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Western Sahara: Self-determination

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 20 April 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Western Sahara and self-determination.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. The principle of self-determination is close to my heart, but this debate is about an international situation that has been the subject of interest for all parties of the House. That is reflected by the creation of an all-party group of which I am a member. The debate could equally have been titled “Western Sahara: Self-determination and human rights abuse”, as the two issues are intertwined. The debate is timely given that even today, al-Jazeera quoted from a report by Ban Ki-moon warning of potential

“significant implications for the stability of the region as well as the credibility of the Security Council and United Nations peacekeeping worldwide.”

I will return to those themes as my speech develops.

The region of Western Sahara was ruled by Spain for approximately 100 years. Following its own independence in 1957, Morocco disputed the legitimacy of that colonial rule. Towards the end of Franco’s reign it took advantage of the accepted need for decolonisation by European states in Africa. Consequently, an occupation by some 350,000 Moroccans in 1975 led to Spain transferring administrative control to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritania dropped its claim of sovereignty in 1979, but to this day Morocco continues to forcibly exert its perceived sovereignty across the nation of Western Sahara.

Morocco has ignored the fact that an indigenous Sahrawi independence movement was formed in 1973. That organisation, the Polisario Front, then fought a guerrilla war from 1975 to 1991, when there was a United Nations-brokered ceasefire. A Polisario Government-in-exile in Algeria was set up in 1976. It is important to note that part of the ceasefire deal included the holding of a referendum on self-determination within six months. Here we are a quarter of a century later, and there has still been no referendum, even though a UN voter list was created in 1999. That obviously led nowhere. The situation has led to Western Sahara being dubbed Africa’s last colony, given that it is the only territory recognised by the UN as never having been decolonised. It is an unenviable title with serious ramifications.

There are still 165,000 refugees from the period of conflict living in the Algerian desert and dependent on international aid. Given that those refugees never make the headlines, it should be no surprise that the aid can be classed as inadequate. There is conflict around the world just now, and we know the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, so it is easy to become immune to a figure of 165,000, but that is still a huge number of people who are suffering. Given that Western Sahara has a reported population of about 550,000, including Moroccan settlers, we can see the scale of the indigenous population who are classed as refugees.

As often happens before debates, I received briefing notes relevant to the subject of this debate. I have also received official communication from the ambassador at the Moroccan embassy in London. I was pleased to receive it, as counter-arguments are always welcome. I have a mantra when dealing with cases and issues that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle of the two parties’ viewpoints. However, I do not think that is the case with the self-determination of Western Sahara.

Morocco claims to have been colonised in different eras by Spain and France. I therefore find it incomprehensible that Morocco cannot learn from its history that the people’s will should not be subverted. It seems that Morocco cannot see the irony of imposing a ruling force to maintain order, as it sees it, and using settlers to complete a colonisation process. Using an army to maintain control and objecting to Ban Ki-moon using the term “occupation” smacks of an inability to look inward.

Morocco also ignores the fact that, before it took control in November 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that there were no ties of territorial sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara and, further, that the Sahrawi people have a legal right to a process of self-determination. The fact that a referendum has still not been held since the ceasefire deal in 1991 suggests both an unwillingness to move forward and Moroccan concern about the likely outcome of such a poll.

Morocco seems to believe that the African Union’s recognition of Western Sahara belies another agenda, which does not seem credible to me. Since 1991 there has been a UN peacekeeping force in place under the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO. Unlike any other modern UN peacekeeping force, it does not have a human rights mandate. That is completely unacceptable. Given that there is another vote on 28 April on renewing the peacekeeping force, will the Minister advise us of what representations the Government are making at the UN to incorporate a human rights mandate for the force?

Furthermore, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—a status deemed so critical to the UK’s role in the world that it featured in the Scottish referendum campaign—what is the UK doing to bring about a fair referendum some 25 years down the road? What discussions have the Government had with Morocco on this issue, and what is the UK view on the sovereignty of Western Sahara?

