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4 Apr 2000 : Column 184WH

Western Sahara

11.59 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. It comes at a crucial time in the history of Western Sahara. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) cannot be here, because of child care commitments for young children. She has done much to raise in the House of Commons the issue of Western Sahara and the Saharawi people, as did Lord Redesdale before he fell victim to the cull of hereditary peers.

Today's debate is important because of the serious danger of war breaking out again in Western Sahara. Jane's Intelligence Review has discussed current problems there and the danger of war if a referendum is not held in the near future, within the timetable established by the United Nations to bring about a peaceful solution. A heartfelt editorial in Africa Commentary states:

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): I apologise for my breathlessness. I am not very fit. The hon. Gentleman has touched on something about which I am particularly concerned. He must know that several agencies believe that there is a substantial risk of armed conflict in Western Sahara in the near future, especially if the referendum does not go ahead. Does he think that the Government have contravened criterion 4 of the European code of conduct in selling the arms to Morocco?

Mr. Corbyn : The evidence that has been given to me is that we have--perhaps the Minister will deal with this when he replies--because it could be considered that they are being used for internal repression or to control the situation in Western Sahara ahead of a possible UN referendum.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): There are few occasions on which I would disagree with my hon. and good Friend, but I am genuinely puzzled about this part of his speech. I shall have something to say about the broader issue, if I may be allowed, but Morocco has one of the best human rights records in the Arab world and beyond. That is recognised by Amnesty

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International. Also, it happens to have--though one would detect no hint of it in my hon. Friend's discourse--the only socialist Government in the middle east, as well as a new king, who is trying to use a new broom to solve some of the problems from the past. It is rather strange for a progressive Member of Parliament to mount such an attack on Morocco at this, of all times.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton ): Order. Before the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) replies, I remind the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) that it is normal for hon. Members who want to participate in a straightforward half-hour Adjournment debate to clear it with the hon. Member who initiated the debate, the occupant of the Chair and the Minister. I am not sure if that convention has been honoured in this case.

Mr. Corbyn : I am surprised and disappointed at my hon. Friend's intervention. My examination of what has happened in Western Sahara and Morocco's behaviour since 1974 is not an attack on Morocco as a state, or a blanket criticism of everything that happens in Morocco. It is specific to the right of the people of Western Sahara to determine their future in accordance with United Nations policy and the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO.

In 1974, Western Sahara ceased to be a colony of Spain--Spain withdrew. In 1975, the then king of Morocco personally led 350,000 people to occupy Western Sahara. The People of Western Sahara did not wish to be occupied; they wished to be independent, and they made that very clear. There followed a brutal war, in which many people died. Eventually, a large number of people from Western Sahara escaped to refugee camps in Algeria; they still live there.

In the 1980s, the United Nations became involved, because it was, quite rightly, concerned about the loss of life. MINURSO was established in 1988, and managed to obtain a ceasefire in 1991. The proposal--then, as now--was that there should be a referendum on the future of Western Sahara. Thus, the Saharawi people would have the right to determine their future.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Does my hon. Friend accept that the issue of who may vote in the referendum--crucial to the outcome--may not be one of human rights? The possible attempt by people who, clearly, have no right to vote in the referendum to add their names to the roll is crucial in the context of plans to ensure that a referendum can be carried out in a way that is fair to the Saharawi people.

Mr. Corbyn : The question of who votes in the referendum is, obviously, central to the long-term objective and to the result of the referendum. The agreement made through MINURSO was that the 1974 Spanish census should be used as the basis for deciding who would be eligible to vote in a referendum on the future of Western Sahara. Names were put forward, and the Moroccans also put forward the names of large numbers of settlers whom they had moved into Western Sahara.

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For the past nine years, there has been a great deal of dispute about who would be on the electoral roll and, thus, eligible to vote in the referendum. MINURSO has sent people in, registration has taken place, appeals and objections have been heard and dealt with. One gains the impression at every stage, that Morocco has been desperate to prevent the referendum. That is depressing, because holding a referendum in the near future represents the best hope for preventing another armed conflict in Western Sahara.

Morocco should, at least, understand that many people around the world are looking carefully at its behaviour and would challenge the assertion that Western Sahara is an integral part of Morocco. Indeed, I received a letter only yesterday from the Moroccan ambassador making that claim, to which I replied that, as far as I was aware, Western Sahara was not an integral part of Morocco. History will bear me out on that. The area was not an integral part of Morocco before colonialism, and has been an integral part since the end of colonialism in 1974 only because of the military occupation.

I ask the Government to say what role they are prepared to play in promoting a peaceful settlement. The EU Africa summit is taking place in Cairo. I do not know what discussions are going on between Morocco and other states, but I know that the Organisation of African Unity--peculiarly and uniquely--has supported the case for independence of Western Sahara, and has never supported any kind of border change or any independence movement in any other part of Africa, other than those seeking to break away from European colonial powers. It is significant that the Organisation of African Unity has supported the right of the Saharawi people to determine their own independence in a referendum.

