HC Deb 19 February 1993 vol 219 cc657-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

2.39 pm
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

The subject of this debate is the British Government's policy towards Western Sahara. The subject is not a new one before the House, because I raised it in an Adjournment debate in 1991 and it was subsequently discussed during a Friday morning debate on the future of the United Nations in December 1992 when a number of hon. Members expressed their concern about events in Western Sahara.

It is important for the House to understand the long history behind this sorry tale. Western Sahara was one of the later acquisitions of the European colonial powers as part of the scramble for Africa in the 1880s. Spain took over what is now Western Sahara as a colony and administered it until Franco died in the mid-1970s when it withdrew from Morocco. At that time, the people of Western Sahara were denied the right to self-determination and any opportunity to take part in the rapid decolonisation of the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies. They were denied that right because their land, which is rich in phosphates and appears to have large oil deposits, was immediately occupied by Morocco and Mauritania—its neighbours.

The people of Western Sahara were not prepared to accept that state of affairs and the Polisario Front was rapidly formed on behalf of the Saharawi people. It fought a guerrilla struggle for some years against the Moroccan and Mauritanian occupation of their land. Mauritania renounced any claim to the territory in 1979 and withdrew its forces. The Moroccan occupation continues to this day.

Many interesting issues are involved in this subject, but it is important to put on record that what has happened in Western Sahara is part of an anti-colonial struggle, which has gone on in Africa for a long time. It is also important to note that it is the only example of a demand for independence being made within the borders of an existing country—Morocco lays claim to Western Sahara—which has the support of the Organisation of African Unity. It has recognised the Polisario Front as the sole legitimate representative of the people of that region.

The Polisario Front is also recognised by 74 other countries. The British Government have never recognised it, but they have made their views clear. On 12 December 1991 the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a debate held at 4.25 in the morning—I confess that the House was not packed at the time—

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

It is not packed at 2.30 in the afternoon.

Mr. Corbyn

Indeed. The Minister said: As a permanent member of the Security Council, we warmly endorse the plan drawn up by the United Nations Secretary-General and endorsed by the Security Council." Following an intervention from me, he said: We have been neutral throughout this dispute. We do not recognise the Polisario or the Saharawi 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. Later, the Minister said: The Secretary-General has not said that the referendum will be delayed"— the referendum should have been held in December 1991— 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/"—[Official Report, 12 December 1991; Vol. 200, c. 1173–74.] We are talking of the need to resolve the conflict, which has raged since 1974 when the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara and which still continues. A conflict has to be resolved by resolution and the agreement of both sides. In the latter part of the 20th century, one hopes that, through the auspices of the United Nations, we can provide a peaceful resolution to an awful and bloody conflict in which many lives have been lost.

There have been consistent attempts to involve the United Nations. Those attempts culminated in the plan to hold a referendum in December 1991 under the auspices of the United Nations. The United Nations set up an organisation, MINURSCO, to undertake the preparations for the referendum. However, that organisation has a pitifully low complement of staff. I am not criticising the quality of the staff, but there are very few of them. The British contribution to the monitoring exercise amounts to the grand total of 15 people.

Throughout that period, there have been consistent violations of the ceasefire which had earlier been agreed. The report to the United Nations Security Council of 25 January 1993 on the MINURSO experience states: Still I have noted with concern a reversal in the downward trend in the number of violations discerned during the period 29 May to 20 August 1992 when only six violations were reported by the MINURSO Force Commander a.i. By contrast, no less than 50 violations were reported in the period 20 August to 20 January 1993, with 46 of them attributed to Morocco and four to the Frente POLISARIO. Of the former violations, 22 related to overflights, 13 to improvements of defensive works and 11 to unauthorized troop movements. On the Frente POLISARIO side, all four violations involved troop movements without prior notification and permission. Additionally, the POLISARIO filed complaints alleging 24 overflights over and above the 22 which could be confirmed by MINURSO's own observations. The violations of the ceasefire are regrettable, as is the failure to hold the referendum in December 1991. The referendum did not take place for the following reasons. There has been an agreement between Morocco and the Polisario on the method of drawing up the electoral roll by which the referendum should be taken. It was agreed that the roll should comprise the 74,000 people whose names appeared on the 1974 census and who were resident in the Western Sahara at that time.

The vast majority of Saharawi people have been forced into refugee camps in exile in southern Algeria, where they live to this day. They are living as best they can, but they are in camps and in exile—they are refugees who want to return home. It was obviously hoped that the agreement on the drawing up of the electoral roll would allow a referendum to be held and the people of that country to decide of their own free will whether they wanted to be a part of Morocco or an independent country.

