Will UN stop Morocco's violations of International Law?

by Kamal Fadel

In a landmark move the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA), issued on 29 January 2002, a verdict on the legality of the exploration of mineral resources in Western Sahara, in which it rejected Moroccan claims of sovereignty and stated that any further exploration and exploitation activities in this territory would be in violation of international law.

Last year two American and French oil companies signed deals with Morocco to explore along the coast of the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The Saharawi independence movement, the Polisario Front, protested against such deals, and asked the UN to intervene to stop them.

The Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and the Legal Counsel of the United Nations, Mr. Hans Corell, wrote to the President of the UN Security Council, reaffirming that the question of Western Sahara is a declonization issue and that Morocco has no sovereignty over that Territory and is not considered as an administering Power.

This opinion is of great significance to the Saharawi cause, as it indicates clearly that Morocco's presence in Western Sahara is illegal and that it has no right to enter into deals with foreign companies for exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of our country.

For the past eleven years, the United Nations has been trying to organise a referendum of self-determination in the Territory. But the UN has so far failed to accomplish its task because the Moroccan regime has been hindering UN efforts and obstructing the peace process.

It also seems that there has been a lack of political will and seriousness from the UN in implementing the remaining stages of the referendum process. Such an attitude is clear in the soft approach taken towards Morocco and the lack of any criticism to its negative attitude in UN reports.

Last month, as a gesture of good will, the Polisario Front released 115 Moroccan Prisoners Of War, who were handed over to Morocco. So far, the Polisario Front has released unilaterally 900 Moroccan prisoners of war. This was a humanitarian gesture as the exchange of prisoners of war and the release of political detainees was envisaged as a key stage in the UN Peace Plan and such a stage has not been reached yet.

But Morocco continues to ignore calls to account for 179 Saharawi Prisoners of War and hundreds of political detainees. It also continues to violently suppress Saharawis who protest against atrocities in the occupied areas.

Morocco has enjoyed impunity despite its flagrant violations of UN resolutions and human rights abuses for over two decades. It seems that Morocco's brutality has been rewarded, while the patience of the Saharawi people is being ignored.

It is hard to fathom how the Moroccan regime could get away with such brutality against a people whose only crime is to seek freedom and dignity.

Since last year, the Saharawi people have been facing one of the most dangerous and challenging stages of their struggle for freedom. This is due to the attempts to introduce an alternative to the UN peace process a so-called "third option"

However, the infamous "third option" seems to be failing as it is rejected by the Saharawi people and the international community. But it is not clear how the UN intends to overcome the obstacles hampering the implementation of the peace plan.

On February 28th, the mandate of the UN mission for Western Sahara will expire and before that the UN Security Council will have to decide on what the UN will do to solve this decolonisation problem. This is an opportunity for all UN members, to fulfil their responsibility towards a conflict that has caused so much suffering.

Following the UN Office of Legal Affairs' verdict, the Security Council should ask Morocco to withdraw from Western Sahara immediately, as its presence in Western Sahara is illegal. The Oil companies must cease their operations until the future of the territory is decided, and Spain should assume its responsibility towards the territory it abandoned in 1975. The role that was played by Portugal in finding a just solution for East Timor could be an example for Spain to follow.

The alternative to a just and lasting solution in Western Sahara would be the resumption of hostilities. This is an option that the Saharawi people have been trying to avoid for a long time despite Morocco's provocation and empty promises by the UN.

February 2002