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

4 and 5 December 2008
Pretoria, South Africa

Francesco M. Bastagli
Former Special Representative of the Secretary-General  for Western Sahara


First of all, I wish to join the previous speakers in expressing my  appreciation to the South African Department of Foreign Affairs and the University of Pretoria for their gracious hospitality. In providing a prestigious venue for the consideration of one of the most worthy causes confronting Africa today they have shown commendable vision and commitment.
Before I address the substance of today’s topic, let me add a general remark. You will hear me express severe criticism of the United Nation’s handling of the Western Sahara issue. Having left the Organization, I do so in the conviction that in Western Sahara the UN is failing to fulfill some of its most basic obligations. It is because I care deeply for the principles enshrined in the Charter that I raise publicly these concerns after it proved impossible to make them understood and addressed during my tenure in Western Sahara. My criticism, however, does not extend to the Organization in general and I do not agree with the sweeping judgments made by some of the previous speakers.

Ladies and gentlemen,
More than 70 countries today recognize the government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic as the legitimate representative of the Saharawi people. At the same time, 33 years after Morocco’s invasion, hardly anyone has recognized the illegal occupation of Western Sahara. In the rarefied world of international governance, declarations and resolutions continue to be adopted in support of the unconditional and inalienable right to self-determination of the Territory.
Yet, to this day, Western Sahara remains the last unresolved decolonization issue in the whole of Africa. The gap between international legality and political expediency remains as wide as ever.  Realpolitik is invoked to justify the failure to impose on Morocco compliance with fundamental tenets of international law and justice. As a shroud for arrogance and unbridled force, Realpolitik undermines the very foundation of equitable international relations. A key purpose of institutions like the United Nations is to promote common standards for the management of world affairs. These standards must be based on universal principles of fairness and legality. It is both regressive and irresponsible for anyone - and particularly international officials and diplomats - to invoke Realpolitik as the guiding consideration in addressing international challenges. Further, in the case of Western Sahara Realpolitik too often stands for keine Politik, or no policy at all. Ever since Morocco’s rejection of the Baker plan in 2003, deliberate neglect, and not Realpolitik, is the expression that best describes the international community’s behaviour.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Such neglect is reflected in the lack of progress towards self-determination. But there is also a related, fundamental obligation that the international community, and the UN in particular, have failed to fulfill. Chapter XI of the UN Charter recognizes that, pending the attainment of self-government, the interests of the inhabitants of non-self-governing territories are paramount. Article 73 lists commitments ranging from human rights protection to institution building to social and economic development. It is a grave responsibility of both the General Assembly and successive Secretaries-General – the custodians of the UN Charter – that all, I repeat all, these commitments have been smothered in a conspiracy of silence.
UN bodies debate the future of a faceless people, without the essential ingredients of responsible decision-making. There is no independent information and analysis on the concerns and needs of the Saharawis under Moroccan occupation. There is no advocacy; no one at the UN speaks out on human rights violations or on the illegal plundering of natural resources. The performance of the UN Secretariat in this respect wavers between the embarrassing and the insulting. There is no social or economic assistance except for some hand-to-mouth relief for those in the camps.
For too long the United Nations has been staring into the crystal ball of a stalled political process while ignoring its obligations under the Charter. This must change. Contrary to all other territories, de facto for Western Sahara there is no legitimate administering Power to fulfill the “sacred trust” cited in the Charter. Pending self-determination, the United Nations is duty-bound to make this sacred trust its own. 

Ladies and gentlemen,
The Secretary-General and concerned UN agencies should be asked to:
(i)    Secure independent information on the health, education, and economic and social conditions of the Saharawis, whether they live in the Territory or in the refugee camps. Governance and human rights issues must also be independently monitored.
(ii)    Transmit as appropriate the information and related analyses to United Nations and other intergovernmental bodies concerned.
(iii)    Advocate the basic human and economic rights of the Saharawi people. Initiatives that undermine the pursuit of an equitable solution should be discouraged or denounced.
(iv)    Formulate and implement a programme of assistance to the Saharawis in pursuit of article 73 of the Charter and the numerous General Assembly mandates in favour of non-self-governing peoples. Beneficiaries would be the people from the former Spanish Sahara whether under Moroccan occupation or in refugee camps.
There is no time here to enter into details on how to go about this.  Specific and workable proposals, however, exist. They are based on successful precedents in situations similar to that of Western Sahara and can be made available to those interested.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The current hands-off approach is at times justified by the desire to avoid any initiative that may jeopardize political progress. After decades of inconclusive UN involvement, one must wonder whether the ambiguities that characterize the behaviour of both UN Member States and the Secretariat towards Western Sahara have proved a handicap, rather than an asset, in the search for a fair and lasting solution. By filling the current gap of information, advocacy and assistance, the international community would show to hundreds of thousands Saharawis that it honors its obligations not with empty words but with deeds. At the same time, it would break a stifling routine by providing a more informed and open decision-making environment for the political process.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The latest, somewhat unimaginative, formula to try and move forward this process is to engage the parties in direct negotiations. So far the POLISARIO and Morocco have met four times with little results. It is too early to consider this a dead end; probably the new Personal Representative of the Secretary-General will want to continue the face-to-face discussions. There is a real danger, however, for the two parties to become captive of this formula, as neither of them can afford unilateral withdrawal from the talks, while the stalemate continues and positions harden. This lack of promise points again to the need for the involvement of other international actors. Indeed, there are frequent discussions about the views of this or that permanent member of the Security Council or other key, mostly European, governments. But what can one say about Africa? Most of the countries that recognize the SADR are African. This continues to be an important expression of solidarity. Further, the African Union played a very constructive role up to the time voters were registered for the referendum. However, following the collapse of that process in 1996, the AU relinquished responsibility for Western Sahara to the UN Security Council. And, sadly, the AU presence in Laayoune today is even less relevant in either political or practical terms than that of the United Nations.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The time has come for African countries, individually and collectively, to take a fresh look at the challenge of Western Sahara’s self-determination and to confront it with renewed passion and commonality of intents. This is not meant to substitute for the Security Council. Rather, it is an invitation to revive in the Council, and in all other venues concerned, that active presence that Africa so often had in earlier years. The reasons for this appeal are many. First, it is increasingly urgent for the international community to fulfill its obligations towards the Saharawi people. This urgency is dictated by the need to uphold international legality, protect basic human rights, prevent conflict and ensure regional stability. Indeed, with the current emphasis on conflict prevention in Africa it is surprising to note how Western Sahara does not feature prominently as a priority concern for the African Union and regional fora. Second, as mentioned, the long-standing failure of the Security Council and the UN in general highlights the need for new ideas and a broader engagement. This requires, however, moving beyond mere expressions of solidarity. We need viable, specific proposals for action by the international community. Third, millions of people throughout Africa still carry in their eyes and in their hearts the vivid memories of the indignities of colonialism and foreign domination. How could they and their leaders neglect this, the last noble cause of decolonization and self-determination in the continent? An increasingly proud and self-reliant Africa should not, and must not, leave Western Sahara behind. 

December 5, 2008

[ARSO HOME]  [Summary Conference Pretoria 2008]