opposing agendas, between a colonial regime and a colonised people, under the auspices of an increasingly weak international organisation, the UN.
The kingdom of Morocco, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world but an important "protege" to France and to the Bush administration, has so far rejected, in complete impunity, all the UN's resolutions and peace plans for the settlement of the last case of decolonisation in Africa.
The Polisario Front, which was constituted in 1973 to struggle against the Spanish colonial presence, had to wage a 16-year guerrilla war with some 15,000 freedom fighters against more than 200,000 Moroccan troops. It has also had to struggle against 30 years of French, US and Saudi Arabian financial and political support for the Moroccan kingdom.
Inside the Moroccan-controlled zone of Western Sahara, a wide Saharawi popular uprising started in all the occupied cities and villages in 2005. The Saharawi population organise daily demonstrations and sit-ins, and confront the different Moroccan military, paramilitary and security corps. International human rights organisations report serious human rights violations committed by the Moroccan state against Saharawi civilians, but the UN mission on the ground seems to be deaf and blind. The UN Security Council has ignored this reality, despite the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issuing a report in 2006 confirming these abuses.
During the latest Manhasset negotiations, the UN mediator tried to suggest a couple of subjects for discussion, including the Moroccan exploitation of the natural resources. The Moroccan delegation refused to discuss this, of course, because in 2002 the UN issued a legal opinion that this exploitation was illegal.
Morocco has plundered Western Sahara's natural resources since 1975 with the support of some international actors, including Australian and New Zealand fertiliser companies. Western Sahara, a territory the size of Britain, is very rich in high quality phosphate, fisheries, mineral sand and iron, and, possibly, oil and gas.
Spain and the European Union are also implicated in wide-ranging exploitation of the natural resources of this colony, despite the opposition of Spanish and European civil society and public opinion.
Western Sahara is still waiting for decolonisation, which was supposed to finish in 1975, because of Moroccan intransigence and because of UN inaction due to the big powers' support for the coloniser. Morocco is strongly supported by its former coloniser, France, and by the US, which views Morocco's dictatorship as a good ally and an obedient regime.
The credibility of the UN is at stake. The International Court of Justice, the UN Charter and resolutions, and international law confirm the Saharawi people's right to self-determination. No international body or country recognises the sovereignty of Morocco over Western Sahara. Yet, France and the US are supporting Morocco's proposition of autonomy for a territory it is trying to annex with the use of force in complete contradiction to international law.
The issue of Western Sahara is more than just a struggle of the Saharawi people for their legitimate rights to freedom and independence. It is a struggle for the empowerment of the UN and international law. The right to self-determination and people's right to freedom are at stake, and the UN itself as an international arbiter is also being put to the test. Will the UN submit to the illegal colonial fait accompli imposed by the Moroccan regime and its allies, or will it stand for international law and for its own resolutions asking for the decolonisation of Africa's last colony — the choice is a crucial one for the future. A choice between a human, just and stable international order or the law of the jungle that some big powers seem to be willing to impose.
Since 1975, three quarters of the territory of Western Sahara has been occupied by Morocco. A majority of the population is still living in refugee camps in Algeria. Those who remained in their homeland are subjected to serious harassment from the Moroccan occupiers. For more than 40 years the Sahrawis have been waiting for the fullfilment of their legitimate right to self-determination.
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