Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Western Sahara: Renewed focus after years of mainstream neglect

Western Sahara mike hitchen onlineBy Ramesh Jaura
Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BERLIN (IDN) – Western Sahara, one of the most thinly populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands, is drawing renewed focus after having been consigned to mainstream neglect for years.

The disputed territories are back on radar screens in the aftermath of new reports that the area is one of the most heavily mined territories in the world. These have been accompanied by one significant step taken by the United Nations.

Spanning 266,000 square kilometers (103,000 sq miles), Western Sahara has been on the UN list of non-self-governing territories since the 1960s when it was a Spanish colony. Spain withdrew from Western Sahara in 1976.

It was not before 1991 that an UN-sponsored ceasefire agreement was achieved. Since then, most of the territory -- including the entire Atlantic coast line -- has been controlled by Morocco and the remainder by the Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y de Río de Oro (Frente Polisario) with its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) government in Tindouf (Algeria).

According to the UN, more than 200 areas throughout Western Sahara are contaminated by mines and 'explosive remnants of war' (ERW). The continued presence of these items constitutes a "high threat" for over 10,000 Saharan nomads and their families, as well as UN personnel monitoring the ceasefire.

The existence of such a large quantity of dangerous areas hinders the repatriation of an estimated 120,000 Saharan refugees and displaced persons, and the safe pursuit of livelihoods, states the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

Although no full Landmine Impact Survey has been completed yet, a Dangerous Area Survey done in 2008 by the UNMAS and its implementing partner, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), formerly LMA UK, led researchers to conclude that Western Sahara is one of the most heavily mined territories in the world.

A summary of UNIMAS report posted on the web on June 29, 2010 recalls that in 1999, the Royal Moroccan Army and the Frente Polisario had agreed to destroy mines/ERW in the territory under their control.

At present, the Royal Moroccan Army is undertaking clearance operations on the West side of the 2,000-kilometre long earthen berm (wall or parapet), which divides control of the territory between the two parties to the conflict.

On the East side of the berm, AOAV is conducting Battle Area Clearance (BAC), explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) activities, surveys, and providing an emergency 24-hour rapid response capacity for mine action related emergencies East of the berm.

These activities are expected to continue in the wake of the decision of the UN Security Council on April 30 to extend the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping mission MINURSO -- tasked with organizing a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara -- for another year.

In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member Council called on Morocco and Frente Polisario, the parties to the conflict in Western Sahara, to "continue to show political will and work in an atmosphere propitious for dialogue in order to enter into a more intensive and substantive phase of negotiations".

The resolution was adopted after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his latest report earlier on the peacekeeping mission, welcomed both parties' commitment to the process of negotiations and their willingness to engage in the preparatory informal format.

But he noted that two informal meetings under the auspices of his personal envoy Christopher Ross held in August 2009 and February 2010 produced no movement on the core substantive issues, and more work is needed before a fifth round can be held.

The efforts undertaken by Ross -- since his appointment in January 2009 -- to promote a settlement have been "laborious", Ban said. "Their pace and substance have been heavily affected by the parties' reaction to events in the region and their unyielding attachment to mutually exclusive positions."

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker went through a similar disappointing experience as Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal envoy for Western Sahara. Subsequently, he resigned in 2004. He was succeeded by Dutch Ambassador to the UN, Peter van Walsum in July 1995.

April 30 UN Security Council resolution called on the parties to continue the dialogue under the auspices of the Secretary-General without preconditions to achieve "a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara".


A week earlier, Ban expressed concern about alleged violations of human rights in the Western Sahara conflict and vowed to continue to promote the rights of Sahrawis after meeting with Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary-General of the Frente Polisario.

He reassured Abdelaziz of "the UN’s commitment to maintaining an active and balanced engagement in the search for a solution to the Western Sahara conflict that provides for the self-determination for the people of Western Sahara," according to information released by Ban's spokesperson.

"The Secretary-General stated that he remains very concerned about alleged violations of human rights. He said that his Personal Envoy, Christopher Ross, and the Secretariat will continue to work to promote the human rights of Sahrawis."

Since the mandate of MINURSO was extended, the United Nations envoy dealing with Western Sahara has been holding consultations in the capitals of the countries comprising the so-called Group of Friends, a diplomatic cluster working to help resolve the dispute over the territory.