James Baker has been appointed to look into the situation, has undertaken some discussions, is due to visit Morocco again in the near future and will be in touch with all parties. However, circumstances are becoming more desperate. Many refugees live in camps in Algeria. The Polisario have toured the world trying to gain diplomatic support for their efforts to bring about a peaceful solution. They have gained considerable support in many European capitals and among legislators in the United States and other parts of the world. They argued that MINURSO must be allowed to bring about a settlement.

Morocco now has a new King and a new Government. Now is the ideal time to turn back from the policies of 1975--invasion, landmines, massive walls around Western Sahara--and to encourage a UN-supervised settlement to bring about a peaceful solution to the region's problems.

Last year, I was privileged to attend the UN referendum on the future of East Timor. Many lessons can be learnt from that experience. The Indonesians did not want the referendum to take place. There were continual delays and the UN made great efforts to bring about a peaceful solution. Registration was continually delayed, so it was not clear who would be eligible to vote, whether the occupied military forces could vote and so forth. The circumstances are similar, as Portugal withdrew from East Timor at about the same time as Spain withdrew from Western Sahara.

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Kofi Annan played an important role. He recognised that unless the UN took action and insisted that the referendum took place on a particular day, the delays and the killing would continue--a disaster waiting to happen would happen. The referendum did take place and the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence. Partly due to a lack of support and the lack of an effective policing presence on the ground, a humanitarian disaster took place immediately after the referendum. East Timor is now trying to recover through a reconstruction programme but, sadly, nothing can bring back the people who died.

I do not want to see a similar outcome in Western Sahara, but the alternatives are stark. If we continue to delay holding a referendum and allowing the people of Western Sahara to decide their own future, what will happen? No entreaties from the leadership will stop the people being fed up with living in refugee camps in Algeria; with living on food parcels from western agencies, welcome though they are; or with having to bring up their children in refugee camps. Their pressure may lead back to war.

I hope that the British Government and Morocco fully understand the dangers. What are the alternatives: to continue to delay and prevaricate, spending huge resources on the military occupation of Western Sahara; to continue to be criticised heavily throughout the world for what goes on specifically in Western Sahara; or to come to the table and bring about a peaceful solution? I hope that the British Government will ensure that MINURSO has sufficient resources to carry out its duties and that a date is set for the referendum, which should be before 31 July this year, even though it is one of the hottest periods of the year; and ensure that it actually takes place.

It is essential to learn the lessons of the referendum in East Timor to ensure that registration is accurate. I believe that it is--or at least, after enough years of discussion, debate, challenge and counter-challenge about the names, there is reason to believe that it is. We must see to it that there are sufficient staff on the ground to ensure that the campaign and the voting are fair and open and, crucially, that there is sufficient international policing to ensure that whatever the result, it is accepted and respected by all sides and that there are no militia activities of the tragic kind seen in East Timor last September and October. I make no apology for raising this issue, which I have raised many times since being elected to the House in 1983. I raised it for the first time at about three o'clock in the morning some time in 1984; the Chamber was not packed at the time any more than this Chamber is today.

I believe that we have an opportunity to bring about a peaceful settlement to the situation facing the last colony in Africa. The possibility exists for the United Nations to establish itself firmly as a facilitator of a peaceful transition for the people of Western Sahara as they decide their own future. I hope that the Moroccan Government will recognise that if they continue their delaying tactics, they will not do themselves much good in the court of public opinion around the world because doing so will lead to greater isolation. The best way forward is to allow the UN to settle the problem. I hope that when the Minister replies he will respond

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satisfactorily to the concerns that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) and I and many others have about the supply of arms to Morocco. I hope above all that the hon. Gentleman will be able to assure me and others--most importantly, others--that sufficient police and resources will be available to ensure that the referendum takes place in the time frame that has been suggested, and with sufficient security to allow a fair voting system for all and, above all, respect for the result of the referendum. The alternative, tragically, will be that many more people will lose their lives, many more arms will be exported and there will be no peace.

12.16 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz ): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for securing the debate. I know of his great interest in these matters, and he spoke with enormous passion. I am glad to see my hon. Friends the Members for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) and for Southampton Test (Dr. Whitehead) and the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) here for the debate. It is fairly unusual to see my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) on different sides of the Chamber, but I suppose it shows the intense rivalry that exists among various groups and the strong passions that the issue arouses.

The war in Western Sahara has been called the forgotten war. With this debate we are doing our bit to ensure that the issue is kept on the international and domestic agendas. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North raised a number of points about this long-standing dispute. I shall come back to some of them at the completion of my speech.

I shall begin by explaining the Government's policy on Western Sahara. Even by African and middle eastern standards, Western Sahara is one of the more intractable problems. Time does not allow me to dwell too long on its history. I have not been exposed to all shades of opinion in the region, nor have many hon. Members, so it is worth looking at some of the background.

When Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in the mid-1970s, there followed a bitter and protracted conflict between the two main claimants to the Western Sahara, Morocco and the Polisario Front. The conflict drew in other countries in the region, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said. Suspicions became entrenched and the economic potential of the whole region was put in the deep freeze.