From a security perspective, the situation is becoming critical. On 26 March, Oxfam stated that there is now a “threat to regional stability”. Does the Minister share concerns about possible threats in the Maghreb region from extremist, terrorist and criminal factions? The Western Sahara Action Forum reports the presence of Daesh sleeper cells and attacks. Does that accord with UK intelligence on the region?

We all know the spiral of descent caused by the unrest manipulated by terrorists, which leads to further human rights abuses and so, of course, to further unrest. It is imperative that the UN gets to grips with that. As recently as March, 84 civilian and three military MINURSO personnel were expelled. Their presence in Western Sahara is critical, and given the suggested mandate for human rights, it seems to me that Morocco is giving the proverbial two fingers to the UN and directly challenging the Security Council’s authority. What is the UK view on that?

I keep referring to human rights. On top of the denial of the fundamental right of self-determination, the situation in Western Sahara goes much deeper. In 2012, the UN special rapporteur found that

“torture and ill-treatment were used to extract confessions and that protesters were subjected to excessive use of force”.

We know that the monthly peaceful protests are regularly broken up, and on one occasion in 2014 that was witnessed by a parliamentary delegation from the UK. One year on, in 2015, Human Rights Watch noted Morocco’s

“growing intolerance for independent human rights organizations and other critical voices”.

In June 2015, two Amnesty International workers were banned, which tells a story.

The US State Department states that there have been an estimated 50 to 70 deaths in detention, and no Moroccan investigations into alleged abuses. I suggest to Morocco that if it is serious about a solution, it needs to recognise allegations of abuse, violence and torture and start some investigations. Other testimonies confirm sexual violence and rape, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are non-existent. Morocco’s autonomy proposal for Western Sahara proposes self-determination “whilst remaining respectful” of Morocco’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity”. I think that we can see that for what it is.

A cynical assessment of the Moroccan offer is justified when we consider the offer within the context of Morocco’s celebrations to mark 40 years of its presence in Western Sahara and King Mohammed VI’s comment:

“Those who are waiting for any other concessions on Morocco’s part are deceiving themselves. Indeed, Morocco has given all there was to give.”

I would like the Minister to confirm the UK view of the Moroccan proposals that have been put forward.

Western Sahara could be a successful independent nation. It has natural resources, including vegetables, fish and minerals. However, Morocco again subverts the will of the indigenous people by using the classic colonial trick of negotiating trade deals itself and ensuring that jobs, particularly in the mines, go to settlers. Again, I remind Morocco to learn from history, because further resentment is the only outcome of such a policy.

It could be that Morocco feels vindicated in adopting such an approach given the attitude of the international community. The EU has negotiated a fishing deal for Spanish fishermen and the UK has made its own trade deals, although the Western Sahara Action Forum reports that those deals are subject to a case at the European Court of Justice. I would like the Minister to give more information on that issue, because, as I say, the international community’s actions give validity to Morocco’s attitude towards Western Sahara.

The way that Morocco is acting is contrary to international law, given that the UN General Assembly recognises the Polisario as “the representative of the people of Western Sahara”. Does the Minister agree with that view and, if so, what are the UK Government doing to engage with the Polisario? Does he agree that no international agreements should be made with Morocco about minerals and oil or gas extraction until these issues are resolved? Does he agree that it is time the Sahrawi were given their referendum, and will he pledge that the UK will do more diplomatically within the UN to allow the self-determination of Western Sahara?

It really is time that we remove the stain of the last colony in Africa, and there should be a recognised, independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

In recent years, the UK has spent a great deal of its time and effort, and one could say a great deal of its blood and treasure, focusing on the MENA—the middle east and north Africa. However, I have to agree with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who secured the debate, that we have failed in relation to Western Sahara. We have failed to recognise the human rights abuses there, and we have failed to lend our voice to those calling for the legitimate rights of the indigenous people of the region to be recognised and endorsed.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Western Sahara is in essence Africa’s last colony. The Kingdom of Morocco has maintained the territory in subjugation since Spanish rule collapsed in 1976. The Sahrawi people are caught between the competing claims of a repressive Moroccan occupying force and the Polisario Front, which is supported by the Algerian Government and emerged in the 1970s in opposition to Moroccan rule. Their right to self-determination has been recognised by the EU, the United Nations, the African Union and the International Court of Justice, but it is still denied to them.

Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara precipitated a fierce civil war, during which, the Red Cross alleges, Moroccan armed forces deployed napalm and cluster bombs against civilians. Throughout the 1980s, the Moroccan Government sought to cement their position and secure their claim to the territory, and to the vast natural resources that it contains. They encircled Western Sahara with a wall, or a berm, extending nearly 3,000 km, and peppered its perimeter with landmines. The wall also violated Mauritanian security and extended into its territory. Under those conditions, thousands of Sahrawi refugees poured into neighbouring Algeria, where they continue to live in sprawling camps near Tindouf. With an absence of independent food sources or opportunities for employment, residents live dependent on aid to feed their families. A survey conducted in 2012 found that 8% of residents in the camps were malnourished. There is huge opposition to the refugees, who are being denied their human rights. We all too often hear of people in Western Sahara, particularly women, facing sexual subjugation and torture.

A ceasefire was agreed in the 1990s, and a settlement plan was brokered by the then Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations. A referendum on Sahrawi independence was an integral component of that plan, and the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was established to oversee the Sahrawi people’s transition to autonomy, but that referendum has not taken place. The composition of the electorate has been complicated by the influx of Moroccan nationals into Western Sahara. There have been allegations that the Moroccan Government have introduced thousands of their citizens as part of an insidious policy of colonisation and forced integration. Sporadic violence perpetrated by both Moroccan and Polisario forces has continued to interrupt and delay the peace process. That stagnation has undermined the credibility of MINURSO and the settlement plan it was established to uphold. In 2013, the Moroccan Government persuaded the US to abandon its plans to extend MINURSO’s mandate to include human rights abuses in Western Sahara and in the refugee camps.

In October 2010, a camp called Gdeim Izik was established by the Sahrawi people near El Aaiún in protest against human rights abuses, the repression of dissidents and the continued reluctance of the outside world to act. That reluctance is shocking once we start looking at the issue. The city is the administrative capital of the southern provinces—of Western Sahara—and the erection of the camp was interpreted by Moroccan officials as an act of aggression. The forceful dismantlement of the camp sparked riots, in which a number of Moroccan security personnel were killed, as were an unknown number of Sahrawi people.

With the camp destroyed, the Moroccan Government set out to convict what they called the instigators and leaders of the riots, and 25 people were convicted of murder following confessions that were said to have been extracted through torture. According to Amnesty International, such practices are depressingly common in Western Sahara. We cannot overestimate the shockwaves that those acts of repression are causing across the region. Eyes are on countries such as the United Kingdom that have a track record of upholding human rights. People in Algeria, Western Sahara and Mauritania are rightly asking, “What is the UK doing? Where are its values? Why are its values not being endorsed here, where there is clear repression of an indigenous people?”

It is time that we looked at Western Sahara. There is a huge danger of it becoming an incubator for terrorism and organised crime. There is a sense of injustice, and of the failure of western Governments to acknowledge that injustice, among the indigenous people, who have been given no opportunity to go anywhere to seek redress, except through organisations such as al-Qaeda and Daesh. The grievances generated by the Moroccan occupation are powerful recruiting tools, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has flourished in the absence of legitimate political authority. The UK can no longer afford to confine the conflict and the plight of the Sahrawi people to the peripheries of its foreign policy. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I hope that we will at last use our position in the United Nations to move forward on the UN mandate and seek justice and legitimacy for these people.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Rosindell. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for her speech, and particularly to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who initiated the debate. He is a much valued member of the all-party group on Western Sahara, which I chair, and he has done the people of Western Sahara a great service in raising the issue today.

