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1.11 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) for the way in which she introduced the debate. We all know of her long-term interest in and keen commitment to the issue, and I am grateful for her opening comments.

My hon. Friend asked a number of questions, and I shall try to answer them fully. She gave us a useful background to the current situation. I shall repeat some of the points she made in the context of my response, but not in any sense to deny the historical background that she set out.

My hon. Friend asked about the Government's policy towards Western Sahara. It is very simple: we seek a just and lasting settlement and we support the United Nations' efforts to bring one about. We want to see a clean, fair and transparent referendum that will give the people of the territory the opportunity to decide whether their future lies with Morocco or as an independent state.

Our commitment to do all that we can to help underlies our support for the United Nations Secretary-General, his personal envoy James Baker and his special representative Charles Dunbar. We have also used our presidency of the European Union to bring the on-going developments in Western Sahara into sharper focus. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that we have played and will continue to play a positive role.

My hon. Friend rightly said that the dispute in Western Sahara has lasted too long and needs to be brought to a swift, mutually acceptable conclusion. We welcomed the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's appointment just over a year ago of James Baker as his personal envoy to Western Sahara. That was an important step forward. As hon. Members will know, James Baker was charged with the task of assessing the situation and considering whether the United Nations' settlement plan for Western Sahara, which at the time had been stalled for more than a year, could be fully implemented.

James Baker visited the region and decided that, if he was to make any progress, he would have to bring together the parties to the dispute--Morocco and the Polisario--for talks. When he asked the British Government whether we would be able to assist him in his first steps towards achieving that, we were, of course, pleased to help. We provided a suitable venue and logistical support for meetings that he wanted to hold with Morocco, the Polisario, Algeria and Mauritania. I am delighted that we were able to assist in that way, and I can tell my hon. Friend that James Baker was delighted with the support he received from the United Kingdom Labour Government.

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The two days of talks that followed, in summer 1997, concluded with Morocco and the Polisario taking the landmark decision to meet face to face, under United Nations auspices, in an attempt to iron out their differences. I hope that, along with James Baker, we can take some credit for that progress. There followed a series of meetings to which my hon. Friend referred--some in London and some in Lisbon--which made valuable progress. In particular, the talks quickly established that both Morocco and the Polisario had no interest in pursuing any political solution other than implementation of the settlement plan. Neither party showed any enthusiasm for any kind of autonomy for the people of the territory within the kingdom of Morocco.

Differences over how the eligibility of individuals to vote might be assessed remained--and remains--the key issue. When they were resolved at the final session of talks in Houston, the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario signed what is now termed the Houston agreement, to which my hon. Friend referred. It included a code of conduct for the referendum. The Secretary-General's report of 13 November 1997 set out the plan and timetable for the referendum, which is scheduled for 7 December 1998.

I hope that I have been able to persuade the House that the Government have been active in respect of Western Sahara. Let me set out some further initiatives and responsibilities that we have pursued. Whenever Western Sahara is discussed at the United Nations, we firmly support the United Nations Secretary-General and his personal envoy. We are also responsible for co-ordinating the Friends of Western Sahara Group at the United Nations. We therefore have played, and will continue to play, a central role in New York and elsewhere.

Although we are conscious that Western Sahara is inevitably an agenda item on which the United Nations has the lead, we have sought to raise its standing within the European Union. During our presidency of the European Union, we have ensured that Western Sahara regularly features on the agenda at the monthly Maghreb-Mashreq working group meetings in Brussels. I am delighted that my hon. Friend is pleased about that. I am sure that many others will be, too.

As a result of one United Kingdom initiative, the European Union heads of mission in Rabat are now permitted to visit Western Sahara to see things for themselves, whereas previously visiting was restricted to junior members of embassy staff. We believe that not only visits but the level of those visits is important. Additionally, we know that many of our European partners do not enjoy the range of information on events in Western Sahara that we possess, so we have circulated comprehensive reports from our ambassador in Rabat.

We were pleased that the United Nations Secretary-General was able to put together a timetable for the run-up to the referendum so quickly, and that MINURSO in Western Sahara was able to recommence the voter identification process at the beginning of December last year. That has continued, with few interruptions.

It is very encouraging to note--I shall come to my hon. Friend's points--that the United Nations Secretary-General's report of 13 April 1998 included the 60,112 applicants identified during the first phase of the identification process, which ran from August 1994 to

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December 1995. More than 100,000 have been identified as potential voters, and fewer than 60,000 remain to be convoked.

Since the identification process resumed, British Government officials have made three separate visits to Laayoune in Western Sahara, where MINURSO is based. We also try to visit Tindouf, the Algerian town around which the Polisario camps lie, as often as possible. Unfortunately, the logistical difficulties are such that our last visit to Western Sahara, outside Laayoune, was in September 1997, when officials visited Tindouf, the MINURSO team site at Mehaires and Smara. They travelled from Mehaires through minefields and across the Berm to Smara, and saw for themselves the terrain and conditions that have hindered the work of the United Nations for so long. That is an indication of many of the problems and difficulties resulting from the fighting in the region.

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that British officials are undertaking another visit to Western Sahara at this very moment. I should like to take this opportunity to reiterate our gratitude to the United Nations for its assistance with these visits. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that on the ground, through our embassy and other staff, we are active in finding out what the conditions are within Western Sahara.

