held on Capitol Hill
Washington, D.C.

Friday, March 26, 2004


Verbatim transcript by: Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.

SUZANNE SCHOLTE: Good afternoon. If I could have your attention, I want to thank you all for being here today, especially on such a beautiful Friday afternoon. I'm Suzanne Scholte. I'm president of the Defense Forum Foundation and the chairman of the U.S.-Western Sahara Foundation, and I appreciate you all coming today. Before I introduce our speaker I want to acknowledge some of our congressional hosts and special guests that we have with us. 

First of all I'd like to acknowledge Senator Kennedy's office. Sharon Waxman is one of our congressional hosts. Sharon was not able to be with us this morning but she wanted to be one of the hosts for today's luncheon. I also want to recognize Karin Finkler, foreign relations advisor for Congressman Joseph Pitts. Karin is right here. Noelle LuSane, foreign affairs advisor for Congressman Donald Payne -- Noelle. And then our special guest from the Embassy of Algeria, Ambassador Idriss Jazairy and Ali Derrdouri. From the Embassy of Spain, Luis Garcia. And from the Sahrawi Republic, Mohamed Haadad, the advisor to the president, over here, and Boukhari Ahmed, who many of you know is the ambassador for the Sahrawi Republic at the U.N. -- and also, a very dear friend to all of us, Ambassador Moulud Said. (Applause.)

And we also have some other special guests with us I'd like to recognize: Nancy Huff of Teach the Children. All of you that get our mailings know her as the coordinator of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid for the Sahrawi refugees. Nancy is sitting over here. (Applause.) Also, Bill Lenz of Christ the Rock Church, whose wife, Janet, many of us know as the "mother of the Sahrawis" for all her work for the Sahrawi children. Janet is in the refugee camps now, but we're really pleased to have her husband, Bill, with us. (Applause.) We also have Keith Sparcak, who's here from Michigan, who's from Mars Hill Bible Church, which has also been very involved in many activities helping Sahwari refugees. (Applause.)

I also want to recognize the members of our board of directors that are here: Ambassador Frank Ruddy, who is the former vice deputy of MINURSO &endash; (Applause) &endash; and as you can tell from those applause, a hero to all of us who have been involved in this issue because of his standing up for the truth when Morocco was obstructing the U.N. mission. Also Jeb Carney, who, many of you know, the founder of the Sahara Marathon, has been a dear friend of the Sahrawi people. Jeb. (Applause.)

I've been asked to give a brief overview of the conflict over the Western Sahara in order that the president can concentrate his remarks on current developments. And as many of you know, the people of Western Sahara, once a colony of Spain, first began their struggle for freedom with the formation of the Polisario in 1973. In 1975, the International Court of Justice upheld their right to self-determination, ruling that neither Morocco nor Mauritania could claim the territory and that the Sahrawis had the right to vote on self-determination. This ruling led to the invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco, and then the notorious green march" of 350,000 Moroccan soldiers and settlers and the outbreak of war.

The war lasted from 1975 until 1991 when the U.N. intervened to negotiate a fragile ceasefire with the establishment of MINURSO, a peacekeeping mission that included the promise of a referendum for the Sahrawis. It seemed like a simple task to compile a list of less than 100,000 voters and have them vote, but as Ambassador Frank Ruddy has testified to Congress, the U.N. was clearly being manipulated by Morocco to obstruct the referendum. 

Despite the many setbacks, the U.N. did succeed in finalizing the list of voters in January 2000. The list totaled approximately 86,000 eligible voters living in the refugee camps and the occupied territory. In the course of the identification process, the U.N. rejected approximately 130,000 applicants who were Moroccan, who tried but could not prove they were Sahrawi. As many of you know, the Moroccan government actually help seminars teaching Moroccans how to act Sahrawi in an attempt to fool the U.N. Identification Commission.

The number of 86,000 meant that if the referendum were held, the result would undoubtedly be independence for the Sahrawi people. Rather than holding the referendum, tragically the U.N. caved in to Moroccan pressure when Morocco insisted that the rejected voters be allowed to vote in the referendum. This was their attempt to stack the vote against freedom for the Sahrawis.

In January 2003, U.N. special envoy, James Baker, then proposed a plan called Peace Plan for the Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara, which would have the Sahrawis return to their homeland with semi-autonomy, live for four years until a referendum would occur that would allow those living in the Western Sahara to vote. Despite the unfairness of this plan for the Sahrawis' right for self- determination, the Sahrawis took a huge risk for peace last summer in July 2003, agreeing to allow Moroccans living in their country before December 1999 to vote in their referendum. Despite the fact that Morocco had backed a similar plan in 2001, Morocco balked and condemned the Baker compromise.

Now currently, the U.N. Security Council has extended MINURSO through the end of April in order to allow Morocco more time to review the Baker plans. So this forum is well timed for reviewing current developments. 

