Petitioners Push for Status Referendum, Autonomous Resettlement Plan as Fourth Committee Continues Hearing on Western Sahara

13 OCTOBER 2015

During a meeting characterized by impassioned pleas, calls for justice and appeals to rationale, the Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) heard testimony on Western Sahara for a second day in an effort to find a solution to the Territory’s 40-year pursuit of self- determination.
 Petitioners from around the world, including the Saharan diaspora, offered insights into the conditions of the Territory — accusing both Morocco and Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Polisario) of mismanagement and human rights abuses — and perspectives on international law that applied to the situation. Several endorsed Morocco’s 2007 proposal for an autonomous resettlement plan and the long-promised United Nations- backed status referendum in order to bring the strife to an end.

Many recounted the history of the conflict, with several speakers blaming Spain for neglecting its responsibility to protect the Territory. Ahmed Boukhari, of the Frente Polisario, said that after 16 years of bloody warfare, the United Nations had put forth a peace plan including a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara could choose between independence and integration. However, he recalled that, during a speech on 6 November 2014, the King of Morocco had said Western Sahara would forever be a part of Morocco, ignoring the United Nations and “spitting on” the Saharans’ human rights.

Several legal scholars and European Parliamentarians said that Western Sahara was still a Territory that fell under Spanish administration, and although Spain had failed to protect the Saharan people, Morocco did not have jurisdiction over the Territory. Others noted that the lack of Saharan representation on an international level kept the Saharans in a constant state of limbo, with third parties deciding the terms of their existence and their future.

A Saharan refugee, Fatma Hossein Chajai, of the Femme et Jeunesse sahraouie en Belgique, said she stood before the Committee because of freedom of speech, a right she had gained after fleeing her own country, which could not guarantee her rights. Too many people had been killed or tortured, she stressed, adding that she was “terrified” to return home. “We want peace, we want freedom, we want equal rights for everyone,” she said, emphasizing that “we matter”.
Several petitioners called for the return of independent human rights monitors to the region or for the expansion of the mandate of United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) to include oversight.

Craig Brown, of the Western Sahara Action Forum, said MINURSO was the only peacekeeping mission in the world without a human rights monitoring mechanism. United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon had called for an independent, impartial understanding of the human rights situation in Western Sahara and human rights monitoring was as important step to help MINURSO fulfil its mandate.

Giuseppe Romanini of the Intergroup of the Italian Parliament of Friendship with the Sahrawi People, said he saw first-hand how precarious and dangerous life was in the camps, and how human rights abuses committed by Morocco went unpunished, fuelling resentment and frustration, particularly among youth. “The sirens of Boko Haram and ISIS could prove irresistible” to that disenfranchised group, he warned.

Western rule-of-law organizations and human rights experts who petitioned the Committee, however, remained divided over the best way forward for the Saharans: continued management by the Frente Polisario or absorption into Morocco.

Juvenal Urízar Alfaro, a Chilean Professor of International Law, said the Saharan people “held captive” in the Tindouf camps had become a focus for Jihadi groups, and the camps also created a favourable atmosphere for trafficking in persons, drugs and arms. Morocco was one of the most stable countries in Africa and its 2007 autonomy proposal would ensure the stability of the region and spare the people of the Tindouf camps from radicalization.

Kirby Gookin of Western Sahara Human Rights Watch, who called Western Sahara the “touchstone of credibility for the United Nations”, said that a referendum was necessary if
Morocco was to cease violating not only the civil and political rights of Saharans, but also the exploitation of phosphates and fisheries.

Katyln Thomas, another petitioner, said Morocco had refused to proceed with the referendum
15 years ago because it knew the results would not be in Morocco’s favour. Meanwhile, Morocco ran “rampant” in Western Sahara, brazenly proclaiming that the Territory was part of Morocco. One of the final petitioners, Mula Ihfid sid Ahmed of the organization Sahrawi Students Collective Abroad, said his journey had started in the refugee camps, but he did not know where it would end. “Our future depends on this Committee,” he stressed, adding: “In Western Sahara, we believe in peace.”

Several other Saharan petitioners, as well as independent experts and representatives of non- governmental organizations from around the world, also took part in the discussion.
The Fourth Committee will next meet at 10 a.m. on 14 October to continue the joint general debate on decolonization.

The Fourth Committee (Special Political and Decolonization) continued its hearing of petitioners on Western Sahara this morning. See Press Releases GA/SPD/580 of 8 October, GA/SPD/581 of 9 October and GA/SPD/582of 10 October for further background information.