I want to express a few of the concerns that I have had for some time, since I visited the country with the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who used to chair the all-party group. It was my privilege to visit Laayoune, the capital of Western Sahara, in February 2014, along with the right hon. Gentleman, the director of War on Want and a constituent of mine who runs the Western Sahara Campaign Cymru. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned that visit, as a result of which we produced a report titled “Life Under Occupation”. I believe the Minister will have seen it and his predecessors in the Foreign Office certainly saw it.

I want to ask the Minister, as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun did, for his response to Morocco ordering the expulsion of the 84 civilian and three military MINURSO personnel following the visit of the United Nations Secretary-General to Western Sahara in March. The mission complied with that request, despite the fact that it was a United Nations mission in a country designated a non-self-governing territory. In short, the Moroccan authorities had no authority to make that request. Surely Morocco cannot be allowed to dictate to a UN mission in a territory it does not have sovereignty over. I believe that that represents an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the United Nations Security Council, and I worry that it shows the Security Council is failing to live up to its responsibilities. I hope that it will strongly condemn the action of the Moroccan authorities in expelling the citizens and military personnel after the March visit by Ban Ki-moon.

I visited the mission in 2014, and we sat and talked to the officials there. Without mentioning names, I have to say that some of those UN officials expressed great frustration that they had no human rights monitoring mandate for Western Sahara. They were fully aware of the human rights violations and the street demonstrations in Laayoune, some of which were witnessed by colleagues on our visit. They were also fully aware of the great brutality with which the Moroccan authorities broke up peaceable demonstrations by men, women and children. However, they were unable to take any action because of the lack of any human rights monitoring role. They had no capacity or power to act. That was one of the most distressing things—to witness, with colleagues, those violations taking place in the streets, and to know that there was a UN capacity there with the potential to act, which could do nothing.

There was great brutality. The constituent who came with me attempted bravely to take photographs of the demonstrations. It was perhaps no surprise, given the way things are controlled in Laayoune, that his camera was stolen. It was later returned, with the offending pictures of course removed and wiped completely. While we were spending those three or four days in an unfamiliar city some way from home, it was quite clear that the powers of surveillance, under the pretext of protecting our interests, were following our every move—that is an unnerving experience. However, I had the luxury of being able to hop on a plane to return to this country. The Sahrawi people, of course, continue to be less fortunate.

The hon. member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun talked at length about human rights issues. I can only concur with what he and the hon. Member for Bridgend said. The UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, visited Morocco and Western Sahara in 2012. He found that torture and ill treatment were used to extract confessions, and that Moroccan law enforcement officials used excessive force. In 2015, Human Rights Watch noted the growing intolerance for independent human rights organisations and other critical voices. All the meetings that we had in Laayoune, whether with organisations campaigning for women’s rights, trade unions or other human rights activists, had to be conducted under the cloak of secrecy. All too often, we had to sit in dark rooms—literally—in the back streets of the city, because any public acknowledgment that the meetings were taking place would seriously implicate the Sahrawis we were meeting.

The huge natural resources in Western Sahara are clear from any visit, and their exploitation by Morocco is used as a justification for its occupation. Phosphate mining, fishing and market gardening provide jobs for Moroccan settlers—very few of those jobs go to the indigenous population, among whom unemployment rates are disproportionately high. We visited the ports and saw for ourselves how all offshore fishing is carried out by Moroccan-owned trawlers. In the phosphate mining industry, only 21% of the workforce are Sahrawis, the majority of whom are employed in the most menial jobs. Moroccan influence and money dominates the market gardening industry, its capital and its rewards.

For the indigenous population, there is very little evidence of a return on investment and improvements in their lives. We are talking about the absence of democracy and basic human rights, but in narrow economic terms, the people of Western Sahara are not being delivered a fair share—chwarae teg, as we say in Wales—of resources.

