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Western Sahara: 32 years of exile and struggle - International Law is not Utopia
by Dr. Luis Portillo, Ph. D.
2007-12-23 09:32:43
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Last 30 April the article titled “Postponing Utopia, Defending Dignity,” by Bernabé López García, was published in the Opinión Section of El País. The article basically justifies the position of the Moroccan government on the future of Western Sahara. The author argues that the Moroccan offer represents a unique historical opportunity for the Saharawi People to integrate into Morocco as a limited autonomy region, and compares the concessions made by the PCE in the early stages of our transition to democracy to the concessions, he believes, the Polisary Front should make now, thus giving up on its right to independence (because it is utopian). According to the author, such concessions would allow the Saharawi People to put an end to the Diaspora, exile, and pain, and they could then live with dignity.

I believe that this approach not only is a mere repetition of the Moroccan view, but also evades key issues and includes arguments that do not adhere to reality. Allow me to explain myself:

1. Comparing the situation of Spain and the PCE in the early stages of our transition to democracy with that of the Polisary Front and Morocco as an invader trying to de facto annex a territory beyond its sovereignty is fallacious (International Court of Justice: “The Western Sahara Case. Advisory Opinion of 16 October 1975”, http://www.icj-cij.org/). The differences are many (a National Liberation Front is much more than a political party): the PCE was part of the same country (Spain), while Morocco invaded and illegally and illegitimately occupied the land of another people. There is no possible relationship between the two situations. Therefore, the comparison is unsustainable.

2. The credibility of Moroccan leaders in the Saharan dispute is non-existant. The Moroccan army dropped bombs with napalm and white phosphorus on the Saharawi People and caused the forced exodus of the survivors of such genocide –still unpunished. Most of them sought refuge in the Algerian dessert (Carlos Jiménez Villarejo, “Genocidio en el Sáhara”, El Periódico, 4/2/2007; Tomás Bárbulo, “La historia prohibida del Sáhara Español”, Destino, Barcelona, 2002). In the then Spanish province, Morocco imposed a second colonization process –in the last third of the 20th Century!- and aborted the Spanish

decolonization process originally demanded by the UN. Morocco has constantly defied international law and hindered an internationally recognized solution for this type of conflict (self-determination referenda. And after a 16-year war against the Saharawi People and the dismantling of every plan put forward by the UN, it now makes a unilateral offer to the Polisary Front –legitimate representative of the Saharawi People- to negotiate about a limited autonomy based on the non-negotiable Moroccan character of the Saharawi territory, and of course, with no place for self-determination or independence (the advantages and benefits of independence have been thoroughly studied by scholars like Carlos Ruiz Miguel, Professor of Constitutional Law and author of the paper “Sáhara Occidental: Independencia, paz y seguridad”, Cuadernos de Pensamiento Político nº 12, 2006, http://web.usc.es/~ruizmi/).

3. After all this time (32 years), after so many commitments unfulfilled, so many strategies to cut the grass under the feet of the decolonization process, Morocco is still sticking to fait accompli policy: the negotiation between the Parties would involve, at the most, a few conditions of an alleged autonomy and the relevant process. The Saharawi People would have to immediately accept and suffer being submitted and annexed to Morocco. Is that what Bernabé López calls “defending dignity”? Is it not true that the Charter of the United Nations states that the solution of decolonization conflicts is an open referendum on self-determination? (www.un.org/). What would we, Spanish People, do in a similar situation, if “they” (the Saharawi) were Spanish and “us” (the Spanish) were Saharawi and fac

ed the same ordeal? What did we do when the Napoleonic troops invaded our land? Did we give up on our independence? Did we let our dignity be crushed? No, we did not. We stood on our feet; we fought back and drove the invader out. The consequences were immortalized by Francisco de Goya in the painting titled The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid. To this day, some of those patriots are honored as heroes, their bodies buried in the cemetery of La Florida, in Madrid.

