International conference on multilateralism and international law,
with Western Sahara as a case study

4 and 5 December 2008
Pretoria, South Africa

Mr Mhamed Khadad
MINURSO Coordinator, POLISARIO Front

“Western Sahara: from stalemate to statehood”

Ladies and gentlemen

I am deeply grateful to the South African Department of Foreign Affairs and the University of Pretoria for hosting this international conference.  I want to extend on this occasion my sincere thanks and gratitude to the people of South Africa and its government for their dedication to peace, stability and freedom across the African continent.  The Frente POLISARIO and the Saharawi people have always enjoyed the support and solidarity of the South African.  We are eternally grateful for this support, which has sustained us in the past and continues to do so today.  We can achieve little without the fortitude of our friends and allies.  

Ladies and Gentlemen

The Charter of the United Nations represents a social pact that underpins relations between states and the basic tenants for human interaction based on commonly accepted legal and moral principles.  This does not include the law of the jungle.  The UN’s multilateralism was aimed at creating an international democratic order in which all states start from a level playing field.  Decolonization was the promise of the United Nations Charter and was born out of the legitimate struggle of colonies to exercise their right to self-determination Any analysis of Western Sahara must start from this basic premise.

Thirty-three years have now passed since the invasion of my country by Morocco.  It is worth dwelling for a moment on that time span.  Thirty-three years of occupation and dispossession.  Thirty-three years in which the international community has had more pressing concerns. Thirty-three years of oppression and the systematic abuse of the human rights of my people inside their territory.  And thirty-three years of displacement for the refugees driven from their homeland, left to dwell in camps in the desert, longing for their return.

Those thirty-three years speak clearly to all of us here today.  For the Sahrawi, multilateralism and international law have so far produced very little.  We remain oppressed and dispossessed, and Morocco remains unchallenged in its illegal occupation of the territory of Western Sahara, the last colony in Africa.  

Since the International Court of Justice pronounced its emphatic views on the subject in 1975, there have been scores of UN resolutions – in both the Security Council and the General Assembly – reiterating the right of the Saharawi to a process of self-determination.  But to this day, our people have been signally unable to exercise that right.  As recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in its 2006 report, all human rights abuses in the territory flow directly from the denial of one fundamental right - the right to self-determination.

After sixteen years of war, the UN mission for the referendum in Western Sahara – MINURSO – was deployed in 1991, to monitor and carry out the exercise of that right.  Despite its long history in the territory, MINURSO has barely begun that task, let alone complete it.  Morocco, with the complicity of certain members of the Security Council, has succeeded in serially obstructing its work for more than 17 years.  And despite this abject failure, the Security Council continues to renew the mission’s mandate, doing nothing to challenge or circumvent Morocco’s blocking tactics.  MINURSO is a living embodiment of the UN’s failure to enact its own decisions.  

What is the right way forward?  It is tempting to lose hope in international law, lose hope in multilateralism, and lose hope that a peaceful resolution is possible.  It begs the question: should the Polisario return to battle to dislodge the occupier from our land?  There is indeed considerable frustration both inside the territory and in the refugee camps that the international community has manifestly failed its own standards, its own laws, in its feeble approach to the Western Sahara.  And despite this neglect, we have been steadfast in our resolve to honor our side of the ceasefire agreed in 1991, waiting for the international community to deliver.  We have very little to show for our patience.  And patience has its limits.

Against this backdrop, I will now lay out simply the key themes for the Polisario’s political and diplomatic strategy going forward, all with a view to ending the occupation, and at last liberating our people and our land.  In other words, this is the current blueprint for our journey from “stalemate to statehood”.

Theme 1: the United Nations

During the lifetime of the United Nations, over 80 colonies have attained their independence.  But the so-called UN process of decolonization has in our case been an empty one.  The Polisario would welcome a peaceful and mutually agreeable fulfillment of the international community’s responsibility. But following the involvement of more than ten special representatives and personal envoys, three unfulfilled peace plans, more than one billion dollars in MINURSO budgets and dozens of UN resolutions, the Saharawi people continue to wait patiently for a democratic and legitimate outcome.  The status quo cannot continue indefinitely.  

Following four rounds of the Manhasset talks, we wait again for the appointment of a new Personal Envoy, charged with resuming talks by mandate of the Security Council.  We are very concerned at reports of ongoing Moroccan efforts to delay the appointment of the Secretary-General’s chosen candidate, Ambassador Christopher Ross, and to somehow insist that Ross pick up where his predecessor, Peter Van Walsum, left off.   The new Personal Envoy must be free to discharge his work, operating according to his mandate from the Secretary-General and the Security Council, and without interference from either party.  The Secretary-General must confirm the appointment without further delay.

The Polisario was happy to work with Peter van Walsum.  But his personal, and final, statement to the UN Security Council earlier this year, was frankly unacceptable.  He overstepped his role as a mediator in the negotiations.  Van Walsum in essence argued that the only “realistic” solution to the dispute was for the Polisario to accept the Moroccan colonial fait accompli, and to exclude the option of a free and open process of self-determination with the possibility of independence.