Our overwhelming impression from our visit was of deep and utter sadness—of an indigenous people being repressed, their identities being supressed and their history and culture not being recognised in school. We saw several private Sahrawi schools, which basically meant that parents educated their children in their own history, traditions and culture in their own homes. Again, that took place in secrecy, because it is illegal and the Moroccan authorities would clamp down on it.

All Members who have spoken today have agreed that such violations occur as a direct consequence of the UN’s failure to fulfil its duty to provide self-determination through a referendum for the people there. I know that, as the years go by, that becomes more of a challenge. Concocting an electoral list when the population is so split is, of course, a huge challenge. It is not helped by the concessionary tax and housing rights that encourage people to migrate from Morocco into Western Sahara, which the hon. Member for Bridgend mentioned. I strongly encourage the Minister to do whatever he can, because there is an expectation that countries such as ours should take more of a lead, to ensure progress towards the referendum and a continuing UN presence with a human rights monitoring role. Nothing less will do.

Finally, I want to talk about the case of a Sahrawi campaigner, Mr Brahim Saika, who fell into a coma and died last Friday after being arbitrarily detained by the police and accused of organising protests for self-determination. He was a co-ordinator of a group of unemployed Sahrawis and was arrested on 1 April. According to reports, he was detained and tortured in Gulemin police station. He was then transferred to a hospital in Agadir in Morocco from Bozakarn prison, where he had been held. His sister stated that he had been hit on the head, which is why he fell into a coma and subsequently died. After he was arrested, he went on hunger strike in protest against his detention and maltreatment. A few days later, his condition deteriorated significantly, which was when he was transferred to hospital. The reports we have heard suggest that no serious attempts were made to save his life. The hospital authorities are now refusing to conduct an autopsy to determine the cause of his death, despite his family’s demand for one. The family have been told that the cause of death was poisoning due to a rat bite.

I would appreciate the Minister raising the case with Morocco, and the all-party group would very much like to hear back about that in due course. The sad reality is that brave people such as Brahim Saika are by no means the only victims of the continued occupation of Western Sahara.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing the debate and the members of the APPG from whom we have heard. The debate is timely, coming as it does shortly after the 40th anniversary of the Moroccan invasion—40 years during which 165,000 refugees from Western Sahara have lived in the Algerian desert. It is one of the global situations, or African situations in particular, that does not receive the attention that it is due.

One of the things that we must put on the record is, honestly, our gratitude to the Algerians. They have provided a safe haven for those people and, let’s face it, we have created additional problems for the Algerians with people fleeing from Libya and Tunisia into Algeria. The Algerians are carrying a huge burden, so we have a responsibility to them, too, to resolve the problem.

That is a fair point.

Sadly, we can look across Africa and see a number of forgotten nations that maybe do not get the attention that they deserve. For example, the APPG on Eritrea, of which I am a member, was recently founded. There is the situation in Somalia. Western Sahara’s particular situation, however, with its description as “the last colony”, is especially tragic. I was trying to find some statistics, but that is difficult to do, because of its stateless position. I could not find, for example, a ranking in the UN human development index, although I found a GDP figure of about US $2,500 per head, which is not in any way significant. I pay tribute to the work of the various campaign groups that are seeking to make the issue live. They have helped to provide background briefings for Members for today. I note that the comedian and activist Mark Thomas is doing a fundraiser for the cause on 2 May. I wish him all the very best for that.

Three key issues have arisen in the debate: first, the principle of self-determination; secondly, a reflection on recent developments and the human rights situation in the country; and, thirdly, questions for the Government that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, the SNP feels passionately about the principle of self-determination, and we in Scotland were able to exercise it in 2014, in a wonderful exercise in democratic participation. Here in the UK, after elections in Scotland in a few weeks’ time, on 23 June we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union. That is the kind of thing that we take for granted, but it is sadly denied in so many different parts of the world—only today, in Question Time, the Prime Minister was asked about the Chagos islands. In any event, surely a referendum has to be the endgame and the way in which matters are resolved.

