HC Deb 12 December 1991 vol 200 cc1168-75

4 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The subject that I wish to raise is that of the future of Western Sahara, which at the moment, I believe, hangs very much in the balance. As the United Nations plan to try to resolve the long-standing problem there is a danger of running into very serious problems indeed. I obviously welcome the opportunity to raise the matter in the House and to record some facts about the history of and background to the impasse with which the Sahrawi people are faced.

It is a very large area of land: 110,000 sq miles, roughly equivalent to the area of the United Kingdom. It is very sparsely populated, with a population of rather less than a quarter of a million.

The problems for the Sahrawi people have been colonial oppression over many centuries and the fact that the country is rich in some minerals, particularly phosphates, and fish in the sea off its shores. We are talking of the last colony in Africa. Western Sahara became a colony in 1884 under Spain, because the Spanish were very keen to be included in the 1885 Congress of Berlin and by their occupation of Western Sahara they were able to achieve that. Their occupation was particularly oppressive and there were many rebellions against Spanish rule.

In the fullness of time the winds of change swept through Africa and independence was achieved for the colonies that had made up most of the continent. The mass colonisation of Africa took place mostly in the 19th century, and independence was achieved in virtually all cases in the 20th century. Morocco achieved its independence from France in 1956. Mauritania, which is germane to the area we are discussing, achieved its independence in 1961, and Algeria achieved its independence in 1962. However, during 1959, as a side-show to the war in Algeria, France gave considerable help to Spain in putting down rebellions of the Sahrawi people demanding their own independence. That conflict is well remembered.

In all this, the problems of Western Sahara as a colony were rather forgotten. The United Nations committee on decolonisation recognised in 1966 the case for decolonisation and, indeed, a United Nations delegation visited in 1975 to try to promote a settlement. In 1975 Kurt Waldheim, who was Secretary-General of the United Nations at that time, called for a process of restraint and no disruption of decolonisation. Finally, in 1976, following the death of Franco, Spain gave up all pretence of control of Western Sahara, having some years previously withdrawn its troops to the coastal areas. From that day on, 27 February 1976 has been recognised by the Sahrawi people as their day of independence.

Tragically, here we are in 1991 and that independence is not yet a complete reality because the vast majority of the area of Western Sahara is under the occupation of the Moroccan armed forces. In 1975, at the time when Spain gave up its claim to Western Sahara, King Hassan of Morocco personally led the "green march" into the Western Sahara area to establish, in effect, a new colony for Morocco, and the building of the sand wall which surrounds the area where the Sahrawi people were attempting to live. He created a military enclave, which he then attempted to settle in order that independence could be denied and this could be seen as part of greater Morocco.

That whole process since 1975 has led to a very bloody conflict. Many lives have been lost; many human rights abuses have occurred in Morocco as a result of the dynamic of the war that has been going on within Western Sahara.

The leaders of Western Sahara formed a government in exile based in Tindouf, in Algeria, and throughout the war there have been huge numbers of casualties. Human rights abuses have resulted in Morocco. In August this year Amnesty International produced an important statement in which it said that it feared that hundreds of western Saharan civilians who 'disappeared' up to 15 years ago are still held in secret detention in Morocco or have died. Some people had been released. The statement said: over 300 'disappeared' Sahrawis have been released after a royal amnesty in June, but hundreds more remain unaccounted for. The Moroccan Government has in the past persistently denied knowledge not only of those still missing but also of those recently set free. Amnesty said: Many of the released Sahrawis suffer severe physical or mental problems after having spent up to a decade and a half in secret captivity … Some are paralysed or blind due to harsh prison conditions, others left their cells insane. The report continued: At least 43 of their fellow inmates have died in custody since 1975, when Morocco first took control of the former colony of Spanish Sahara and began wholesale arrests of people for known or suspected links with the Polisario Front. … This year's royal amnesty is the first solid confirmation of the mass `disappearances'. Amnesty has produced a comprehensive report which I am sure the Minister has seen and which his officials will have examined.

The battle for independence of Western Sahara is twofold, like all battles for independence. On the one side there is the physical fighting and the casualties that have been incurred. It has always been a one-sided battle in the sense that on one side there is great determination by the Western Saharan people, led by the Polisario, and on the other side there are sophisticated weapons and the conscript army of Morocco.

