Danish conference on Western Sahara conflict brings conflicting parties together

Francesco Bastagli and Kate Kelly

Francesco Bastagli and Kate Kelly

The Danish United Nations Association hosted an international conference on the conflict in Western Sahara in Copenhagen on Saturday [18. January]. The conference included presentations from both parties to the conflict, as well as from former UN representatives, experts, and Scandinavian politicians. 

“We believe that it is vital that the Western Sahara conflict is finally put firmly on the international agenda”, the Danish UN Association said in a press release prior to the conference. “Having representatives from both sides of the conflict will enable us to shed light on the conflict in a way that hasn’t been seen before in Denmark”.

Danish Major General, and former commander of the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO), Kurt Mosgaard, gave the first presentation where he amongst other things argued that in order to have a fruitful discussion on the issue of Western Sahara, certain untrue rumours and untruths needed to be quelled. “There are some rumours that the Saharawis are terrorists. These rumours are not true”, said Mosgaard by way of example.

There are not enough people killed in the conflict for it to be on the international agenda, Mosgaard continued, and there is always something seemingly more important on the agenda of the international community which means that Western Sahara tends to be forgotten.

“But both parties are able to start a war tomorrow”, Mosgaard reminded the audience. “A war that would be bad not only for the two parties, but would spread to the whole of North Africa. A war that would have no winner”.

Representing the position of Morocco was Lahcen Mahraoui, a member of the Royal Advisory Council for Saharan Affairs (CORCAS), an advisory committee to the Moroccan government on the Western Sahara, and social actor and local representative Shaibata Malainine.

Lahcen Mahraoui said he wanted to share what he called “the silent majority view of Saharawis of building a strong Morocco”, and that it was time “to find a solution under Moroccan autonomy”. He also referred to Kurt Mosgaards presentation as “propaganda”. Shaibata Malainine argued that Western Sahara was Moroccan as “Morocco was the only country in North Africa in the 9th century”.

Representing the view of the Polisario front, the UN-recognised representative of the Saharawi people, was Sidi Omar, a former representative of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic to the African Union and presently the head of an international campaign against the Moroccan wall or Berm that divides Western Sahara.

He dismissed the Moroccan position as untenable as no-one recognises Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, and that Western Sahara is a clear case of decolonisation. “The UN has never recognised the legality of Moroccan claims to Western Sahara”, Sidi Omar said. “And there is no single country in the world that recognises Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara”.

“The only viable solution is a free and fair democratic referendum. If the Saharawis want autonomy, fine, Polisario will respect this”, Omar continued, although he insisted that the proposed autonomy plan would still mean that Morocco would be if full control of Western Sahara because “the Moroccan constitution will be implemented in the autonomy plan and the king rules by decree in the Moroccan constitution”.

“Polisario wants to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict”, Sidi Omar concluded, “but the Moroccan occupation is brutal and the international community in general and the Security Council in particular, have done nothing”.

Former UN representative of the Secretary General for Western Sahara, Fransesco Bastagli, agreed. “The UN angle remains fundamental”, he said. “But I have strong reservations on the UN’s handling of the Western Sahara issue. The UN has not fulfilled its obligation to Western Sahara”.

This obligation is clearly stated in international law, including Chapter 11 of the UN Charter itself, which clearly states that the UN has an obligation towards the health, Human Rights, education, as well as the economic and social well-being of the people of non-self-governing territories such as Western Sahara, said Bastagli.

“But too many countries are not interested”, he continued. “Whenever you bring up Western Sahara there is always something more urgent. But the responsibility for this rests with key governments who should ensure that the parties engage”.

“And the conflict stalemate has serious implications on the Saharawi people”, said Kate Kelly from the RFK Centre for Justice and Human Rights, who have worked with the Human Rights aspects in Western Sahara for some years now.

In September 2012, an RFK Centre delegation visited the occupied territories. “The over 100 Saharawis we spoke to spoke of disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions and executions on the part of the Moroccan authorities, as well as a lack of freedom of speech, association and assembly”, said Kelly, “and there is absolute impunity for Human Rights violations”.

The neutrality of the RFK Centre and Kate Kelly was questioned by a Moroccan participant, who referred to alleged instances of Polisario Human Rights abuses in the Tindouf refugee camps, but Kelly insisted that even though this might be the case it is a question of proportionality. “Being balanced or neutral does not mean that we should say that violations are committed equally; this is not the case”, she said. “If you don’t believe me, read [UN Special Rapporteur on Torture] Juan Mendez’s report on torture in Western Sahara”.

The politicians from the three Scandinavian countries who gave presentations at the conference agreed that the severe Human Rights violations in Western Sahara, and the lack of action from the international community, were a problem that had to be solved.

“We have to follow the UN, but if the UN does or says nothing then we have to act”, said Bodil Ceballos, MP for the Swedish party Miljöpartiet De Gröna. The Swedish parliament has voted in favour of recognition of Western Sahara’s exile government, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, even though the government is yet to act on this decision.

“We will also be putting forward a proposition for the recognition of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic that will also include an obligation for Denmark to work for recognition in the EU, in the Danish parliament”, said Eva Flyvholm from the Danish party the Red-Green Alliance.

“This illegal occupation cannot go on and the EU should at least exclude Western Sahara from its trade agreements, as the USA has done”, Flyvholm said, “and we must also put pressure on France and Spain, who are the main stumbling blocks”.

But perhaps pressure from outside the parliaments is what could really set the ball rolling. According to the final speaker, MP for the Norwegian Conservative Party Mudassar Kapur, “there are signs of an increasing interest in Western Sahara in Norway – especially in Norwegian civil society where the interest is growing”.


By Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact

© 2014, Peter Kenworthy. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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