4. It is actually because the Saharawi were denied by Morocco what is now falsely considered utopian –first, through the invasion and the occupation; then, through the systematic violation of international law- the Saharawi People had no choice to defend their dignity and survival than to proclaim the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in exile, already recognized by more than 80 countries. Let us not forget that, since the cease-fire declared in 1991 under the auspices of the UN, the SADR has always used peaceful means to seek a legitimate and decent future for its people, a future the condition of which is the inalienable right to self-determination.

5. There are not “two coherent projects on the table that recognize the right

to self-government of the Saharawi People”. The document submitted by the Polisary Front to the UN Secretary-General last April to be discussed by the Security Council is titled "Proposal of the Polisary Front for a mutually acceptable political solution that ensures the self-determination of the peoples of Western Sahara". In turn, the document submitted by Morocco bears a very different title: "Autonomy Initiative for the Sahara Region". No need to comment. The proposal of the Polisary Front claims and defends international law as expressed in UN resolutions, while the Moroccan project denies it or, at least, mutilates it. Already in April 2006, the Report of the UN Secretary-General to the Security Council (S/2006/249, paragraph 37) stated word by word the following: “In the bilateral consultations my Personal Envoy held [...],the Frente Polisario reiterated that it would under no circumstances negotiate about any kind of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. My Personal Envoy

clarified that [...] he had spoken of negotiations without preconditions, with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that would provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The Security Council would not be able to invite parties to negotiate about Western Saharan autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, for such wording would imply recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which was out of the question as long as no States Member of the United Nations had recognized that sovereignty.” And the (so far) last Resolution of the Security Council, dated 30 April 2007 (S/RES/1754), again “calls upon the parties to enter into negotiations without preconditions in good faith [...], with a view to achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

6. International law is –however deficient- a set of rules devised by human as a framework for peaceful coexistence and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. But it ought to be observed and enforced. Morocco does not observe it (as per Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations) and the international community does not put enough pressure on the need to enforce it (as per Chapter VII). Bernabé López points out, “international law is a framework to ensure respect of peoples’ rights.” But, are the legitimate rights of the Saharawi People respected? On the other hand, have the Saharawi violated the rights of the Moroccan People? Had the SADR invaded and occupied Morocco, what would have been the reaction of the international community? Kuwait –and East Timor- ring bells and are not far in time. No need to speculate.

7. The reason why Morocco has continuously hindered a transparent and fair referendum is because its leaders fear the results. They thus deny in advance and eliminate from reality what according to Bernabé López is utopian (international law and, eventually, independence), while they keep the Saharawi People living under the most degrading conditions, in exile and abject poverty (www.umdraiga.com). They want to buy time, exhaust and demoralize the Saharawi, alienate the historical memory of the younger generations, defeat an entire people by exhaustion with the futile hope of seeing them finally surrender and accept whatever they are offered, deeply immersed in the contradictions imposed by unfair obstacles.

8. Contrary to the author’s statement, Morocco has not been following the ostrich policy for over 30 years, but rather the burnt land policy, the fait accompli policy from the times of the infamous Green March (of frenzied and manipulated civilians, on one side, and tanks, airplanes and troops, on the other) hatched with the strategic advice of Henry Kissinger. And Spain and the international community decided to adopt a laissez faire attitude and look away, absorbed in more profitable business, displaying a shortsightedness that has lasted way too long and has become unbearable.

9. The right to self-determination does not compulsory or necessarily presuppose independence. As explicitly and literally stated in item 8 of the Saharawi Proposal, “The Polisary Front also commits to accepting the results of the referendum, regardless of its outcome, and to negotiate with the Kingdom of Morocco, under the auspices of the United Nations, the rights it is willing to grant to the Moroccan population settled in Western Sahara for 10 years, and the political, economic and security rights it is willing to guarantee to the Kingdom of Morocco should the self-determination referendum result in independence” (www.ambrasd.org/ES/infos/2007/abril/propuestaPoliabril07.html).

10. If it now seems like the times are changing, it is because the ruling Moroccan elite has run out of playing cards; because the Saharawi People have resisted with dignity time and time again, honoring their determined commitment with international law (not with Utopia), because they have spun a network of solidarity among different peoples and defended their cause in fora all over the world. And because civil society increasingly demands –as opposed to the ruling class at least part of the time- the enforcement and observation of international law.

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