One interesting point is the degree of international recognition of the Government in exile which has been recognised by 74 members of the United Nations. Crucially, in 1982 the Organisation of African Unity granted recognition to Western Sahara. I say "crucially" because, as the major political organisation in Africa, the OAU is important and it is always extremely reluctant —I underline that—to do anything that could be seen to upset the national borders of individual member states. In Africa the borders are all drawn by colonial powers and the possibility of change is considerable once it is prepared to go down that road. Interestingly, it is the only case that I know of where the OAU has recognised a right of independence from a different country. In other words, it supports the view taken by the rest of the world that the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco is not only illegal but an act of colonisation.

Agreements were reached with the United Nations, which has taken a consistent interest in the issue, that the case should be resolved peacefully. Obviously everyone wants that, although the recent actions of the Moroccan Government undermine their earlier declarations. In 1988, under resolution 621, the Security Council supported Perez de Cuellar's plan which would have led to the referendum. In 1991 Security Council resolution 690 was supported and later endorsed by the General Assembly. Under that resolution Morocco was to reduce its forces to 65,000 immediately and $200 million was to be voted to finance the referendum; there was to be an exchange of prisoners, and the roll for the referendum was to be based on the Spanish census of 1974. The referendum was to be held in January 1992.

Since then, Morocco has done a great deal to undermine the whole process. Military activity has increased. Morocco has increased the number of troops who are active in the western Sahara. Very recently it has tried to add 120,000 names to the electoral roll. The numbers being added would affect the result greatly, because the people are being bussed in, given names and told to register as Sahrawis. That would clearly upset the referendum process.

In addition, 40,000 settlers have been brought into Western Sahara by the new green march, once again led by King Hussan, and a state of siege exists in the area. His utterly cynical manoeuvres in taking people from the very poorest parts of Morocco, putting them on buses and trucks and promising them a home, a job and a bit of land if they go there, are a desperate attempt to hang on to a colony.

Many people believed that 20 years of war and Morocco's stubborn refusal to accept an international solution to the conflict were over. The "Peace Special" of the "Western Sahara Newsletter" of May-June 1991 uses those very words. It says that the Sahrawi people are now on the verge of the victory and independence that the Polisario has struggled for 18 years to achieve. Obviously, one hopes that that is the case, but serious obstacles remain to be overcome.

The timetable for a referendum began on 17 May last year and shows where the process has gone wrong. Stage 1 was from June to September, when Morocco and the Polisario were to agree on and implement a comprehensive ceasefire. Officials of MINURSO's Identification Commision were to arrive in Western Sahara and the commission was to update the Spanish census of 1974, which would form the basis of the referendum voting list. A preliminary list would then be presented by October.

Stage 2 was from October to November 1991, when the MINURSO military and civilian staff were to arrive in Western Sahara and supervise the withdrawal of half the Moroccan armed forces currently occupying Western Sahara; the remaining 65,000 were to be restricted to designated areas. Armed Polisario units were to meet at established bases in pre-arranged locations. Alongside several hundred civilian personnel, MINURSO was to consist of 1,700 UN troops, rather like the system used for the development of the ceasefire in Zimbabwe in 1981.

Stage 3 was to be carried out in the six weeks from November to December 1991—the present period—when the Sahrawi refugees were supposed to return to their homeland. The 165,000 refugees who fled the Moroccan invasion of 1975 were to be transported from their camps in Tindouf to safe locations in Western Sahara, again under UN supervision with the provision of transport, shelter and food. Voting stations were to be constructed.

Stage 4, of which we should now be in the middle, from December 1991 to January 1992, was to consist of three weeks of campaigning envisaged under the rules. Stage 5 was to be the referendum, due to take place in a month's time, with voting over seven days. The outcome of that referendum was to decide the future of Western Sahara.

It was hoped that that would be the end of a particularly brutal chapter in Africa's history and that peace could have been achieved at that time, but Morocco's more recent actions suggest that that is now extremely unlikely. There have been extremely disturbing reports which the Foreign Office has doubtless seen. In The Independent of 13 November 1991, one such report expressed concern about how some UN officials had been working against the interests of the Polisario. There was a serious allegation that they were not working evenhandedly with regard to the protagonists in the conflict.

In November 1991, King Hussan made a speech that hardly belonged to a man who had accepted that the United Nations had a serious role to play in the matter and that the conflict was about to come to an end, announcing that a foreign flag would never fly over Western Sahara. He then commemorated the 16th anniversary of the 1975 green march by promoting a new green march.

The peace plan is being sabotaged—it is as simple as that. This is not the first time that the Western Sahara issue has been raised in the House. More than 100 hon. Members have signed an early-day motion supporting the principles of the UN peace plan and saying that they want the referendum to go ahead. All that is now at risk. Morocco is desperate to keep its colony, despite all the agreements that it has made on many occasions.