I also believe that practical demonstrations of support, such as visits, are vital for MINURSO. They not only provide a visible and much appreciated sign of our support, but help us to understand the conditions that it has to work under and the difficulties that it has to face. We are also keen to take every possible opportunity to improve our knowledge and understanding of developments in the territory itself. I know from the many letters we receive in the Foreign Office that there is great interest in the United Kingdom in what is going on in Western Sahara. Indeed, I am delighted to see so many of my hon. Friends in the Chamber for the debate. Yet again, there is not one Opposition Back Bencher here--but we are becoming accustomed to that.

We are told of allegations of human rights abuses, the manipulation of the press, demonstrations and disturbances. The United Nations independent jurist, Professor Rocounas, is engaged in those issues, and we support him in his work. Our regular visits offer us the ideal opportunity to find out from those on the spot what is really happening. I know that those visits are important for MINURSO morale, and they underline, in a practical way, our continuing commitment to the successful resolution of the dispute.

It has been said by some that, if the UN process stalls again, for whatever reason, Morocco would not be too bothered--it would continue to inhabit the towns west of the Berm, much as it has done since the Spanish, and latterly the Mauritanians, withdrew from the territory. I do not believe that that is what the Moroccans want. Nor is it in Morocco's interests for the sovereignty of Western Sahara to remain unresolved. My hon. Friend asked about my recent visit to Morocco. I reassure her that the issue of Western Sahara was a key element in my discussions with the king, the Prime Minister and other Ministers. Our commitment to a resolution of the issue and to the United Nations position was stressed during all those meetings.

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There are also some who argue that MINURSO is biased; that it is somehow pro the Polisario and anti-Moroccan. We believe otherwise. MINURSO has proved its value and its integrity, and we shall continue to hold that view unless there is any available evidence to the contrary. At the moment, there is none.

My hon. Friend asked me about the possibility of UK Government contacts with the Polisario. As she knows, I was due to meet the Secretary General of the Polisario, Mohamed Abdelaziz, this morning. I understand that Mr. Abdelaziz is in London for this week. Unfortunately, because of other diary commitments, it was not possible for me to have that meeting. I assure my hon. Friend that it is important that Britain, as a key player in Europe, in the region, at the Security Council and in the Friends of Western Sahara Group in New York, should know what is really happening at this crucial time for Western Sahara. We shall seek that information from all possible sources.

There seems to be some difficulty in arranging meetings with Mohamed Abdelaziz. I understand that my predecessor, Jeremy Hanley, arranged to meet him in north Africa early in 1997, but Mr. Abdelaziz had to pull out of that meeting. We may be fated not to meet. However, I again assure my hon. Friend that we shall seek information from all the key players in the process.

I reiterate to the House our continued determination to see the Western Sahara dispute resolved through the referendum. Britain takes no position on the outcome, and we will not alter that stance. We neither support the Moroccan claim to sovereignty over the territory, nor recognise the Polisario's self-proclaimed Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. Indeed, my hon. Friend would not wish me to take any other position. Her argument is that the matter is one for self-determination by the people. We support the United Nations, and we want to see the dispute resolved peacefully. Morocco and the Polisario have agreed to put the matter to a free vote. We shall do all we can to make sure that there is a vote and that it is free and fair. We shall do all we can to help implement whatever decision the people make.

In February this year, I was pleased to be able to meet the United Nations Secretary-General's newly appointed special representative to Western Sahara, Mr. Charles Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar is a former US ambassador who has worked extensively in the region. I know from reports received that he has been extremely active in his efforts.

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He has been admirably and effectively supported by Mr. Robin Kinloch, the British UN staff member who heads the identification commission. My hon. Friend asked about the British role. Robin Kinloch is a key element in the resources that we make available.

I pointed out earlier the progress made on the identification of the non-contested applicants who wish to be assessed as to their qualification as voters in the referendum. As my hon. Friend and others will be aware, there are about 65,000 individuals whose eligibility to submit themselves to MINURSO for interview remains to be confirmed. That is a key issue, to which my hon. Friend referred. Now is not the time or the opportunity for me to go into the problem of the contested tribes in depth. However, in brief, Morocco believes that the members of those tribes should all have the opportunity to submit themselves for identification as voters. The Polisario believes that to do so would be contrary to the Houston agreement. It is clear that both parties see the issue as of paramount importance. We agree that a successful resolution in regard to Western Sahara requires the settlement of the dispute over those tribal groups. If there is any way in which we can assist in that process, we shall be happy to do so.

All applicants in Western Sahara, including those from the contested tribal groups, have been convoked to attend one of the UN identification centres. Those who attend are interviewed by MINURSO staff and representatives of the Polisario and Morocco. Their eligibility for registration is assessed under UN criteria. On the dates on which the 65,000 members of the contested tribes were invited to attend for identification, only 4,000 came forward. Only 1,500 have been interviewed. I regret that the Moroccans have refused to participate in interviewing the remaining 2,500 until they have received satisfactory assurances from the United Nations about how remaining members of those tribes will be dealt with. Charles Dunbar is working hard on that issue, which is crucial to the resolution of the problem, and we shall continue to assist in whatever way we can.

I hope that I have been able to answer the points raised by my hon. Friend, and to assure her that we are active on this matter and are looking for a peaceful solution through the referendum process. If the United Kingdom can assist the UN in any way to resolve this long-standing issue, we will be keen to do so. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising an issue of such importance, and we look forward to the existence of a map of north Africa without this dispute.

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