No, it is not a great ask at all. A peaceful solution has to involve the right of individuals and nations to self-determination. Also, we cannot and should not prejudge what the decision might be. It might be a form of autonomy, or of independence. We will not know until it is put to the test. The UN groundwork has been done, but it is rapidly dating. Generations continue to grow up, still waiting for an opportunity to have their say.

Meanwhile, the situation continues to deteriorate, perhaps not least because of a lack of a human rights mandate for the UN mission. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun referred to the Oxfam analysis, which described the recent crisis and the expulsion of UN diplomats as a threat to regional stability. Other examples can be found of human rights abuses; some were referred to by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). A 2015 Amnesty International report lists a whole range of different torture techniques used by Moroccan security forces to extract confessions to crimes or to silence activists and crush dissent.

We expect a report in the next few days from the Secretary-General of the UN. Press reports, from those who have perhaps seen advance copies, say that the language used by the Secretary-General seems to indicate that the UN is backing away from its insistence on the concept of self-determination as necessarily leading to independence. I do not know if that is accurate; it is from an article that I have read and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister, because that is the big-picture question. The situation of the people of Western Sahara is important in its own right, but there is a bigger question about the mandate and role of the UN and the respect attributed to decisions by the UN Security Council, of which the United Kingdom is a member. How will the Government use its role as a permanent member to push for further action? The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) rightly pointed out the risks of inaction. Now is a very appropriate time for action.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, it would be useful to know the Government’s view on Morocco’s claim to the territory and its progress in entering into commercial contracts for the exploitation of natural resources in Western Sahara. What consideration are the Government giving to support refugees from Western Sahara in neighbouring countries, as well as to those trying to enter the UK and the EU? Finally, as was touched on in exchanges at the start of my speech, what role do the Government see for neighbouring and regional countries in the area and the broader African Union? The hon. Member for Bridgend noted that a wide range of international institutions recognise the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination. Surely, after 40 years, it is time to stop talking and start doing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I always seem to be following him, so let me hope that I can enhance what he said.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing such an important and timely debate. The Western Sahara is not a region regularly raised in the House, but it is an important area and the situation deserves our attention. We also heard an important contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who pointed out that women in Western Sahara often face sexual subjugation and torture, something we really need to press our Government and the Moroccan Government on.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun pointed out something that the hon. Member for Glasgow North reiterated: Morocco has made a direct challenge to the UN Security Council’s resolution by trying to put obstacles in the way of the referendum that the Security Council wishes to take place. Today’s debate is timely because this month the UN Security Council will also be debating the Western Sahara, 25 years after the establishment of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. MINURSO was first given six months to hold a referendum on and in the Western Sahara. That was in 1991. If the mandate is renewed this week, the mission will be in its 26th year. In preparation for today’s debate, I read through the minutes of previous Security Council debates on the Western Sahara, as you do. They make for rather depressing reading. There is generally unanimous agreement that the status quo is unsustainable and there is a desire to see a resolution, yet we never seem to get any nearer to a final agreement.

As we have heard, the failure to find a resolution comes at a serious human cost. Around 100,000 Sahrawis remain in refugee camps in the Algerian desert and there are now multiple generations who have grown up there. I also have serious concerns about the position of Sahrawis in Western Sahara. As has been said, numerous accounts of human rights abuses have been recognised by Her Majesty’s Government, the UN and independent bodies such as Amnesty International. Of course we need to see progress on the ground, but there are real fears that the position of Sahrawis, both economically and politically, is worsening.

Those concerns were set out in the report of the APPG on Western Sahara written by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who made an excellent contribution this afternoon and now chairs the all-party group. He is clearly one of our most knowledgeable MPs. That report followed the APPG’s delegation to the area in 2014, the year that I visited the region and Laayoune with the Minister, before he was the Minister. The report is informative and clearly highlights the issues facing the Sahrawi population, especially when it comes to political protest. I join the hon. Member for Ceredigion in thanking John Gurr for the report and the work that he continues to do through the Western Sahara Campaign, which I found helpful in preparing for the debate.