We want the British Government to use all their influence with the United Nations to insist that Morocco, which is shortly to become a member of the Security Council, keeps to all the agreements made. We must ensure that prisoners of war are exchanged, there are no more ceasefire violations, and the electoral roll for the referendum is accepted on the basis of the 1974 census so that the voting can go ahead as it should do in a month's time. That should allow those people who have existed in the past 18 years in refugee camps in Algeria to return home, elect their own Government, live in their own country and decide their own future democratically. They should not be denied that opportunity by the presence of the Moroccan army or Morocco's subterfuge in attempting to undermine the process undertaken by the United Nations.

I strongly urge the British Government to use their influence to support the United Nations process and allow peace finally to return to the last colony in Africa so that we can say once and for all that the process of the colonisation of Africa—in terms of the 1885 Congress of Berlin—is over, the last colony is consigned to history and the people are granted peace.

4.16 am
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

With the leave of the House, may I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on his choice of subject for the debate, which is serious and rightly inspires strong feelings among hon. Members and the population in general.

The past few years have seen remarkable changes in the world: many intractable problems finally seem capable of solution. There has been much movement in regional conflicts throughout the world and the United Nations has been given a new lease of life—there was co-operation against an aggressor in the Gulf, remarkable success was achieved in Namibia and progress has been achieved in Cambodia. Now we are begining to see the chance of some success over one of Africa's most intractable problems and the opportunity to bring peace to Western Sahara.

There are also signs that the countries of the Maghreb, which for so long were divided on the future of the Western Sahara, have decided to co-operate to try to find a solution. They were encouraged in that endeavour by the European Community. The Labour party has taken a consistent line on the Western Sahara: that there should be no imposed solution and the decision on the future of that region should be made by the people themselves. It was always our strong belief that a referendum would allow the people of that district to make their own free choice only if it were conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Therefore, we were delighted when this summer, following the United Nations Security Council's unanimous endorsement of the plan, it seemed that we were on course for such a referendum in January 1992.

However, since then we and many others have been highly disquieted by the number of allegations made about breaches in the agreed timetable and the preparatory conditions for the referendum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, serious allegations were made in The Independent on 13 November and further allegations about breaches have been made by other organisations and people on the spot. The allegations are all the more serious because they cast doubt not only on the process that is now under way, but on the very credibility of the United Nations presence in Western Sahara.

The anxiety was reflected in an early-day motion tabled on 5 December by the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party's foreign affairs committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). That early-day motion, on which my hon. Friend deserves congratulations, has already attracted 59 signatures.

Our aim in relation to Western Sahara is to be as constructive as possible. Our county's influence should be used to ensure that the United Nations status and objectives there are met in full. Therefore, I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions, if he is given the leave of the House to speak.

Do the Government believe that there is a realistic prospect of the timetable set by the Security Council for a referendum in January being met? It is an important question and I am sure that the House and the wider world would like to hear the Government's estimation. If the Government do not believe in such a prospect, what conclusion can be drawn? Why is the timetable in question? Is there a lack of resources for the process, a lack of co-operation by the Moroccan Government or by the UN agency? We have heard no allegations about foot-dragging or obstruction by the Polisario who appear to have complied to the letter with the obligations that they took on. Sadly, in contrast, there have been a number of allegations directed at Morocco—the role of the military in situ, the denial of access to observers and repeated allegations of the attempted flooding of electoral rolls by large numbers of Moroccans who have moved —or been moved—into the area.

What is the extent of the Government's support for the referendum process? We know that financial assistance has been given, but perhaps the Minister will illuminate us as to how much. What is the extent of the Government's commitment and how does the scale of our assistance compare with that of our European Community partners?

In the light of the slippage of the timetable due to alleged non-compliance, is not it time for the Government to take a lead in returning the matter to the Security Council for a reorientation and redefinition of the existing mandate if that were judged to be appropriate?

Finally, there have been repeated allegations of intimidation of electors. I put it no more strongly than that because I and my colleagues are not in a position to do other than repeat those strong allegations of intimidation of electors in the referendum process. The Minister will, of course, be aware that in previous elections hon. Members who have gone to such areas have played a valuable role. With their knowledge, they have been able to assist. Recently, hon. Members went to Bangladesh and Zambia and performed a major task there. Does the Foreign Office think that it would be right for them to do the same in this case?

We are conscious of the success that the United Nations has had in setting up the timetable. We look forward to the people of the Western Sahara being able to make a free and fair decision on their future. We look forward, too, to the United Nations having its reputation reinvigorated by another success in another regional conflict, and we must hope, perhaps beyond hope, that some of the hiccups in the timetable will be relieved and that the people of this area will soon be able to make an historic choice in a free and fair fashion.

