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Western Sahara

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2006

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise once again the situation of the Saharawi people and Western Sahara. I shall keep my remarks especially brief because I want my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to say a few words if he catches your eye, Mr. Caton.

The debate comes at an important moment in the sad history of Western Sahara. The United Nations Security Council will meet in the next few days to discuss the way forward on the peace process after 15 years of Moroccan obstruction. My hon. Friend the Minister will need no reminding that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the United Kingdom has a vital role to play in resolving the dispute, which has gone on far too long. It has a legal responsibility under the UN charter as a permanent member of the Security Council to protect the people of Western Sahara from continuing Moroccan oppression. Sadly, it is failing in its responsibilities.

The history of Britain’s approach has largely been one of indifference and inaction. I am talking not just about the current Government; the problem dates back a considerable time. While offering the bromide that it supports the UN process or UN efforts, the UK has built up its own relationships and trade with Morocco, and has done very little to compel Morocco to end the illegal occupation and to allow a referendum on the right of self-determination, or to exert pressure on Morocco to end the human rights abuses committed against the Saharawi people.

By recently signing up to an EU agreement with Morocco whereby the EU will pay Morocco to fish Western Sahara’s waters, the UK is rewarding Morocco for its occupation. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North had a lot to say on that in a debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), but it remains a running sore.

I hope that the Minister’s comments will give us some hope for the future, because we have had enough bromides. I suspect that he will say that the UK will continue to support the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy, but all the messages coming back are that the UN is losing respect in the territories, and the Polisario feels that time has run out. Sadly, the UN has achieved precisely nothing in the 15 years since the ceasefire. The reason why it is unable to do anything seems to be that countries such as the UK will not engage in the proper process of bringing self-determination to the territories. If that continues, we will end up with the current shameful situation, which is unacceptable.

Britain’s membership of the UN Security Council is premised on our responsibility to pursue and enforce the fair and lawful resolution of disputes before the council. The Government claim that they take that very seriously. In a pamphlet published last month, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote:

“Wherever people live in fear, with no prospect of advance, we should be on their side, in solidarity with them”.

Indeed we should, but the Saharawis live in fear under Moroccan oppression, and unless the UK and other powers do something, they have no prospect of advancing. It is tempting to say that the British Government have done absolutely nothing to show that they are on their side, but even that would be wrong, as the Government are doing something worse than nothing—they can be seen to be complicit in the continuing occupation.

When the fisheries deal, which is about plundering the fish in Western Sahara’s waters, was signed, objections were made, but that made little difference. Britain agreed with that deal, and for some hon. Members that was a very sad day. Was the Minister aware that the EU justified the deal by distorting a 2002 opinion from the UN legal adviser, Hans Corell, and that Mr. Corell himself said that the agreement was a violation of international law? Action could have been taken to forestall the deal. I am aware of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office legal opinion that the agreement does not “prejudice” any eventual settlement of the dispute, but can the Minister explain how paying Morocco to allow the EU to fish the waters of the occupied territory pressures Morocco into agreeing to any settlement involving self-determination in the territories?

The occupation in which Britain is, sadly, complicit remains an ugly thing. The Saharawi people are denied their political and human rights; they are oppressed. How do we know that? After organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International raised the profile of allegations of torture against prisoners of conscience in Western Sahara, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a fact-finding team to the territory in May this year. Is the Minister aware of the existence and contents of that report and, if so, how does he intend to act on some of the shocking findings? In case he has not seen the report—it has not been published; behind that lies a tale that I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North may be able to speak about—we are happy to furnish him with a copy of it, because it contains a number of serious allegations that need to be followed up.

The hon. Gentleman makes his points with great sincerity. I am sure that before he concludes he will want to comment on the fact that the Saharawis are a tribal people and of the 32 tribes that make up that race, only two support the position that he puts before the Chamber. Therefore, there is undoubtedly a dispute over which side speaks for the people. I am sure that he would wish to comment on the fact that only two of the 32 tribes support the Polisario position and that therefore the position of Her Majesty’s Government and preceding Governments seems to be the fairest if one looks at the issue from an unbiased point of view.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The simple answer is, “Let’s put it to the test; let’s have a referendum.” That is the way to determine who has the right to speak for the territories. If Morocco had agreed to the terms of the Baker plan, there could have been a referendum.

