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Western Sahara

12.59 pm

Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester): I am grateful for this opportunity to draw the attention of the House to Western Sahara, which is under Moroccan occupation. I should be interested to hear the views of my hon. Friend the Minister on that sadly neglected country.

I first became aware of the situation in Western Sahara in 1985, when I was an aid worker with the charity War on Want, the first United Kingdom organisation to provide assistance to Saharawi refugees from Western Sahara. Since then, I have followed events in the area with interest and, since I was elected to Parliament, I have had the honour to serve as chair of the all-party group on Western Sahara.

I hope the House will forgive me if I indulge in a short history lesson and give the background to the situation, as I am sure that many people, even many hon. Members, are not fully aware of the plight of Western Sahara and the Saharawi people. That is itself a scandal, as the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara closely mirrored the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqi invasion attracted worldwide condemnation and swift international intervention, whereas the Moroccan invasion was swept under the international carpet--there was no international uproar or military force to liberate Western Sahara, although cynics may say that that was because there are no working oilfields in Western Sahara.

Western Sahara lies on the Atlantic coast of Africa, between Mauritania and Morocco. Historically, the people who lived there--the Saharawi--were nomadic and had a life style similar to that of their Tuareg neighbours. The area was colonised by the Spanish in the 19th century and named Spanish Sahara. The indigenous people, as in most other African countries that were colonies, set up an independence movement to resist colonisation, the Polisario Front. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on Spain to organise a referendum of self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Spain organised a census in 1974, which revealed that 74,000 Saharawi people were living in the territory--that figure was supposed to serve as the basis for an electorate for the referendum, which, it was planned, would happen speedily. The road to independence seemed to be laid out.

Morocco did not like that one bit, and laid claim to the territory. The International Court of Justice was asked to deliver an opinion on whether Morocco or Mauritania had any claim to the area; it found that there were no historic ties that could debar Spanish Sahara from decolonisation or from self-determination. Again, the way seemed clear for the Saharawi people to move forward to independence.

In response, Morocco almost immediately invaded Western Sahara. Tens of thousands of Saharawi people fled. Women and children were bombed by Moroccan forces and napalm was used against them--it was an international scandal, but, sadly, the international community turned its face away. Around 180,000 refugees fled to southern Algeria, where they have lived in enormous camps--huge tented cities--for the past 23 years.

The Saharawi refugees are mostly dependent on food aid administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Despite the dire conditions

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in which they live, however, they have created a society in their camps whose rates of literacy are unparalleled in Africa. They have created a good health system and a democratic structure that ensures that women play a full part in running and managing the camps. The fact that the Saharawi people have survived those conditions for 23 years demonstrates their deep desire to secure their right to self-determination--many other groups would have packed their bags and gone home.

For more than 20 years, the Polisario Front waged a guerrilla war against the occupying forces. It had steadfast support from the Organisation of African Unity. When, in 1985, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic--the state in exile--was admitted to OAU membership, Morocco promptly walked out of the organisation.

In 1990, the United Nations--freed from the shackles of the cold war--turned its attention to Western Sahara. A peace plan was drawn up, calling for a referendum based on the 1974 Spanish census to be organised and supervised by the UN. A ceasefire between the warring parties was agreed, and, yet again, all looked set for the Saharawi people to decide whether they wanted their territory to become independent or to be part of Morocco. Sadly, eight years later, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara--MINURSO--is still in the area and the Saharawi people are still waiting for their referendum.

In the intervening years, the UN has failed to enforce its peace plan for Western Sahara. I believe that the main problems have been Morocco's refusal to accept the 1974 census as the basis for the referendum, and its continual disruption of the peace process. The UN mission has faced criticism from its own members. In 1995, Ambassador Frank Ruddy, the former deputy chair of the MINURSO voter identification commission, said that, during his time in Western Sahara,

In October 1996, Douglas Dryden, the former United States military representative to the special liaison office of MINURSO, said:

    "the atmosphere at the MINURSO force HQ in L'Ayoun is practically a siege mentality. The mission is not allowed to function independently, but as a creature of the Moroccans. It is the only UN mission that I am aware of where the flag of one of the parties"--

he means the Moroccan flag--

    "is required to fly alongside that of the UN."