The conflict in Western Sahara benefited no one citizen and no one country in north Africa. It merely held back its people's aspirations for a more stable and prosperous future. After 15 years of conflict in Western Sahara, the United Nations took on the role of making peace and finding a just and durable solution. We should recognise the contribution that the UN has made to the peace process in the region. The UN remains the one organisation with an unchallengeable reputation for objectivity in this difficult dispute. The British Government do not take sides in the Western Sahara dispute. We have consistently supported the UN mission in Western Sahara. We have provided civilian administrators, peacekeeping contingents and substantial funds to underpin them.

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We continue to believe that a just solution to the problem depends on the people of Western Sahara having the right to express their will at the ballot box. We also believe that a durable solution requires all parties to be constructive, flexible and committed to peaceful means. Any violence from whatever quarter harms the search for peace, and those who provoke violence only weaken their own cause.

I share my hon. Friend's desire to see a just solution for the Saharawi people, including those in the refugee camps in Algeria. At the same time, a solution must be workable and durable. It cannot ignore the regional political environment. We share the widespread international concern that, after 10 years, a UN-sponsored referendum to resolve this problem is still a long way off. To make clear what Britain stands for, I can do no better than quote the UN Secretary-General. He said that the implementation of the UN plan

Despite the various obstacles that both sides have at times put in the way of a solution, the UN has remained impartial throughout. We continue to have every confidence in the UN staff. British officials regularly visit their offices in the region and admire the work that is being done there in very difficult circumstances. There are those who complain that the UN mission in Western Sahara and the Secretary-General's statements are partisan. Those people usually want the UN to be partisan in their favour.

A number of commentators on Western Sahara, including some in the House, have questioned the UN's handling of voter registration for the proposed referendum. We believe that the registration criteria for the referendum are a matter for the UN. To date, the UN has investigated 198,469 applications to vote in the referendum. It found that 86,386 were eligible. A substantial proportion of those who were rejected have appealed, as they are entitled to do under the settlement plan. The UN has now begun the task of investigating the legitimacy of these appeals, as it must if we are to ensure that the process is free and fair.

My hon. Friend mentioned the United Nations criteria for appeals, and I do not want a long, legalistic debate on the matter. The UN is best placed to decide what is allowed within the letter and spirit of the plan.

At its latest extension of the United Nations mandate in Western Sahara, the Security Council called on James Baker, the Secretary-General's personal envoy, to engage the parties to find a way through the problem. We expect him to visit the region soon. We urge all sides to listen to what he has to say and to respond positively to him.

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It has been suggested that the United Kingdom has been selling arms to Morocco, which enables it to suppress human rights and to assert a territorial claim, thus breaching the European Union code of conduct. I assure hon. Members that we examine all export licences for Morocco carefully and adhere to the EU code of conduct. Yes, we have approved exports of some riot control equipment; hon. Members will know that the quadripartite commission on arms exports is currently examining some of the licences. I also assure hon. Members that we have no evidence that the Moroccan police have used such equipment to suppress human rights and/or to assert a territorial claim. It is an on-going process; we monitored recent incidents in Laayoune and Smara and found no evidence that such crowd control equipment was used. No non-governmental or other organisations have produced verifiable evidence to support such claims.

I want to say a few words about recent reports of incidents in Western Sahara. There was an incident in Laayoune, Western Sahara last September, when protesting students were joined by a group of local workers with separate grievances. Regrettably, local police response was heavy handed and we clearly registered our concern at the time. The Moroccan king responded swiftly to news of the incident by setting up a royal commission on Western Sahara. That was a decisive, mature and laudable response; the Interior Minister responsible was removed shortly afterwards.

The initial press reporting of the incident was partisan and designed to raise tension in the region. For example, it alleged that there were several deaths, but no evidence supporting that claim was provided. There were also incidents in Laayoune and Smara in March. One incident began when youths stoned UN vehicles and the Moroccan police intervened to protect UN staff. British officials were in the area soon afterwards and spoke to several contacts on the ground. Their assessment was that press reporting of the incidents had exaggerated the true picture.

Mr. Corbyn : Like my hon. Friend the Minister, I deplore the incidents that took place and hope that peace will continue to be maintained in the region. When does my hon. Friend expect that it will be possible to hold a referendum on the future of Morocco? When does he expect James Baker to report to the Secretary-General?

Mr. Vaz : We fully support James Baker's mission and ask others to do so too. We shall have more information when he is in the country; he shares the British Government's view that there should be a referendum as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend mentioned Morocco's record on human rights, which has improved dramatically recently, as has the professionalism of its police. Morocco's record on both counts is probably the best in Africa and the middle east. My hon. Friend should not just take my word for it but listen to what Amnesty International and other NGOs say on the subject. Yes, some problems remain, but the Moroccans are openly tackling them. We must give credit where it is due. We should also take seriously allegations of human rights abuses by the Polisario Front.

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I conclude by restating the key elements of our policy: we remain committed to a just and durable solution to the problem, which is acceptable to the Saharawi people. We do not take sides; we will not support one side's claim over the other. We will continue to back the UN Secretary-General in his efforts to find a way around the current impasse in the UN settlement plan. We have assured him that James Baker has our full support on his visit. We urge all sides to respond positively to Mr. Baker's mission.

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