It is interesting that Simon Conway of Landmine Action is in the territories, looking at the munitions situation. Incidentally, Landmine Action produced an interesting report on Lebanon last week. It is sad to say that exactly the same munitions—many improvised explosive devices and a great amount of cluster munitions—continue to lie on the territories of Western Sahara. I again plead with the Minister for something to be done to speed up the clearance of those areas, because the people cannot go back even if they want to.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on obtaining the debate. I feel a sense of depression, disappointment and anger that in 2006 we are debating whether the position of the Polisario in representing the people of Western Sahara and in demanding a referendum is the correct one. The reason I feel anger and depression is that I first raised this matter in the House more than 20 years ago at 4 o’clock in the morning during one of the many all-night Adjournment debates that we used to have in those days. The debate concerned the situation in Western Sahara. The then Foreign Office Minister told me, as subsequent Ministers have told me, “We accept the UN position. Of course there’ll be a referendum.” We have had those answers year after year after year. The former Member of Parliament for Gloucester, Tess Kingham, raised the issue many times, as have other hon. Members. I hope that the Minister can give us hope that we will be serious and determined about bringing about justice for the people of Western Sahara.

I had the fortune to visit the refugee camps in Algeria and to travel into the small bit of liberated zone of the Western Sahara itself to attend the Polisario congress two years ago. Those camps have been there for 31 years. They are home to 150,000 people, who rely on the UN and aid agencies for food, medicine, education, housing and life itself. Is it right that after all these years—31 years—the rest of the world should simply look away, throw a bit of money at the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara—Minurso—and say, “It’s going to be okay. They’ll survive there somehow”? It is wrong. It is an injustice that has to be dealt with.

The report referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the mission to the Western Sahara refugee camps in Tindouf is very interesting and I am astonished that it has not been published. We need to know why, and I look to the Government of the UK to demand, as a loyal and active member of the United Nations, the answer to that. The report outlines the systematic abuse of human rights, unfair trials, illegal imprisonment, and all the horrors that go with that, of the people, who have suffered because of the continued occupation of Western Sahara.

When the referendum was first mooted by MINURSO there were many arguments about how it would be organised and who would be on the electoral roll. Indeed, most of the debate has been about the electoral roll itself. The debates went on and negotiations proceeded. In some ways they were quite successful. There was hope. There was a way forward. However, a number of things have happened since then. One was that when the UN representative, Baker, was asked to go there and investigate on behalf of the Secretary-General, he undertook many negotiations and came up with what was known as the Baker plan. In essence it said that the western Saharwi people should accept the de facto administration of the territories and that at a later stage there should be a referendum on the future of the territory. That would probably include votes for the settlers who were moved there by Morocco in the first place.

I attended the Polisario congress that debated that report and the proposal. It was painful to see how the Polisario had been forced into that corner by the international community with the promise of a degree of peace and a right of return, but with no promise of the immediate independence for Western Sahara that it has long demanded and for which it has long campaigned. It was not even given a promise of its possibility in the near future. Having taken a historic, difficult and painful decision, it was then stabbed in the back by Morocco and the United Nations when progress on the process was simply not made. That is the tragedy and sadness of the situation.

I think the record will show that the Moroccan Government accepted the Baker plan as a basis for negotiation, but that both Algeria and the Polisario refused to accept it. That is not quite the impression that the hon. Gentleman is giving.

I beg to differ. That is simply not the case. I was at the congress. I am well aware of the Polisario position and the difficulty it faced. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has close contacts with the Moroccan Administration, and he must know their position: they want to continue occupying Western Sahara illegally and to deny the Sahrawi people the right to vote independently on their future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud pointed out, unfortunately Morocco can be said to have been rewarded by the agreement of the fisheries policy that was approved by the EU.

My plea to the Minister is to understand the injustice that has happened to the Sahrawi people; to understand the geopolitics of it—the wealth, in the form of fish in the sea and minerals under the ground; and to understand the plight of the people living in refugee camps for all those years. At the moment there is no fighting. There is the sand wall. There are landmines. There are tanks and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Moroccan troops available to go into the area should fighting break out. There is also tension, I believe, among the Sahrawi people. Young people cannot understand why they should spend their lives in a refugee camp when their home is a few miles away, and they want to return in dignity and peace.