Thankfully, the appointment of Kofi Annan seems to have galvanised the UN into action, giving it a new willingness to make a reality the Saharawi referendum for self-determination. In March 1997, Kofi Annan appointed James Baker, the former US Secretary of State, as his personal envoy to Western Sahara. James Baker moved quickly and, following meetings in London--which were facilitated, I am pleased to say, by the new Labour Government--Lisbon and Houston, Morocco and the Polisario Front agreed to a proposal on voter identification and a code of conduct guaranteeing the UN authority to oversee a fair and free referendum for the Saharawi people.

That agreement, known as the Houston agreement, was endorsed by the UN, and, in December 1997, voter identification was under way. Once again,

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the referendum seemed to be back on track. Unfortunately, however, things are not progressing smoothly--in his recent report to the UN Security Council, Kofi Annan admitted that the referendum was unlikely to take place in 1998 as planned. I believe that much of the delay is caused by the Moroccan Government's stalling tactics.

Morocco has, for many years, been engaged in a sustained campaign of intimidation against the Saharawi people in the occupied territory. Saharawi people who call for independence have been systematically detained, tortured and subjected to extra-judicial killings. Amnesty International continues to receive reports of disappearances and torture. Morocco is also pushing for the registration of 12,000 extra voters from specific tribal groups, all of whom live in Morocco; none of them appeared in the 1974 Spanish census, which was, as I said, the agreed basis for the electorate for the referendum.

Like many other organisations, the Labour party has long supported the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. I welcome the role that the Government played in helping James Baker to put the peace plan back on track, and I strongly welcome the part that they have played as president of the Friends of Western Sahara Group at the UN Security Council. I now welcome the chance to ask my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to some questions, whose resolution would, I believe, strongly help the peace process to move forward fairly and speedily. I believe that the British Government can play a dynamic role in moving the peace process to a free and fair referendum and in ensuring that both parties in the dispute keep to the spirit of the Houston agreement.

I understand that the Minister recently visited Morocco, and I should be interested to hear how his discussions with Moroccan Ministers went. In line with our ethical foreign policy, I should particularly like to know whether he has raised the issue of Morocco's continued human rights abuses against the Saharawi people--the arbitrary detentions and torture--with the Moroccan Government. I understand that our Government's position is one of positive engagement with countries with poor human rights records such as China and Indonesia, and I hope that we have been consistent with that in respect of Morocco's poor human rights record. I should also like to know what plans my hon. Friend has to meet representatives of the Polisario Front in order to obtain a balanced view of the current situation in Western Sahara.

My hon. Friend is also aware that, at the beginning of the UN peace plan, the United Kingdom provided personnel to MINURSO, but, for some time now, we have had no presence. We are the only one of the permanent five countries on the UN Security Council not to be providing military or civilian personnel. I feel quite ashamed, given our long-term support for the peace process, that we are not providing that support. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some encouraging news on that.

I also hope that we shall send a United Kingdom delegation of election monitors to cover the run-up to the referendum and the referendum in Western Sahara. As a former election monitor in Albania for the United Kingdom Government, I know how important that is.

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Finally, I should like my hon. Friend's assurance that we shall continue to do all we can to ensure that a free and fair referendum happens speedily for the Saharawi people. They have waited long enough. I am sure that the British Government will never allow strategic interests and EU trade negotiations to muddy our view of the justice of the issue. The parallels between the invasion of Western Sahara by Morocco and the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq are indisputable. I sincerely hope that the Government will be as tough in their dealings with Morocco, in persuading her to abide by UN resolutions and international law, as they were with the Iraqi regime. The Saharawi people deserve nothing less from a Labour Government.

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