Close to the date on which the referendum was to have been held, Morocco said that it wished to add 120,000 names to the roll. Many of the names appeared to be soldiers or people who had been settled in the Western Sahara by the Moroccan Government of King Hassan who, during the process, said that no foreign flag would ever fly over the Western Sahara. That calls into question his original support for the United Nations position. There were some serious problems. On 1 October 1992, the United States Senate foreign relations Africa subcommittee held a special hearing on the situation in the Western Sahara. In a lengthy statement Senator Edward Kennedy said: The ongoing crisis in the Western Sahara raises seriouus questions regarding the Government of Morocco's willingness to honour its international commitment to a free and fair referendum in that territory. It also brings into question the credibility of the United Nations in administering the Western Saharan peace plan, and our own government's commitment to the principles of sovereignty and self-determination. Barring immediate and dramatic progress, the peace plan for the Western Sahara is destined to fail. If the peace plan is to succeed, the United States must do more to make clear—through deed as well as word—its commitment to a free and fair referendum for the indigenous Saharawi people. The senator described it as one of the last vestiges of colonialism and supported the idea that there should be a rapid resolution of the conflict.

Resolutions of conflict require the understanding by both sides that they have to adhere to the original agreements. That is quite difficult in the light of an Amnesty International report published in October 1992 which lists a number of Saharawi people who have disappeared. It states: Among several hundred Saharawis still 'disappeared' is Baidari ould Sidi Mohamed oul Barbouchi. Born in 1943 at Oued Seguia, he was a student at the time of his arrest on 29 February 1976 in Tan Tan. Another is Mgaili ment Yandih ould Embarek who was born in 1951 in Laayoune and arrested there on 3 March 1985, shortly before a visit to the city by King Hassan II. Some have been released, but apparently a large number of secret detention centres have not released anybody and there are concerns about other Saharawis who went missing during this time.

The other extremely serious aspect is that immediately before his retirement as Secretary-General of the United Nations, Perez de Cuellar, who was Secretary-General throughout the time that United Nation resolutions on the future of the Western Sahara were carried, presented a new report. It was several times rejected by the Security Council and less than 24 hours before he ceased to be Secretary-General he persuaded the Security Council to carry a new resolution which did not accept his report but noted it. It was subsequently interpreted as a fundamental change in the United Nations attitude to the drawing up of the electoral roll and the way in which the referendum would be held.

Doubly disturbing is that some months later a large Moroccan holding company called ONA which is involved principally in mining, but also in other industries in Morocco, issued a press release to the effect that Perez de Cuellar had become an associate of the company and would be paid a substantial salary. That was subsequently reported in El Pais on 1 February 1993 and in some British newspapers. Perez de Cuellar subsequently denied any such appointment. However, it is strange that he put enormous energy into producing a report on the eve of his retirement. Also strange was his subsequent invitation to be a senior person in a mining company that stands to gain a great deal from the continued Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara.

Mr. Mullin

Does my hon. Friend agree that if Mr. Perez de Cuellar is listening, we would be interested to know whether he ever received any money from that company?

Mr. Corbyn

I am unable to answer my hon. Friend's question, but it and my quotes from press statements and other sources are on the record and it is up to Perez de Cuellar to make clear his position.

We must move on from that, because what happens in future is of the greatest interest. One option for the future of Western Sahara is for the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, to establish further negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario in order to reach agreement on how the electoral roll should be drawn up in advance of a referendum.

The second option is to impose the referendum on the basis of the electoral roll that has been drawn up and objected to by Morocco, with the objection sustained, which would mean a much larger electoral roll. Given the way that Morocco objected to the original roll, one can predict what the outcome of such a referendum might be. The third option would be to do something new.

It is important that the British Government stick to their original position, which was that they were neutral in the conflict and that a referendum should be held only if there were agreement by the protagonist parties on the basis on which it should be held. If a United Nations referendum is sponsored and held when there is no agreement between the two parties on how it should take place, it will not have any validity and could not last anyway.

The United Nations has sponsored referendums held to decide the future of a country—for exampe, Namibia and Angola. In such cases, there has been a large United Nations monitoring presence to ensure a free and fair referendum, a UN-sponsored educative process to show people how they should register to vote, how they should vote and what they are voting about, and sufficient numbers of international observers to ensure that those taking part in the vote are doing so without any let or hindrance. Therefore, the referendums have been genuinely free and fair.

If a referendum is imposed, the result of it will not be accepted by the losing side or by any other country. I urge the British Government to support option A—to encourage the Secretary-General of the United Nations to undertake continuing negotiations and call for a fresh report from the United Nations delegation within Western Sahara about what is going on, and what chances there are for reaching an agreement.

