Western Sahara: Self-determination (20 Apr 2016)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Western Sahara and self-determination.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. The principle of self-determination is close to my heart, but this debate is about an international situation that has been the subject of interest for all parties of the House. That is reflected by the creation of an all-party group of which I am a member. The debate could equally have been titled “Western Sahara: Self-determination and human rights abuse”, as the two issues are intertwined. The debate is timely given that even today, al-Jazeera quoted from a report by Ban Ki-moon warning of potential

“significant implications for the stability of the region as well as the credibility of the Security Council and United Nations peacekeeping worldwide.”

I will return to those themes as my speech develops.

The region of Western Sahara was ruled by Spain for approximately 100 years. Following its own independence in 1957, Morocco disputed the legitimacy of that colonial rule. Towards the end of Franco’s reign it took advantage of the accepted need for decolonisation by European states in Africa. Consequently, an occupation by some 350,000 Moroccans in 1975 led to Spain transferring administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania dropped its claim of sovereignty in 1979, but to this day Morocco continues to forcibly exert its perceived sovereignty across the nation of Western Sahara.

Morocco has ignored the fact that an indigenous Sahrawi independence movement was formed in 1973. That organisation, the Polisario Front, then fought a guerrilla war from 1975 to 1991, when there was a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. A Polisario Government-in-exile in Algeria was set up in 1976. It is important to note that part of the ceasefire deal included the holding of a referendum on self-determination within six months. Here we are a quarter of a century later, and there has still been no referendum, even though a UN voter list was created in 1999. That obviously led nowhere. The situation has led to Western Sahara being dubbed Africa’s last colony, given that it is the only territory recognised by the UN as never having been decolonised. It is an unenviable title with serious ramifications.

There are still 165,000 refugees from the period of conflict living in the Algerian desert and dependent on international aid. Given that those refugees never make the headlines, it should be no surprise that the aid can be classed as inadequate. There is conflict around the world just now, and we know the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, so it is easy to become immune to a figure of 165,000, but that is still a huge number of people who are suffering. Given that Western Sahara has a reported population of about 550,000, including Moroccan settlers, we can see the scale of the indigenous population who are classed as refugees.

As often happens before debates, I received briefing notes relevant to the subject of this debate. I have also received official communication from the ambassador at the Moroccan embassy in London. I was pleased to receive it, as counter-arguments are always welcome. I have a mantra when dealing with cases and issues that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle of the two parties’ viewpoints. However, I do not think that is the case with the self-determination of Western Sahara.

Morocco claims to have been colonised in different eras by Spain and France. I therefore find it incomprehensible that Morocco cannot learn from its history that the people’s will should not be subverted. It seems that Morocco cannot see the irony of imposing a ruling force to maintain order, as it sees it, and using settlers to complete a colonisation process. Using an army to maintain control and objecting to Ban Ki-moon using the term “occupation” smacks of an inability to look inward.

Morocco also ignores the fact that, before it took control in November 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that there were no ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara and, further, that the Sahrawi people have a legal right to a process of self-determination. The fact that a referendum has still not been held since the ceasefire deal in 1991 suggests both an unwillingness to move forward and Moroccan concern about the likely outcome of such a poll.

Morocco seems to believe that the African Union’s recognition of Western Sahara belies another agenda, which does not seem credible to me. Since 1991 there has been a UN peacekeeping force in place under the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO. Unlike any other modern UN peacekeeping force, it does not have a human rights mandate. That is completely unacceptable. Given that there is another vote on 28 April on renewing the peacekeeping force, will the Minister advise us of what representations the Government are making at the UN to incorporate a human rights mandate for the force?

Furthermore, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—a status deemed so critical to the UK’s role in the world that it featured in the Scottish referendum campaign—what is the UK doing to bring about a fair referendum some 25 years down the road? What discussions have the Government had with Morocco on this issue, and what is the UK view on the sovereignty of Western Sahara?

From a security perspective, the situation is becoming critical. On 26 March, Oxfam stated that there is now a “threat to regional stability”. Does the Minister share concerns about possible threats in the Maghreb region from extremist, terrorist and criminal factions? The Western Sahara Action Forum reports the presence of Daesh sleeper cells and attacks. Does that accord with UK intelligence on the region?

We all know the spiral of descent caused by the unrest manipulated by terrorists, which leads to further human rights abuses and so, of course, to further unrest. It is imperative that the UN gets to grips with that. As recently as March, 84 civilian and three military MINURSO personnel were expelled. Their presence in Western Sahara is critical, and given the suggested mandate for human rights, it seems to me that Morocco is giving the proverbial two fingers to the UN and directly challenging the Security Council’s authority. What is the UK view on that?

I keep referring to human rights. On top of the denial of the fundamental right of self-determination, the situation in Western Sahara goes much deeper. In 2012, the UN special rapporteur found that

“torture and ill-treatment were used to extract confessions and that protesters were subjected to excessive use of force”.

We know that the monthly peaceful protests are regularly broken up, and on one occasion in 2014 that was witnessed by a parliamentary delegation from the UK. One year on, in 2015, Human Rights Watch noted Morocco’s

“growing intolerance for independent human rights organizations and other critical voices”.

In June 2015, two Amnesty International workers were banned, which tells a story.

The US State Department states that there have been an estimated 50 to 70 deaths in detention, and no Moroccan investigations into alleged abuses. I suggest to Morocco that if it is serious about a solution, it needs to recognise allegations of abuse, violence and torture and start some investigations. Other testimonies confirm sexual violence and rape, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are non-existent. Morocco’s autonomy proposal for Western Sahara proposes self-determination “whilst remaining respectful” of Morocco’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”. I think that we can see that for what it is.

A cynical assessment of the Moroccan offer is justified when we consider the offer within the context of Morocco’s celebrations to mark 40 years of its presence in Western Sahara and King Mohammed VI’s comment:

“Those who are waiting for any other concessions on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves. Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give.”

I would like the Minister to confirm the UK view of the Moroccan proposals that have been put forward.

Western Sahara could be a successful independent nation. It has natural resources, including vegetables, fish and minerals. However, Morocco again subverts the will of the indigenous people by using the classic colonial trick of negotiating trade deals itself and ensuring that jobs, particularly in the mines, go to settlers. Again, I remind Morocco to learn from history, because further resentment is the only outcome of such a policy.

It could be that Morocco feels vindicated in adopting such an approach given the attitude of the international community. The EU has negotiated a fishing deal for Spanish fishermen and the UK has made its own trade deals, although the Western Sahara Action Forum reports that those deals are subject to a case at the European Court of Justice. I would like the Minister to give more information on that issue, because, as I say, the international community’s actions give validity to Morocco’s attitude towards Western Sahara.

The way that Morocco is acting is contrary to international law, given that the UN General Assembly recognises the Polisario as “the representative of the people of Western Sahara”. Does the Minister agree with that view and, if so, what are the UK Government doing to engage with the Polisario? Does he agree that no international agreements should be made with Morocco about minerals and oil or gas extraction until these issues are resolved? Does he agree that it is time the Sahrawi were given their referendum, and will he pledge that the UK will do more diplomatically within the UN to allow the self-determination of Western Sahara?

It really is time that we remove the stain of the last colony in Africa, and there should be a recognised, independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.