Testimony Before the United Nations Regarding Western Sahara
Testimony by Suzanne Scholte, President, Defense Forum Foundation and Chairman, US-Western Sahara Foundation.
Thank you Chairman Ambassador Yashar Aliyev and members of the Fourth Committee for the opportunity to once again address you about the situation in Western Sahara. I urge this committee to uphold its purpose and call for the end of the illegal occupation of the Western Sahara by Morocco.
While the United Nations can be commended for its intervention in 1991 that brought about a cease fire to this conflict, it has failed to fulfill its promise of a vote on self-determination by the Sahrawi people. That first promise of a referendum came in 1966 when the UN adopted a resolution calling on Spain to organize a referendum.
By failing to fulfill this promise the very purpose of this committee has been undermined. The Declaration on Decolonization firmly stated “that all people have a right to self-determination” and proclaimed that “colonialism should be brought to a speedy and unconditional end.”
Yet, today, the year 2005, a referendum has yet to be held. Instead the Sahrawi people, who have placed their trust in this body, have seen their country invaded by Morocco, their civilians brutally killed, their families separated for thirty years, and the UN continue to fail year after year in following through on its promises.
Why has there been no referendum? Because Morocco has reneged on every agreement beginning with the UN-OAU Settlement Plan, the Houston Accords, and the most recent compromise, the Peace Plan, set forth by Former Secretary of State James Baker in 2002.
We are currently at a stalemate: Morocco will not allow a referendum to occur and the Sahrawi people will never give up their dream of returning to their homeland as a free people.
The fact that the Sahrawi people would rather live as free people in one of the most inhospitable places on earth rather than under Moroccan rule is a testament to the human spirit and the ideal of freedom.
It is also a testament to the cruelty of Morocco. Because while over 180,000 refugees have waited in the Algerian desert for their promised referendum, a large number of Sahrawis live in virtual house arrest in Occupied Western Sahara. Today, they are jailed, beaten, tortured and killed for peacefully demonstrating for one of the United Nation’s principles: the right to self-determination.
Morocco’s brutal occupation of Western Sahara has repeatedly led to its being listed as one of the world’s worst regimes by Freedom House, the non-governmental organization which measures political rights and civil liberties
Because of the failure of the UN to follow through on the promised referendum, it is time now to look for other solutions. The only solution that is consistent with international law and the promise of this body is to begin now the transfer of Western Sahara back to the Sahrawi people.
It is time to end this stalemate by calling on Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara.
It is the only viable solution that remains absent a free, fair, and impartial referendum. The withdrawal of Morocco from Western Sahara will bring about the following :
–the ability of the Sahrawi Republic to flourish as a peaceful, democratic state of Muslim progressives who renounce all forms of terror, something the United States and many other countries are expending tremendous blood and treasure to accomplish for Iraq
–the reunification of families separated for 30 years and the immediate reduction of the refugee population
– the fulfillment of a great goal of the African Union: stability in the Maghreb and the chance to develop the region economically for the benefit of the people
-billions of dollars currently spent on Morocco’s occupation force in Western Sahara could be instead utilized to help the Moroccan people, rather than subjugate the Sahrawi people; and
-millions of dollars currently spent on Morocco for lobbyists around the world to try to convince people there is no such thing as a Sahrawi, could be spent building ties between Morocco and other countries for mutual benefit and goodwill
It is interesting to note that despite the long history of cruelty by the Moroccan government against the Sahrawi people, the Sahrawi people have continued to promise to live in peace and literally “turn the other cheek” and work with Morocco as a peaceful neighbor.
Failing to get Morocco out of Western Sahara will mean this continued stalemate and the subjugation of the Sahrawi people in the occupied territory while hundreds of thousands of refugees will continue to live in camps simply because they desire freedom and the right to self-determination.
Failing to get Morocco out of Western Sahara will mean that invasion and aggression and war are the means to achieve one’s end. It will prove to Morocco and other would be aggressors that invasion and aggression are the answer. It will prove to the Sahrawis that laying down their weapons and agreeing to the cease fire was a terrible mistake. They will have felt better off fighting a war for their liberty rather than sitting in the desert waiting for the UN.
Failing to get Morocco out of Western Sahara, will show the world that the UN is not serious about its own purpose – that placing trust in the UN was a huge mistake for the Sahrawis that has led to forty years of broken promises.
In 1945, when the UN was established nearly one third of the world lived under colonial rule. Now, largely because of the work of the UN, less that 2 million are on your list and the largest number of that group are known as Sahrawis.
I urge the Decolonization Committee to aggressively take up this issue and fulfill your purpose. The UN’s past action led Spain to withdraw from Western Sahara, but your lack of follow through has led to an even worse condition for the Sahrawis. Please free Western Sahara by calling for Morocco’s brutal occupation to end.