The stakes are high. Why should the Saharawi people be forced to leave their country, because of the annexation of Western Sahara in 1974 by Morocco and Mauritania, although Mauritania subsequently withdrew, and to live in refugee camps in southern Algeria? They demand the right to self-determination and that has been established and agreed and is on the record in many places all over the world.

The alternative is the continuation of a vicious war with large-scale loss of life and a diminution of the authority of the United Nations in the eyes of the rest of the world. I hope that the British Government will understand that there is a strength of feeling about this and that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have concerns about the matter and want to meet the Minister to have a further and perhaps longer discussion about how the British Government can advance the cause of a referendum in Western Sahara.

2.57 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is to be congratulated on raising an important subject. I know that it is one which he follows with close attention, in keeping with the other subjects about which few other hon. Members know, but on which he has made himself an expert.

A settlement of the dispute over Western Sahara is long overdue. It is extremely disappointing that progress since we last debated the issue at the instigation of the hon. Member has been so limited. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we have worked hard to seek a solution. We warmly welcomed the plan drawn up by the UN Secretary-General in April 1991 and endorsed by the Security Council in resolution 690. As the hon. Gentleman said, that set out a timetable for a referendum that would allow self-determination for the people of Western Sahara. It also provided for the establishment of MINURSO—the United Nations Mission for a Referendum in the Western Sahara—to achieve this. A ceasefire came into effect on 6 September 1991, when a small number of MINURSO personnel were deployed. There have been no military clashes since then.

The British Government have contributed financially to MINURSO and also provided 15 military observers. Both parties have expressed considerable praise for the contribution made by British military observers. I pay tribute to their exemplary and highly professional conduct. Under the United Nations settlement plan, the implementation of the ceasefire marked the beginning of a transitional period that should have ended with the proclamation of the results of the referendum some 20 weeks later—in other words, at the end of January last year. Unfortunately, the timetable did not prove possible and we greatly regret the delay in holding the referendum, although it is not altogether surprising that problems should have arisen over efforts to resolve such a long and difficult dispute.

The most serious problem is the identification and registration of those eligible to vote in the referendum. It is not useful to try to apportion blame for the failure to resolve those problems. Under the terms of the settlement plan, the Secretary-General is ultimately responsible for determining the voting criteria. It is clear that both sides will have to show flexibility if outstanding problems are to be resolved.

Since we last debated this subject, in December 1991, Dr. Boutros Ghali has appointed Mr. Yaqub Khan to be his special representative on Western Sahara. The hon. Gentleman will agree that Mr. Yaqub Khan is a man of the highest integrity.

Mr. Corbyn

indicated assent.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that was a very suitable appointment to a very difficult task. Mr. Yaqub Khan is a former Foreign Secretary for Pakistan, in which capacity he was equivalent to our Permanent Under-Secretary. I happen to know him as a result of other Foreign Office responsibilities.

Throughout last year, Mr. Yaqub Khan worked assiduously to bring the two parties together. In particular, he tried to get agreement on the criteria for eligibility to vote in the referendum and to obtain guarantees from both parties on their conduct, were they to win the referendum. Although he made some progress, problems over the voting criteria and their interpretation remain.

The Security Council is considering the Secretary-General's latest report, which sets out several options. It would not be right to enter into detail about the New York discussions, but I will make one comment in a moment. I hope that those discussions will result in a resolution that strengthens the Secretary-General's hand in further talks with all the parties and will lead to an early date for the referendum.

The one comment I will make is that I concur that the terms under which the referendum is held must be agreed by all the parties, and the Government's position in that regard has not changed since it was first developed. We shall play our part in New York in trying to ensure that the settlement plan is given renewed impetus.

We remain convinced that the Secretary-General's efforts to find a solution to that long-standing dispute offer the best way forward. I hope that the current discussions in New York will help to break the deadlock. The Secretary-General has our full support. His task is not easy. Much depends on the parties themselves. We shall continue to urge them to co-operate with the Secretary-General and to show the courage and flexibility that are needed.

Mr. Corbyn

Are the British Government prepared to continue supporting MINURSO, perhaps by increasing the number of personnel and the finance, which would perhaps need to be enhanced if a totally free referendum is to be held?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I cannot, at the conclusion of my speech, enter into much detail on that point, but we keep our contribution to MINURSO under review. The current deployment runs until April this year. It would be wrong to anticipate a decision at the tail-end of my speech—or at all—today.

We will urge the parties to show flexibility, for that is essential if this unhappy dispute is to be brought to the peaceful conclusion for which we all hope.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Three o'clock.