There are several reasons why this statement was unacceptable: first, it is not for the UN to say which part of international law it chooses to ignore - if the UN sides with an illegal occupier, there is no hope for the dispossessed, the occupied, worldwide; second, Van Walsum’s statement completely disregarded the very reasonable proposal for a solution put forward by the Polisario on 10 April 2007; and third, Van Walsum’s statement was itself unrealistic.  There will be no solution which does not in some way reflect the legal requirement for decolonization, and one that allows the people of Western Sahara to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination.  Morocco’s “autonomy” plan claims to fulfill this right by offering a vote on that autonomy.  But to rightfully reflect the free expression and will of the people, the process cannot be predetermined nor circumscribed.  It must leave all options on the table, including the option for
 our people to choose the establishment of an independent state.

Of all the world’s institutions, the UN must reflect this basic legal reality.  This reality has been reflected in the language of every single Security Council resolution since the invasion, through to this day.  It is a reality well understood by previous Personal Envoy, James Baker, and one which Christopher Ross will need to accommodate and ultimately reflect in his work, once appointed.  To this end, he will enjoy our full cooperation.  

We do not want nor expect our own fait accompli, just respect for international law.  We are ready to discuss with Morocco and the international community, as reflected in our proposal of 10 April 2007, the nature and contours of a future Western Saharan state within its internationally recognized borders.  We are ready to accommodate in some way the security needs of others and to address and respect the rights of all those who now live in the Western Sahara, including Moroccans.  A Saharawi state would be cognizant of the concerns of our neighbours further to the north, including migration, people and drug smuggling, the sustainable development of natural resources and the ever-present scourge of terrorism.  We are ready to discuss how our state can properly address these issues.  We stand ready to cooperate.  What more could be expected of us? This is our firm commitment.  

Theme 2:  Natural resources

The second element or pillar of our campaign is to end the illegal exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources.  It is clear to all observers that Morocco’s theft of our natural endowments is an important driver of its ongoing illegal occupation.  And the knowing customers for these illegal exports are equally at fault.

On most estimates, Morocco’s exploitation of Western Saharan phosphates alone earns it at least $2 billion per year in illegal income, and likely much more.  And to its considerable discredit, the EU pays Morocco tens of millions of dollars a year to allow European vessels to pillage the world-class fisheries resources that rightfully belong to the people of the Western Sahara.  As confirmed in 2002 by then-UN Legal Counsel Mr Hans Corell, the exploitation of these resources, in flagrant disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, is in clear violation of international law.

These illegal activities must be curtailed and terminated, and has become a focus for our political strategy and decision-making.  The Polisario is considering - with its partners and allies - what steps it can take legally and diplomatically to combat this theft of property.  All options are on the table.  

We call upon all states to ensure that their companies do not collaborate with Morocco in this illegal behaviour.  We call upon the EU to exclude Western Saharan waters from the scope of its fisheries arrangements with Morocco, and to do the same in respect of any agreement that flows from Morocco’s pursuit of enhanced status with the EU.  It is bizarre and unconscionable that the EU, which prides itself on its commitment to human rights and international law, should collaborate in, and benefit from, the theft of Western Sahara’s resources.  The Saharawi Government will not allow this to continue.  

Theme 3: Human Rights

The third pillar of our campaign is to draw attention to Morocco’s continuing and systematic abuse of Saharawi human rights.  Today, this year and for thirty-three years of occupation, Morocco has repressed the Saharawi people.  It imprisons Saharawis illegally; it denies them proper trial.  Saharawis in the territory are regularly arrested without cause, beaten and sometimes tortured.  Some have died.  And Morocco has still failed to account for the more than 500 Saharawi prisoners who have disappeared following arrest by Moroccan authorities.

This record of abuse has been documented by several international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  Francesco Bastagli, the former head of MINURSO, testified bravely and honestly to the General Assembly Fourth Committee this year that the UN has failed to protect the Saharawi people in their homeland.

Only once in thirty-three years of occupation – in 2006 – did the UN send a mission by its human rights officials.  The as-yet unreleased report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended clearly that the UN should institute regular monitoring of human rights in the territory and the camps, a recommendation which we in the Polisario are happy to accommodate.  But this recommendation, now over two years’ old, has not been implemented by the UN.  No other UN peacekeeping mission operates without this indispensible requirement.  There is no reason why MINURSO should be the lone exception to the rule.

Concluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen

I have described for you today the tapestry of the long Saharawi struggle – the journey from stalemate to statehood.  The common thread for this journey has, and will always be, the inalienable right to self-determination.  To those who would bet on our resolve weakening, it will not.  Thirty-three years of determination and suffering are not enough?  Backed by international law, full membership of the African Union, and a growing number of friends a cross the world, we stand ready to take our rightful place among the community of nations. We are ready to assume the mantle of statehood

Our struggle is symbolic of a broader theme, which our hosts here in South Africa know as well as anyone – the struggle for liberation and the end to colonialism.  We are inspired by South Africa’s victory in this struggle, and we are heartened by its solidarity with us as we walk our own ‘road to freedom’.  South Africa’s strong support, and its special influence in the Security Council over the last two years, has meant a world of difference for the Sahrawi people. Isn’t it high time for Africa to have a permanent seat in the Security Council?  

Our struggle is not one of choice.  Self-determination is a fundamental human right, a peremptory norm of international law, and a sine qua non for resolving the dispute over Western Sahara.  Without a free and fair referendum, there can be no way forward.

Thank you.

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