THE ECONOMIST, London, UK, 27.1.96


The world should not accept the illegal occupation of Western Sahara and East Timor.
TWENTY years ago, two obscure pieces of land on opposite sides of the world were grabbed by their neighbours. In January 1976, Moroccan forces took over Western Sahara, a slice of the western Sahel that had been ruled by Spain. The previous month, East Timor, half a small island in the South Pacific, had been swallowed up by Indonesia as Portuguese rule collapsed.
The world did not like the annexations. But Morocco and Indonesia had powerful friends and neither territory provided the West with oil. So the world did not go to war. It did not even manage to organise a referendum, either in Western Sahara or in East Timor, though it did huff and puff and convene a lot of meetings. Now it looks as though its indifference may turn to acceptance. The double Anschluss is becoming permanent.
When Spain withdrew from Western Sahara, Morocco and Mauritania divided up the territory between them. As thousands of Saharawis fled, Polisario, the country's independence movement, took up arms against the invaders. Morocco built a huge and heavily defended wall of sand around the territory. Reluctantly, it conceded the principle of a referendum, to be held in 1992. A 2,000-strong UN force was even sent to supervise it, though it did not stop Morocco trying to flood the territory with its own citizens and to have them listed as voters. The referendum, however, has not happened.
Last month disagreements about who should be eligible to vote brought registration to a halt. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN secretary-general, proposed that the rules be changed: instead of two sheikhs, one appointed by each side, vetting the voters, he suggested that one should be enough. With Polisario complaining that that would allow Morocco to fix the vote, the Security Council rejected the idea. But this week Mr Boutros-Ghali suggested forcing the two sides to agree on a voter-registration procedure by threatening to withdraw the UN force. The Security Council is to decide soon on whether to do so.
The UN is even less engaged in East Timor. When the Indonesians invaded, they said they were saving it from civil war and communism. In the massacres that followed however, thousands died: the local Catholic bishops reckon that, in total, violence and famine have claimed the lives of 200,000 Timorese, a third of the population. Even the current Indonesian-approved governor puts the figure at over 100,000. In 1991 the Indonesian army shot about 100 people during a demonstration in the capital, Dilli. Indonesia maintains 6,000 troops there - a clear indication that it still holds the island by force.
This sort of imperialism goes against the grain - and the trend. The past few years have seen more self-determination, even for small peoples, not less. Nation-states the size of Eritrea and Estonia show that size is no longer considered essential to viability. The cold-war fears of communist destabilisation are long gone. They no longer supply pretexts for local bullies to oppress, nor reason for western governments to turn a blind eye. The ugly little thefts of Western Sahara and East Timor defy the most fundamental principles in the democratic rule-book.
The world cannot go to war every time a despot grabs a piece of land. But if principles are to be invoked on those occasions when the seizure is resisted - in Kuwait or in the Falklands - then they should not be forgotten on the other occasions. The democratic world should not tacitly accept the actions of Morocco and Indonesia in their stolen territories. It should press, at a minimum, for a fair referendum in each.

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