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the man who is the democratically elected president of the Sahrawi people and the chairman of the Polisario; a man of great humility and great nobility, recognized by both the African nations and the international community for his leadership, he was elected vice chairman of the African Union last year and was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. We are honored to have President Mohamed Abdelaziz with us today to discuss the latest developments over the Western Sahara. 

Thank you.  (Applause.)

[Note: All remarks by President Abdelaziz are through an interpreter.]

PRESIDENT MOHAMED ABDELAZIZ: I'd like to thank my dear friend Suzanne Scholte and the Defense Forum Foundation for sponsoring this luncheon, and also for the nice words that you said about my people and the clear and concise summary that you did on the struggle of the people of Western Sahara. I also want to express our thanks to Senator Kennedy and Congressman Joe Pitts and Congressman Donald Payne for sponsoring the luncheon. And I want to thank all the friends that are present here today with us, and we hope that your presence here is an expression of support for the right of self-determination. 

It is a great pleasure for me and for the delegation that's with me to be present here today in this building, which is the symbol of freedom and democracy, the building of the United States Congress. It was said before that Western Sahara was a Spanish colony. It's exactly the same case as for East Timor, which was invaded, and it happened at the same time, and it happened maybe for the same motivation, and just that in the case of the Western Sahara, as soon as the Spaniards pulled out from the territory the Moroccan government invaded the territory.

Fortunately for East Timor, East Timor did find the right solution which is the one that the people of East Timor were able to join and exercise the rights of self-determination and independence. This happened because of the international pressure on Indonesia. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the case of Western Sahara, and the reason of course is the lack of pressure on Morocco despite of the clear issue, especially when we do have international legality.

Another similar case was the case of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, and here also the difference is that the international community assumed its duties and responsibilities and they forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, and by doing so, the Kuwaiti people were able to recover their sovereignty and independence. And they gained this thanks to the intervention of the international community.

We just came from New York where we had the meeting with Mr. Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general. Shortly we will be traveling to Houston where we will be spending some time with former Secretary of State James Baker, because, as you know, he's the personal envoy of the United Nations for the Western Sahara. So then we came here with a message of trying to advance the peace process in the Western Sahara, a process that has to culminate with the respect to the right of self-determination for the people in the Western Sahara, and that it will benefit the peace and progress in our region. So this is the message that brought us here to New York and to Washington.

So, as it was said, Mr. Baker came up with a peace plan, which is called the peace plan for the self- determination for the people of Western Sahara. That was done last July. It was accepted by the Security Council, and despite that we have so many objections to Mr. Baker's plan, we did accept the plan. It was also accepted by the neighboring countries, the observer countries, which are Algeria and Mauritania, but Morocco, once more they decided to stop the implementation of this plan; reject the plan in the same manner that they did in the past with the previous settlement plan that was approved by the United Nations. It wasn't implemented because Morocco stopped its implementation. And also, we recall that Secretary James Baker was able to bring the two parties to negotiate an agreement, the Houston Accords, but when it came to the implementation of these accords, the Moroccans changed their position and they said they won't accept them &endash; they won't start implementing them.

So this has been the classic position of Morocco when it comes to the search for peace. So we believe that the Moroccans, what they want is to prevent, by all means, the Sahrawis from exercising the rights of determination.

So, as it was said before, the settlement plan that was accepted in 1991, we were told that in about eight months we'll have the referendum. Eight months &endash; now it's almost 15 years waiting. And this in turn is just creating the disappointment and frustration with the United Nations &endash; among the Sahrawi people &endash; disappointment with the United Nations. It seems that the United Nations, it can go only as far as Morocco wants. So whenever Morocco wants to stop any process, they will just stop it. And that's why we are really disappointed, and the people of the region they are very disappointed, and it affects the credibility of the United Nations.

During this time a very important development took place in the region. In particular, you all recall the situation that Algeria lived with some years ago. That situation has dramatically changed, the time when you had the terrorism at its worst, and now that time is fortunately behind us now for Algeria. Right now the Algerians are in the midst of a democratic electoral campaign. As you know, the elections will be held on April the 8th, and there is a dynamic process going on right now in Algeria, and this is one of the most important developments we've had in the region. Also, we had the elections in Mauritania &endash; successful elections in Mauritania recently. And another important element is the new position by Libya, by changing its position regarding the arms for massive destruction, that the Libyans have decided to put an end to the career towards nuclear weapons. And that's something that we appreciate that the Libyans did. Libya belongs to our region. It's a country that's in our neighborhood, and we believe that it contributes to our safety and the progress in our region, and we appreciate what the Libyans did with their new position.

So these are positive elements that make us hopeful for the future of our region, but at the same time there are some negative elements that are of concern to us. The negative element is that on the continent of Western Sahara nothing has changed. The Moroccans persist in their occupation and denigration of the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara. By doing so they are preventing the development of the regional integration, and particularly integration of the Maghreb.