Surely this time it is up to us, as a member of the UN, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, to ensure that the report is published and sees the light of day; to ensure that there is a permanent UN human rights monitoring mission in the area to observe what is going on; and, above all, to ensure that the Sahrawi people have a right, legally endorsed, under the UN decolonisation process, to vote on their future—on whether they live independently or not in that area. It is the last colony of Africa. Surely it is time to ensure that one more page of history is turned, and that those people have the right to decide on their future and their independence or otherwise.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for raising the subject. I know that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) have been committed to this issue for many years. Indeed, I remember discussing it at length with both my hon. Friends shortly after becoming a Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I have discussed Western Sahara on several recent occasions with Ministers from Morocco and Algeria—for example, during my visit to both countries in June. Last week, I had a detailed discussion about Western Sahara with the Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister, His Excellency Taib Fassi Fihri. I know, and we have just heard, that there are strong views on this subject. Members of Parliament regularly write to me about it, albeit that they include my two hon. Friends, and members of the public write too. The non-governmental organisation War on Want recently sent the Foreign Office more than 2,000 postcards about Western Sahara, expressing support for a referendum on independence. The subject stirs strong views and emotions. Firmly held principles are at stake.

I want to emphasise that the UK Government remain keen for the issue to be resolved. The status of Western Sahara has been undetermined for more than 30 years. Resolving that would have a positive benefit for the region and its people.

The United Kingdom supports the Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to assist the different parties to overcome the deadlock and to make progress towards achieving a lasting negotiated settlement to this frozen conflict. The United Kingdom is in close contact with the Kingdom of Morocco, which has committed itself officially to formulate a credible autonomy proposal before the end of March 2007. To finalise the autonomy proposal, as a compromise, large democratic consultations, at both grass-roots and national level, are under way.

The Minister referred to the status of Western Sahara as undetermined. Can he then explain why the Government have supported an EU deal on fisheries with one side of the disputed land?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into that in great depth. The EU-Morocco fisheries agreement is an EU bilateral partnership agreement and should have no effect on the question of the status of Western Sahara, which is being dealt with under the UN process. I hope that he accepts that answer: it is a firm answer from us, and that is why we supported the deal.

To that end, the UK continues to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and his personal envoy to Western Sahara, Peter Van Walsum, to assist the parties in achieving a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

Hon. Members will know that the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara—MINURSO—plays an important stabilising role in the region. It has monitored the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario front for the past 15 years, but has not been able to organise a referendum on the territory’s status. Currently there are no plans for a UN referendum. The Government supported UN Security Council resolution 1675, which was adopted unanimously on 28 April 2006, and which renewed MINURSO’s mandate for a further six months. The Security Council will discuss MINURSO tomorrow, and we will play an active role in those discussions. We support the extension of MINURSO’s mandate for a further six months.

Will the Minister assure us that in the Security Council’s discussions tomorrow the UK will call for a permanent human rights monitor for the whole area, so that we can at least be aware of the danger of human rights abuses there? What position will the UK Government take if the matter is raised at the UN Human Rights Council?

I will come to human rights in a moment; it is an important part of what I want to say.

The Government are in close contact with the Kingdom of Morocco about Western Sahara. As I said, I discussed that subject with the Moroccan Deputy Foreign Minister last week, and I have listened carefully to his Government’s concerns. The most important message that I have received, from which I draw a great deal of hope, is that the Kingdom of Morocco has undertaken to formulate a credible autonomy proposal before the end of March 2007. As I said, wide-ranging consultations at both grass-roots and national level are under way to finalise the autonomy proposal. The Government strongly encourage Morocco to publish its autonomy proposal and satisfy the deadline, which we will consider carefully. At the moment, there are widely held hopes that it has the potential to move matters forward in Western Sahara constructively and peacefully, but, of course, everything depends on the nature of the proposal.