Hearing of Petitioners on Western Sahara by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee, (Fourth Committee), United Nations, October 6, 2004
Testimony by Suzanne Scholte
President, Defense Forum Foundation and Chairman, US-Western Sahara Foundation
Thank you Chairman Kyaw Tint Swe and members of the Fourth Committee for the opportunity to address you about the situation in Western Sahara. Many of us involved with this issue have become increasingly frustrated as we have witnessed again and again the repeated obstruction by Morocco in preventing progress towards a referendum on self-determination. Because of the failure of the UN to hold Morocco accountable, it has made the UN a participant in the continual occupation of Western Sahara which has forced 170,000 refugees to remain in refugee camps unable to return to their homeland.
I want to address today specific points about this issue which I believe set a terrible precedent for the UN’s role in settling conflicts: the role the UN has played in rewarding Morocco’s aggression and obstruction and the role the UN has played in punishing good faith gestures.
In this long history, the Polisario has continued to operate in good faith working hard to find a just, fair, and peaceful solution, whereas Morocco has continued to flaunt international law and block any progress towards the referendum on self-determination. The very fact that Morocco invaded the country in reaction to the International Court of Justice’s ruling that the Sahrawis had the right to self-determination, set the precedent.
At that time, the United Nations and the international community should have called for Morocco to withdraw from the territory. Instead, twenty-nine years later, the Western Sahara is the only colony in Africa that has not yet been decolonized. The citizens of Western Sahara living in the Occupied Territory are under a virtual house arrest where they are repeatedly jailed and tortured for speaking out on behalf of the UN plan for a free and fair referendum. Journalists and human rights organizations that attempt to visit the occupied Western Sahara are repeatedly blocked.
Meanwhile, the Polisario, believing in the good faith of the United Nations, agreed to a UN sponsored referendum even though it was their country that was illegally invaded and illegally occupied, even though they are the ones who have suffered as refugees in the Sahara desert for nearly thirty years.
So, from the very start, remember that Morocco has responded to international law by aggression and invasion and the Polisario has responded to international law by seeking peaceful resolution at their own risk and peril.
That very attitude was displayed again most recently with the Baker plan that calls for self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. Here the Polisario agreed to a compromise plan that was carefully crafted by former Special Envoy and former US Secretary of State James Baker. That plan was totally unfair to the Sahrawis because it allowed Moroccans living in the Occupied Western Sahara to vote in their referendum and it was very similar to a plan that Morocco had put forward several years earlier.
Yet, once again, displaying a willingness to put themselves at great risk and peril, the Polisario agreed to the plan, and Morocco rejected it once again displaying their complete lack of good faith.
Another case that highlights the dramatic difference between these two parties is the situation of the POWs and the citizens that have disappeared since the conflict and continue to disappear in Occupied Western Sahara.
While Morocco long claimed it had no POWS, the Polisario accounted for every single person they were holding allowing even the International Red Cross regular visits to Moroccan POWs. After denying for years that they held any soldiers or political prisoners, the Moroccans released 66 Sahrawi POWs in 1996. Yet, today, while the international community can account for every Moroccan POW because of the good faith gesture of the Polisario, there are still hundreds of Sahrawis both military and civilians who are unaccounted for, who have disappeared during the war and in recent years.
Thus, there is continual pressure by the UN and the international community on the Polisario to release all Moroccan POWS, but hardly ever any pressure on Morocco to release Sahrawis except by NGOs active on the issue. And why is that?
Because Sahrawis have been honest and open in their dealings with the international community and accounted for any POWS they held, while Morocco has once again flaunted international law and shown a disrespect for human rights and dignity.
And now this gets us to the question of where we are today. It is time for the United Nations to do the right thing and stop the obstruction by Morocco on this process. Delaying the resolution of this issue is a terrible injustice to the Sahrawi people, and sets a terrible precedent about the credibility and commitment of the United Nations.
A deadline should be set for the referendum under the context of the plan put forward by James Baker. If Morocco refuses to abide by the Baker plan, the referendum should go forward based on the previously approved voter registration list. Should Morocco once again obstruct this referendum, then it is time to call upon them to withdraw from their illegal occupation, something that the UN should have done in 1975.
Otherwise, the UN sets a terrible precedent by rewarding Morocco for aggression and invasion and penalizing the Polisario for honesty and openness, and most importantly, for trusting the United Nations.
Two years ago this body accepted the membership of a free nation, the world’s youngest country, East Timor. The East Timor situation has many parallels to Western Sahara, and we hope that the UN will uphold the values it promised to uphold in 1991 when the Polisario agreed to a cease fire.