Article of Mark Thomas in News Statesmen Magazine of 29.06.01

transmitted by Western Sahara Campaign UK

With all these international conventions and laws there must be some way to take the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces to court for breach of the Trade Description Act. We should at least see if Watchdog could get them to change the name a bit. It has been a long held vision of mine to see the next Jeremy Bowen intoning gravely into a camera " Today saw the arrival of the UN's Peacekeeping Oxymoron Forces, comprised of the British 4th Battalion of Royal Futile Gestures."  Generally the UN arrives with gravitas and urgency into a conflict zone and then promptly turns into a bunch of tutting aunties. Standing around arms folded muttering "Oooh look at that man with the machette, that's terrible, someone should do something about that." They would then retire to demolish a plate of custard creams in a secure compound.

It would be wrong to describe the UN as merely useless, when it comes to protecting the West's interests ( in particular America's) the UN are past masters at being ineffectual to great effect. Nowhere is this quite so evident at the moment as Western Sahara. Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1975, brutally napalming fleeing civilians as they fled across the border into the Algerian desert. The Saharawis fought to liberate their country until 1991; then the UN stepped in, brokered a cease-fire and set about overseeing a referendum on the sovereignty of the country. The referendum was initially scheduled for 1992. Ten years, and half a billion UN dollars have passed and there is still no sign of a ballot to decide the future.

The delay has been caused by the UN's inability to confront Morocco's insistence that the 200,000 Moroccan settlers who have moved into Western Sahara are allowed to vote on the future of the territory. Given that the UN have declared 86,000 Saharawis to be on the electoral register you would be forgiven for thinking that this is an attempt to rig the poll. If Morocco's idea of a free and fair referendum means that citizens from one country get to decide the future of another country then I think we should all be eligible for a vote in Morocco. In fact we might even be able to parachute Shaun Woodward into a safe seat there- it would be worth it just to hear him declare " I have always loved Rabat and regarded it as my home," whilst his butler stands outside a mosque holding his shoes.

The UN mandate has always recognised the Saharawis right for self-determination, until now. James Baker, Bush Senior's ex Secretary of State, is Kofi Anan's Special Envoy to Western Sahara and has just finished his report to the UN Security Council. His proposals, if adopted, amount to such a massive about- turn as to make Woodward's path seem like a Roman road by comparison. The report states that "to be qualified to vote in such a referendum a voter must have been a full-time resident of Western Sahara for the preceding one year." Thus allowing the hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers to take part in the biggest voting fiasco since Florida.

Even more incredible is Baker's proposal that the vote should no longer be about the country's sovereignty, but that the Saharawis should accept the status of an "autonomous region" under Morocco. In effect the UN has moved from working towards the return of the Saharawis country, to offering them a place on the local council which will be subject to Moroccan law, currency, foreign affairs and military control. If the UN approves Baker's proposals future tourists to the area might well be greeted with huge road signs declaring "You are now entering Western Sahara twinned with Gaza and the West Bank."

Polissario, the Saharawis liberation movement, have fought and died for 15 of the 25 years they have spent in refugee camps; they have spent 10 years waiting for the UN. For what? The local council privilege of being able to organise residents parking and sorting out municipal sewage problems? It is hardly the stuff of liberation movements. I don't recall Lenin shouting for "Land peace and more street cleaners."  Or the ANC chanting for "One man one council tax!" It seems doubtful that Polissario will accept the deal and a return to a protracted bloody guerrilla war is on the cards.

Whilst Europe and America have uttered the usual soothing platitudes about defending people's rights for self determination they have exploited Western Sahara's natural resources. The European Union has negotiated with and paid Morocco for the fishing rights off the Western Sahara coast. The mining industries have worked with Morocco to extract Western Sahara's phosphate resources. The West's arms dealers have been more than happy to grab some of Morocco's military budget for the region, which amounts to at least a million dollars a day. So although the UN has been ineffectual and craven to an aggressor nation it hasn't been an unprofitable time.

New Labour is ever eager to increase UK trade with Morocco, last year worth $1.2 billion. They recently granted Royal Ordinance a licence to refurbish 30 105 mm howitzer guns for Morocco, situated on the front line in Western Sahara. Thus breaking the EU Code of Conduct for arms sales. War on Want's sister group W.O.W. Campaigns are challenging New Labour in the courts, but as usual are skint, any donations for the legal challenge can be made out to 'W.O.W. Campaigns Ltd' and sent to W.O.W. Campaigns Ltd, 37-39 Great Guildford Street, London SE1 0ES.

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