Will the Minister clarify whether the Government have changed their position? His briefing may well have made him aware that on the basis of this little Adjournment debate, which, according to the press notice from the Algerian Government, was supposed to be answered by the Foreign Secretary in the main Chamber, they are saying that the British Government have changed their position. I understand that that is not the case, and unless I have misheard the Minister, it most definitely is not the case. This is a useful opportunity for him to make it absolutely clear that Her Majesty’s Government have not altered their position on this matter one iota.

The UK voted for the recent UN General Assembly fourth commission resolution on Western Sahara, which restated past UN resolutions, including support for the Baker plan. The text of the resolution for which we voted was essentially the same as the resolution adopted by consensus in 2005. The UK therefore voted in favour. I emphasise that that vote does not represent a change in the UK’s position on the status of Western Sahara. The UK supported resolution 1495, which described the Baker plan as

“an optimum political solution on the basis of agreement between the two parties”.

Therein lies the rub: we have to get that agreement between the two parties. That has to be our overall aim. Successive UN resolutions have called for a mutually acceptable political solution, and the Baker plan has not been accepted by all parties to the dispute.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked about the human rights situation. Morocco is party to all core UN human rights conventions and continues to make progress in improving its human rights record. I can assure him that that is the case. I have been involved in negotiating closely with the Moroccans on human rights issues, and we have here some people whom we would very much like to go back to Morocco. The Moroccans want them back and we do not particularly want them in this country, for various reasons, but we cannot send anyone back at the moment. The courts would never allow us to send anyone back unless there were guarantees that big improvements had been made to the human rights situation. I believe that large steps have been taken in that respect.

I have not seen the leaked document that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned, although I could probably get my hands on it if I tried. Since I have been in government, I have an aversion to leaked documents. I used to love them when I was in opposition, but I do not like them so much now. I shall certainly take advantage of his offer and take it away with me.

The resolution of humanitarian questions in Western Sahara should not await the conclusion of a political settlement. The UK, along with EU partners, regularly calls on Morocco and the Polisario to deal with outstanding human rights and humanitarian issues and implement confidence-building measures all round. We welcome the recent decision by the parties to resume the programme of family visits between the territory and the Tindouf camps as a positive step forward. I would like to see many other positive steps, as we have seen such steps act as building blocks towards the conclusion of frozen conflicts elsewhere in the world, and I very much hope that that will happen in this case. We have also encouraged all the parties to co-operate with the International Committee of the Red Cross to account for those who were reported missing in the conflict between 1976 and 1991.

The European Commission humanitarian aid department, ECHO, is the largest single donor of aid to the refugee camps near Tindouf. It recently provided €10 million, or £6.7 million, to which the UK contributed 18 per cent. That is £1.2 million at current exchange rates.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Western Sahara and the camps near Tindouf in May and June 2006. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked whether I am aware of the date on which the report will be published. I am not aware of any such date, and I do not know why that report is not being published. If we can get an answer for him, we certainly will.

In his most recent report on Western Sahara, the UN Secretary-General did not comment on Morocco’s human rights record. In his April report, he expressed concern at reports of heavy-handed Moroccan responses to demonstrations in the territory in 2005, including the arrest and detention of several individuals. The Foreign Office referred to that in our recent human rights report, but I emphasise that Kofi Annan did not comment on allegations about Morocco in his most recent report.

The Government have not carried out their own assessment of the number of individuals who disappeared as a result of the conflict in Western Sahara, but that is extremely important. Their position is to encourage the parties to co-operate fully with the International Committee of the Red Cross to account for the people who are missing, and we continue to encourage them to take concrete measures within their areas of responsibility to resolve the outstanding humanitarian issues.

I want to reassure my hon. Friends that the Government are concerned that the status of Western Sahara should not remain unresolved. Of course it should be resolved, and the consequent problems for the people of the region should also be addressed. More than 30 years have passed since Spain left. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is right to say that the situation needs immediate resolution. We will work towards that, but I ask my hon. Friends to remember that there have been many attempts to resolve the conflict. The fisheries agreement to which the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup referred was agreed unanimously by the EU. A great many countries and people want to find a solution to the situation, and we are certainly one of them. I take my hon. Friends’ points about us being members of the Security Council and that we have to take an active role in trying to find that solution, and I assure them that we will press as hard as we can to do just that.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.