So the other element that I have to say, unfortunately, is that Morocco has given &endash; the general conception of Morocco right now is not only in exporting wars like the war on Western Sahara, but also exporting terrorism, like we saw recently, drugs. And so it's becoming a source of instability. And here, speaking about terrorism, I want to stop and express our condolences, our deep sorrow, and our fair condemnation to the recent events that happened in Madrid on March 11th, where innocent victims lost their lives, and unfortunately the perpetrators, all of them were Moroccans, unfortunately, the perpetrators of this terrorist act.

And regarding the recent initiative by the U.S., the initiative to democratize the Middle East, the Polisario believes that this goes along with our way of thinking, our approach in encouraging the democratic process, and for this initiative, the Sahrawis and the Polisario extends its full support.

So thank you very much, and I just want to reiterate our solidarity and our sympathy with the families of the victims of the recent terrorist act in Spain on March 11th, and also our sympathy and solidarity with the Spanish people and all the political forces in Spain. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


If there is any question please, I would be more than happy to answer any questions.

Q: You may have touched on this earlier and if so I apologize, I came in a little late, but if the United States could say or do anything, the Congress or the administration, to accelerate this, what would be your premier request of the U.S.?

PRESIDENT ABDELAZIZ: First of all, it's nice to see you and our good friends, nice to see you here today. Regarding the question is that this issue is a very complex issue and by taking a position on the issue it doesn't mean you have taken a position against any state in the region. You can take a position on this issue without jeopardizing the good relations that you have with Morocco, which we encourage you to have. 

What we want from the U.S. is just to defend free and fair elections, a free and fair referendum in which the people, they will choose freely their destiny whether they want to become part of Morocco or they want to have their own state. I don't think taking this position it could be said that it's siding with one of the parties. It is to be siding with international legality. What we want the U.S. to do is to side with democracy and international legality. 

Q: You have the support of your neighbors in the region, Mauritania and Algeria, you have the support of the African Union. How is the issue covered in Arab media? And even more specifically, have you had any coverage with the U.S.-based Arab media apparat like Radio Salah (ph) or Al Jazeera which we all hear very little about. They have several Moroccans who are very high up in the news agency, and I'm wondering if you get any coverage or any sympathy or support from the Arab media?

PRESIDENT ABDELAZIZ: Generally speaking there's not too much coverage of the issues of Western Sahara with international press and, I mean, I'd say that normally the press comes when there are big event like an international intervention, terrorist act, violence, hunger, some sensational news which &endash; the sort of thing that appeals to the press. 

That speaking in particular of the Arab media, normally the coverage has been other people who are misled and they take the sides on the basis of that information that they have. Some others it's because they were influenced. You have to know that we are a small people. Most of our people are refugees who are poor. We don't have the means. Morocco has not only its own means but the means of our resources {in Western Sahara} that Morocco's exploiting right now and using against us. 
So all of that are elements that effect the coverage, but at least there is some coverage going on but not the way we would like it especially in the Arab media.

Q: Mr. President, how have the events of 9/11 impacted the political dynamic of the elections?

PRESIDENT ABDELAZIZ: Definitely after the tragic terrorist acts of September 11th, there was a new situation that was created, and the priority and the focus of the &endash; it's not just of the U.S. but the whole world and the United Nations, it became the issue of terrorism, how to combat terrorism. So our priorities were put to the back burner, not just the issue of the Western Sahara but some other issues, not just the Western Sahara. So in that way we have been affected. 
So the negative consequences not only were impacted or felt by the strong like you but also by the weak like us. So everybody had an impact with the events of September 11th. 

Q: I just want to know &endash; do you think that the new Spanish government will be any more supportive than the old? You've always had good support from Spain in general.

PRESIDENT ABDELAZIZ: Spain is a special case especially when it comes to the issue of Western Sahara. I mean, there is a very clear consensus in Spain when it comes to Western Sahara. There's very clear support for the Sahara. First, I want to thank the positions of government that just left office for the good position on Western Sahara. They have been very active and supportive of the United Nations settlement plan and the peace plan. And so I wish that the position of the new government would be at least like the position of the government that just left. That's our hope. Thank you very much. 


MS. SCHOLTE: I have a couple of very brief announcements. First of all, be sure to pick up the newspaper article on the table out there that was in the Christian Science Monitor today about the Sahrawis. It's an excellent article. There's also some bumper stickers out there, too, you're welcome to take. There. I see Jean's got hers! And I just want to announce our next forum is going to be April 23rd. We'll be hosting 20 defectors from North Korea who represent the democracy network against the North Korea gulag. They're coming into town to be part of a special event we're co-hosting called North Korea Freedom Day. So there's a flyer about that out there, too, but be sure to pick up those handouts. And thank you so much for being with us today.


[Communiqués, lettres, Documents...] [HOME]