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

4 and 5 December 2008
Pretoria, South Africa

SPEECH by Juan Soroeta Liceras

Public International Law Professor
Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

Before start I would like to thank to the South African Government the chance to take part in this important Conference about Western Sahara. South Africa is at the moment the most important support for the future state of Sahrawi people.


Due to the limited time given, my intervention will try to shed a light on History to recall the main milestones of the conflict. This recalling will begin from three indisputable premises from the point of view of International Law:

First, that Morocco is not the Administering power of the territory (as stated by the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nation, in the person of Hans Corell, here with us), and due to this fact exploits illegally the territory?s  natural resources.

Second, that Morocco is the Occupant Power (as stated already in 1975 by the Security Council when the territory invasion took place), in the same way Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, and that violates permanently Humanitarian Law.

And finally, that the Sahrawi people hold the right of self- determination (as stated by United Nations main organs: Security Council, General Assembly, International Court of Justice) and that only by its exercise will the conflict come to an end.


Thirty three years have past since Spain gave the territory to Morocco and Mauritania, who claimed sovereignty over the Territory without right to it (as stated by the International Court of Justice in 1975).

The enormous economic cost of the war confrontation took Morocco to negotiate the ?Settlement Plan? with the POLISARIO Front. This plan envisaged, as occurred in most of the African colonized territories, the celebration of a self-determination referendum, in which the Sahrawis included in the census elaborated by Spain in 1974, would choose between the only two options: the territory?s independence or its integration in Morocco.

The King of Morocco knew perfectly the outcome of a referendum in which only Sahrawis would participate: the independence of the territory. So, using his capacity of diplomatic pressure, succeeded in ?retouching? the Settlement Plan to the point of making it unrecognizable and blocking the process.

James Baker succeeded in unblocking it. For this the POLISARIO Front had to accept that, after five years of autonomy, a self-determination referendum would have to be held. In this referendum the Moroccan colonists, that already tripled the number of Sahrawis would be able to participate. But Morocco, that did not trust the sense of their own citizens? vote (Van Walsum himself stated it recently before the French Parliament), decided to retire from the peace process and refuse definitely the possibility of holding a referendum.

Eighteen years of peace process show eloquently at least two things. On the one hand, there is no trace of the initial consensual agreement between the parties (why search another consensus when there is one freely negotiated by the parties and approved by the Security Council?); Morocco has used the Peace Plan to maintain sine die the occupation.

On the other, that neither, the voluntary abandon of weapons, trusting the UN, nor the tireless negotiating patience of the POLISARIO Front, have been of any use, and that like Van Walsum himself admited ?Morocco has to assume the complete responsibility that the referendum is not realistic and is unfeasible.?


If we assume these premises, what is there to negotiate?, what other concessions can the POLISARIO Front make? Van Walsun asks them to propose an autonomy regime within the integrity of Moroccan territory, which would be ?internationally supervised?. It is clear that this proposal doesn?t respect the International Law and that it takes side with whom violates it. If the Sahrawi people accept this answer to the conflict it would stop being an international conflict and therefore would drop out of the Decolonization Committee agenda, passing to be an internal Moroccan problem.

But there is also another matter that makes the autonomy proposal unfeasible. Those who have known a little about the deep national feeling of the Sahrawi society (and Morocco is completely aware of it) knows that, if as a consequence of a theoretical agreement, the Sahrawi refugees returned to their land as a province of Morocco, resistance would then be unstoppable. The African decolonization history proves this with as much clarity as harshness, as you, South African peoples well know.


Nobody can ignore that International Law is openly on the Sahrawis side, people that renounced it?s legitimate right of armed struggle trusting the promises of the United Nations. Time has proved Security Council?s inability to impose a permanent solution, but also that the Sahrawi perseverance is indestructible. The non-application of the Settlement Plan and the Baker Plan (both approved by the Security Council) together with the United Nation doctrine regarding decolonization constitute a violation of International Law.

But the actual situation cannot hold on indefinitely. On the one hand, it remains the main obstacle for the normalization of Moroccan international relations. On the other hand, the exile in the refugee camps and the violation of Sahrawis? human rights in the occupied territories of Western Sahara cannot remain any longer. If something has be proven in the more than thirty years of this conflict is that it will not conclude until the Sahrawi people can decide their future in freedom by a self-determination referendum; if others decide for them, imposing for example an autonomy regime, the conflict will remain open. In this case, the Sahrawi people cannot be blamed of not having explored all the imaginable pacific means to put an end to their suffering.

Juan Soroeta Liceras
Public International Law Professor
Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

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