27 April 2006 Edition

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International: Western Sahara

Another UN failure

The Sahrawi National Liberation Front (Frente Polisario) has denounced UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal to end the UN' s mediation role between the Moroccan government and the Sahrawi people, calling it a "plot against Sahrawi self determination". Annan suggested that the two parties resolve their near 40-year-old conflict. This proposal is seen to benefit the Moroccan government as it is impossible for the Sahrawi people to negotiate with a government that denies their claim to independence.

The leader of the Frente Polisario, Mohamad Abdelaziz, has pointed out that if Annan's plan, with its proposed withdrawal of the UN peace mission, is implemented, they will be forced to return to war. The Polisario Front had carried out a low-level guerrilla war against Morocco's armed forces in order to back its claim for an independent state and the two sides have been observing a UN-sponsored ceasefire since 1991.

The government of Rabat maintains that the territory of Western Sahara, which it invaded in the 1970s, is part of Morocco. The Spanish government abandoned the former colony prior to the invasion and recognised its right to self-determination. The Sahrawis recognise and seek to reclaim the self-determination referendum that the UN committed to 30 years ago. Morocco, however has refused to accept UN proposals to recognise the rights of the Sahrawi people. To make matters worse the UN has failed to pressurise Morocco into respecting the rights of those living in the occupied territory.

Morocco has placed many obstacles in the way of a negotiated solution to the conflict. When the UN insisted on a referendum around the issue self-determination, Morocco flooded Western Sahara with migrants and insisted that all of them should be included in the census for the referendum. Many international observer delegations travelling to Western Sahara have been refused entry to the territory. A delegation from Spain was refused entry on 11 April. One delegate, Rosa Peñalver, Socialist MP, says the objective of the trip was to visit the territory "occupied by Morocco in the Western Sahara, and to ascertain if the human rights of the Western Saharan people who live in the area are being respected".

Annan has justified his decision to abandon the Sahrawis to Moroccan forces on the grounds that the negotiating process is blocked.

In the document published by the UN, Annan recommended the involvement of Algeria where Sahrawi refugees have been based for nearly 40 years, and Mauritania, a country which also invaded West Saharan territory and subsequently withdrew its occupation.

"The perspective behind this idea is incoherent and Kafka-like", said Ahmed Bujari the Polisario representative at the UN, who explained that el Frente wants the mediation of the UN to continue through the application of previous plans that include a self-determination referendum that would allow the population to choose between independence or autonomy.

Annan's report also recommends maintaining the presence of the special UN mission in Western Sahara for another six months, until 31 October, when the Sahrawis will be left to fend by themselves.

Pandering to the UN decision, Morocco's King Mohammed announced he had pardoned 48 Sahrawi political prisoners jailed late last year for between 10 months and five years for anti-Moroccan riots in El Aaiún, the main town in Western Sahara. They were sentenced for offences including sabotage of public property and using weapons against public officials. Clearly, the north African country is set to keep their control over a territory rich in phosphates, fisheries and possibly offshore oil.

At the moment, even while the territory is still in dispute, Morocco's administration has established treaties with European countries to exploit the wealth of the territory. Morocco is allowing the Spanish fishing float to enjoy the use of the rich fish banks out Western Saharan coast.

Early this month, in an attempt to reassert its sovereignty on the territory, the Polisario Front released details of oil exploration licences negotiated with eight UK-based oil companies for operations in the disputed Western Sahara. The licences issued by the Polisario Front pertain to an area of around one third of the Western Sahara. This area remains under their control and is referred to as the "liberated zone". This is a no-man's-land situated between the Mauritanian border and the 1,500km long defensive wall of sand built by the Moroccan military during the period of open hostilities.

The Polisario Front's licenses will only be valid if the SADR ever achieves full independence and is admitted into the UN General Assembly, an outcome that Morocco has so far resolutely resisted. In the meantime, the Polisario Front licences are more than just symbolic. They are a direct challenge to similar licences previously issued by Moroccan state oil company, Office National de Hydrocarbures et des Mines (ONHYM). Since 2001, a number of U.S. and European oil companies have negotiated licences with ONHYM.

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