Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

WESTERN SAHARA: Africa Should Slap Sanctions on Morocco

Saaleha Bamjee

MIDRAND, South Africa, Oct 7 2011 (IPS) - A firm call for African Union member states to impose sanctions against Morocco until it abides by the United Nations mandate that affirms the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination was made at the Pan African Parliament proceedings.

The Pan African Parliament (PAP), the legislative organ of the African Union (AU), is meeting from Oct. 3 to 14 for the Fifth Ordinary Session of the Second Parliament in Midrand, South Africa. The call comes as PAP reviewed recommendations of a fact-finding mission to the region on Wednesday.

The Western Sahara is a disputed territory, with the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) claiming sovereignty over the entire region while Morocco continues to occupy about 75 percent of Western Sahara after Spain withdrew in 1976.

“What Morocco calls its southern provinces in the Western Sahara region, SADR deems occupied territory and over 100,000 Saharawis have been displaced from the area over the last 35 years, the bulk of whom now reside in refugee camps in Western Algeria,” said PAP member Juliana Kantengwa of Rwanda who headed the fact-finding mission.

In line with PAP’s objective to promote peace and security on the continent, the parliament sent the delegation in July to look into SADR’s state of decolonisation.

Kantengwa referred to SADR as a government in exile, as their seat of governance lies in refugee camps next to the city of Tindouf, in Western Algeria.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Algerian government has said that there are an estimated 165,000 Saharawi refugees in the Tindouf camps.

In her team’s report before PAP, Kantengwa recommended the parliament strengthen its advocacy of the plight of Western Sahara and that it should urge the AU, through its Peace and Security Council, to push member states to impose sanctions or use other forms of leverage to force Morocco to abide by the U.N. mandate that affirms the people of Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.

While PAP does not currently have the legislative power to put the reports’ recommendations to action, Kantengwa said that PAP’s advisory and advocacy clout could go a long way to educating the members of the international community.

“It’s been a silent conflict but for as long as we keep it on our agenda, the international powers will be made aware of what is happening in Saharawi,” she said.

Morocco has proposed a plan with which to end the conflict. Dubbed the Automomy Plan, it outlines that Western Sahara will be granted some measure of autonomy by way of their national governance, while still under the sovereignty of Morocco. However, it does not allow for the Saharawi to hold a referendum to decide between independence or integration into Morocco.

Ouaddadi Cheikh Ahmed El-Haiba, PAP member from SADR, referred to the Autonomy Plan, as a “death plan”. “The Saharawi want to be able to determine their own fate. We want nothing more than independence,” El-Haiba said.

Morocco exited the AU (the then Organisation of African Unity) in 1984 when the union recognised SADR as a member state. However, AU member states still maintain diplomatic ties with Morocco.

“I think the AU should take its own resolutions and recommendations into practice. Despite the resolutions that have come through from the U.N., security councils and human rights bodies etc, each affirming the rights of the Saharawi, Morocco is still not willing to accept any of them.

“If they are not sanctioned they will continue to act as they are doing in Western Sahara, because they feel they are supported by international powers,” El-Haiba said.

Salah El Abd Mohamed, the Saharawi Ambassador in South Africa, told IPS that the embassy was very satisfied with the report that was presented before PAP.

“The team saw what was really happening on the ground and how the Saharawi people are struggling for their self-determination. We thank PAP for the delegation that was sent to the Saharawi and welcome their recommendations,” El Abd Mohamed said.

Kantengwa told IPS that despite the challenges they face living in the camps and the uncertainty of their futures while Western Sahara remains under occupation by Morocco, the women of Saharawi were hopeful that their right to self-determination will one day come to fruition.

Kantengwa noted that Saharawi women played active roles in the community and that many held positions in governance.

Women were especially active in the camps and have totally taken over the organisation and provision of social services such as health and education, Kantengwa told IPS.

The youth, however, seemed less hopeful she said. “The society is dominated by women. The few youth that were there told us that they were becoming impatient with the laboured negotiation processes between SADR and Morocco over the contested territory, and that armed conflict may break out if it is too slow.”

El-Haiba told IPS that Saharawi women have always been in the vanguard of the struggle and they occupy high levels in the structures of the Polisario Front, a liberation movement initially established to fight Spanish colonialism in Western Sahara, which now struggles against Morocco’s occupation.

“At the level of village governance you will find that out of 10 members per committee, only one or two will be men. If you got to the level of the districts, all the leaders are women. They make up 34 percent of our national assembly and we have three female ministers in the portfolios of education, culture and women affairs,” El-Haiba said.

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