4.25 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Does the Minister have the leave of the House to speak again?

Hon. Members


Mr. Hogg

I agree with the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) that this is an important debate. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is to be congratulated on having selected this matter for discussion although, as I have already said, I do not believe that the Consolidated Fund is an appropriate means of conducting important debates of this kind.

The hon. Member for Islington, North has set out in some detail the historical background to the problem, and I broadly agree with his recital of the facts of the case.

The conflict over Western Sahara has lasted a long time —far too long—and a solution is clearly overdue. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we warmly enclose the plan drawn up by the United Nations Secretary-General and endorsed by the Security Council. The plan sets out a timetable for a referendum for the self-determination for the people of Western Sahara and provides for the establishment of a mission for a referendum in Western Sahara to achieve this end. That mission is being organised by the United Nations.

The United Kingdom has contributed financially to the mission and we have provided about 15 military observers. I am afraid that I do not have to hand the extent of our contribution, or how it compares with that of other countries, but I will respond to the hon. Member for Hamilton on those points in writing.

The ceasefire came into effect on 6 September, as scheduled in the plan, and so far as we are aware it is still holding.

Mr. Corbyn

If the referendum process has to be extended, do I take it from the Minister's remarks that the British Government would be prepared to support a UN proposal for increased funding to enable the monitoring to continue? Without the monitoring and the UN presence, the referendum will not take place.

Mr. Hogg

We are anxious that it should go ahead, but this is neither the time nor the place for me to give a positive and binding commitment of the sort that the hon. Gentleman seeks. If the Secretary-General comes up with more proposals, we shall give them serious thought.

We have been neutral throughout this dispute. We do not recognise the Polisario or the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Nor do we accept Moroccan claims to the territory. We have consistently reaffirmed our belief in the principle of self-determination, and that has governed our policies on this matter in the UN and elsewhere.

It is inevitable that problems will arise over efforts to resolve such a long and difficult dispute, and the hon. Member for Islington, North has identified a number of the problems that are said to have occurred.

It is important to keep in mind that the development of the plan and its implementation are essentially matters for the United Nations Secretary-General. Therefore, questions on the deployment of the mission, the drawing up of the electoral rolls or the arrangements for the referendum are essentially matters for the Secretary-General, reporting where necessary to the Security Council.

The hon. Member for Islington, North made a point regarding the probity of the United Nations staff. He quoted an article in The Independent. The Secretary-General has denied the truth of those allegations, so I cannot take the matter further. I think that they were the allegations concerning computer diskettes.

If the Secretary-General decides to come forward with further proposals to the Security Council—the hon. Gentleman suggested that that was something that he might wish to do with regard to delaying the referendum —we shall consider them with our partners. The Secretary-General has not said that the referendum will be delayed, but if the date does slip we shall press for it to be held as soon as possible, subject to the important qualification that the conditions for the referendum should be right.

It is important that the parties to the dispute co-operate fully with the Secretary-General in the implementation of the settlement plan. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's anxieties about the Moroccans' conduct is misplaced. If efforts are made to distort the result of the referendum, it will create conditions which may prevent a long-lasting settlement being effective. I listened with concern to what the hon. Gentleman said. I hope that what he said is wrong and that his anxieties are misplaced. These are grave matters and if the results are being distorted, that is bad news for everyone.

The exact criteria for inclusion in the electoral roll which were mentioned by the hon. Gentleman are matters for the United Nations identification commission. I understand that that issue is still under discussion. If the Secretary-General comes back to the Security Council with recommendations on that point, we shall consider them.

In the end, however, we have to recognise that this is a long-standing dispute. The only game in town is that put forward by the Secretary-General, who has a particularly difficult task. We have every confidence in his impartiality. He has our support. We shall do whatever we reasonably can to help him and we, like the hon. Gentleman, hope that the dispute can be resolved.

Mr. Corbyn

In view of the concern about the behaviour of Morocco and its armed forces, has there been any direct contact between the British Government and Morocco on that? I recognise what the Minister said about neutrality in the dispute, but neutrality would not prevent the British Government from protesting, if that was appropriate, to either side in the dispute before the referendum was held.

Mr. Hogg

I do not know the answer to that question. I do not know whether specific representations have been made to the Secretary-General. I shall look into that point and write to the hon. Gentleman. I will go further and have the allegations investigated. If it seems appropriate to make representations to the Secretary-General—or, for that matter, to anyone else—and we have not done so, we will do so.

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