Ross started his latest trip on June 21, and has so far visited London, Paris and Madrid. He is scheduled to visit Washington and Moscow in the coming weeks and months.

The purpose of Ross' talks is to consult on the best ways to move the negotiations forward toward a mutually-acceptable settlement, as well as to solicit these nations' advice and support.

UN spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters on July 2 in New York that Ross’ meetings so far "have been very useful, reflecting a fresh interest in moving beyond the status quo and finding a solution".

The members of the Group of Friends that the envoy has met with to date have all expressed their willingness to work with him and the parties to ensure the success of future talks.

According to Ross, there has also been unanimous agreement on the need to intensify work on confidence-building measures, including the resumption of family visits by air, the early inauguration of family visits by road and other steps proposed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


Though major powers such as the United States have taken a generally ambiguous and neutral position on each side's claims, and have pressed both parties to agree on a peaceful resolution, both Morocco and Polisario have sought to boost their claims by accumulating formal recognition, essentially from African, Asian, and Latin American states in the developing world.

Polisario has won formal recognition for SADR from 81 states, and was extended membership in the African Union, while Morocco has won recognition or support for its position from several African governments and from most of the Arab League. In both instances, recognitions have over the past two decades been extended and withdrawn according to changing international trends.

Such trends are not left uninfluenced by economic considerations. Aside from its rich phosphate deposits and fishing waters, Western Sahara is said to have few natural resources and lacks sufficient rainfall for most agricultural activities. But there is speculation that there may be rich off-shore oil and natural gas fields.

In fact, after reasonably exploitable oil fields were located in neighbouring Mauritania, speculation intensified on the possibility of major oil resources being located off the coast of Western Sahara.

Western Sahara's economy is centred around nomadic herding, fishing, and phosphate mining. Most food for the urban population is imported. All trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government.

The government has encouraged citizens to relocate to the territory by giving subsidies and price controls on basic goods. These heavy subsidies have created a state-dominated economy in the Moroccan-controlled parts of Western Sahara, with the Moroccan government as the single biggest employer.

Due to the international lack of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, Western Sahara is excluded from the Morocco-United States Free Trade Agreement and from the EFTA-Morocco Free Trade Agreement.

Despite the fact that findings remain inconclusive about the legal status of Western Sahara, both Morocco and the Polisario have made deals with oil and gas exploration companies. U.S. and French companies -- notably Total and Kerr-McGee -- began prospecting on behalf of the Moroccan Office National de Recherches et d’Exploitations Petrolières (ONAREP).

In 2002, Hans Corell, Under-Secretary General of the UN and head of its Office of Legal Affairs issued a legal opinion on Western Sahara's legal status. The opinion was rendered following an analysis of relevant provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, the United Nations General Assembly resolutions, the case law of the International Court of Justice and the practice of States.

It concluded that while the existing exploration contracts for the area were not illegal, "if further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law." After pressures from corporate ethics-groups, Total S.A. pulled out.

In May 2006 the remaining company Kerr-McGee also left following sales of numerous share holders like the National Norwegian Oil Fund, due to continued pressure from NGOs and corporate groups

Despite the UN report and the development regarding the exploration of oil, the European Union wants to exploit fishing resources in waters outside Western Sahara and has signed a fishing treaty with Morocco.

In a previously confidential legal opinion, published on February 23, 2010 (although it was forwarded in July 2009), the European Parliament's Legal Service has declared fishing by European vessels in Western Sahara's waters to be in violation of international law.

Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict with Morocco is found.

In a communication on July 1, 2010, WSRW said EU was putting self-interest before peace in Western Sahara:

"The European Commission misuses a UN document to legitimise its fisheries in occupied Western Sahara. Each year, the EU pays Morocco millions of Euros for fishing licences offshore Western Saharan waters -- an area not falling under Moroccan sovereignty."

WSRW considers the payments to be a direct support to the illegal and brutal Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. The European Commission, however, defends itself.

In a letter to WSRW end of June, the Commission claimed that their fisheries agreement in Western Sahara is supported by a UN opinion from 2002.

"The argument of the Commission is scandalous. Instead of referring to the evident conclusion of the UN document, the European Commission has cut-and-pasted a completely unrepresentative sentence from within the text to support its illegal fisheries. The Commission's cynical misuse of the UN document directly undermines the Saharawi people's legitimate rights", said Sara Eyckmans, coordinator of Western Sahara Resource Watch.