“It’s necessary for the Security Council to protect innocent civilians and set up an inquiry commission,” the pro- independence Polisario Front leader, Khadad Mhamed, told IPS at the end of the third round of inconclusive talks with the Moroccan delegation held in a small town near New York.
The informal talks on the future of Western Sahara began last Sunday amid reports of deadly clashes between the Moroccan security forces and Saharan protesters which left several people dead and hundreds of injured on both sides.
At least 11 Saharans lost their lives as a result of Moroccan crackdown on a peaceful rally early this week, according to Polisario Front. The Moroccan government says six members of its security forces also died in the action.
“We are concerned about the violence,” said Farhan Haq, a spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General, who added in response to a question that the Security Council would not take any action unless there was “accurate information” about the incidents of violence in Western Sahara. “They are waiting,” he said.
The Polisario leaders who took part in the U.N.-mediated informal negotiations accused Morocco of using its muscle against peaceful demonstrators with the aim of diverting the international community’s attention from the real issue, which is the independence of Western Sahara.
“It’s a very clear message from Morocco. They killed our people. They are telling us: We don’t care about you. We will do what is in our interests,” said Mhamed, reflecting on the mood of Moroccan delegates at the talks mediated by Christopher Ross, the U.N. special envoy for the Western Sahara.
According to Mhamed, there were two main proposals on the negotiating table. One of those was about the right of self- determination. The other focused on the question of a possible referendum that could decide whether a majority of the people in the disputed territory wanted independence or integration.
Western Sahara is the last decolonisation case in Africa, and has been on the U.N. list of Non-Self Governing territories since 1963 when it was under Spanish colonial rule. Saharans lost much of their territory as a result of the Moroccan invasion in 1976.
Saharans argue that the Moroccan occupation is in violation of numerous U.N. resolutions as well as the 1975 ruling of the International Court of Justice that affirmed their right to self-determination.
Following the court’s decision, Spain was due to organise a referendum, but failed to do so as Morocco deployed its army in Western Sahara. In response, the Saharans established a resistance group known as Polisario in 1976. In 1991, the U.N. Security Council devised a plan to end fighting between the two sides and a free and fair referendum on self- determination in which Saharans would choose between independence and integration. The plan never worked.
There are more than 100,000 Saharans who are currently living in refugee camps in Algeria. U.N. officials responsible for monitoring human rights violations acknowledge in their reports that the question of human rights abuses is derived from the fact that the right to self-determination of the people of Western Sahara has not been accepted.
At the end of the talks, the Moroccan Foreign Minister Taib Fassi Fihri, said his country was “ready and open to these negotiations”, but dismissed calls in support of a referendum that would give multiple options to Saharans, including independence from Moroccan rule.
The Moroccan foreign minister dubbed Polisario’s quest for independence as “outdated”, and said that self-determination does not necessarily go through this mechanism which is rarely used in practice. He reiterated Moroccan position that the solution to settle the issue of Western Sahara requires “compromise and realism”.
For their part, the Polisario Front leaders held that they would never compromise on their demand for independence, although they had no objection to a referendum in which people could be asked whether they wanted an autonomous status in Morocco or complete independence. “We are ready to accept all Moroccan interests. We are open-minded. Ours is a very democratic position,” said Mhamed.
Both sides expressed their confidence in the mediator’s efforts to bring them to the negotiating table and agreed to hold two more rounds of talks in December and January 2011. “Ross tried to push for the negotiations to next level, but the problem lies with the Security Council and the secretary-general,” said Mhamed. “So far, there is not a single word from the Security Council or the secretary- general on this issue.”
In the past, Saharan leaders repeatedly pointed to France as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that backs Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, and that exerted its influence on the Council members who enjoy veto power.
Mhamed said the Moroccans were unwilling to leave Western Sahara because it was extremely rich with natural resources, such as phosphate, uranium, gold, and diamond.
“It’s all about minerals,” he said. “They are our neighbours. We will not ask them for any compensation. But we will not compromise on independence.”