In the long term, we need an agreement among all parties to enable a referendum to take place in Western Sahara. However, getting to that point will require more political will on all sides. I echo the text of resolution 2218 in calling

“upon the parties and the neighbouring states to cooperate more fully with the United Nations and with each other and to strengthen their involvement to end the current impasse and to achieve progress towards a political solution”.

The international community must never seek to impose a solution on Western Sahara.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Just before I bring Fabian Hamilton back in to conclude his remarks, given the change in timing necessitated by the Division, we will be looking at completing the debate by 5.41 pm.

I will continue with my speech, if I may. There is not too much left. I had just quoted from the text of resolution 2218.

The international community must never seek to impose a solution on the dispute over Western Sahara. Whether it remains part of Morocco or becomes a self-governing territory or an independent state, Western Sahara will always have to rely on a very close relationship with Morocco. Whatever the outcome, Western Sahara will need to trade with Morocco, particularly if it is to benefit from the significant investment currently going into it from the Moroccan state and Moroccan companies.

We must also recognise Morocco’s role in providing security in an increasingly unstable area with rising levels of extremism and sectarian conflict. However, the difficulties of achieving a long-term solution should not mean we forget the human rights of the Sahrawi population and their political and economic situation.

I was pleased to see from written answers that the Government have repeatedly raised the Western Sahara issue with the Moroccan Government, including with His Majesty King Mohammed VI. I am particularly pleased that the Government made successful representations to ensure that the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara was able to gain access to the region. I hope the Minister will be able to tell the House whether his discussions with the Government of Morocco have included the human rights situation in Western Sahara and the human rights issues facing the Sahrawi people in Morocco. I also hope the Minister will tell us what steps the UK is taking unilaterally and through the Friends of Western Sahara group of nations, of which the UK is a member, to improve the economic and civic participation of the Sahrawi population.

I want to press the Minister on the mandate for MINURSO. I understand that, as has been said this afternoon, it is the only mission in the world without a human rights remit. As the mission is about to have its mandate renewed, or at least reviewed, is it not time to include human rights within its remit and to ask it to report back to the UN Security Council on its findings? Is it also not time to set a date for a free and fair referendum in Western Sahara, with an option for independence on the ballot paper, consistent with the established international legal norm of self-determination?

Is the Minister prepared to demand an end to the extraction of natural resources from Western Sahara through deals that disregard the interests and wishes of the indigenous Sahrawi people? In particular, I hope he will set out the UK’s position on the sale of products from Western Sahara within the EU. I understand that the European Court of Justice ruled to exclude waters off the Western Sahara from the EU-Moroccan fisheries agreement, but that is subject to an appeal from the EU.

Would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there is a problem with labelling? We have just had a debate on agriculture. Many of the products produced in the occupied territories, which is how some of us refer to the area, are labelled as products of Morocco when clearly they should be labelled as products of Western Sahara.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will finish what I was saying because it may cover the point he has raised. Will the Minister explain the UK’s position on the current appeal? Will he also explain what the judgment will mean for the sale of other Western Sahrawi produce within the EU if the appeal fails? In particular, will he explain whether Western Sahrawi goods, such as phosphorus and tomatoes, will be excluded from EU-Morocco trade agreements or require special labelling? I hope that covers the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

These steps could be important in addressing many of the issues in Western Sahara that we have heard about today and could facilitate further progress. It is precisely because Morocco is such a close ally of the United Kingdom and a significant diplomatic player in its own right that we should work with the Moroccans to welcome a bigger role for the United Nations in finding a long-term and sustainable solution for all the parties involved in Western Sahara.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) on securing this debate, on his strong interest in Western Sahara and more generally the work of the all-party group on Western Sahara. I thank other hon. Members from all three main parties for their contributions. In my briefing, I was not prepared for questions about the Scottish referendum, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on getting that in.

I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members who were expecting the illustrious Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who would have been delighted to respond to the debate, which is within his portfolio. He was, until very recently, engaged in another debate on the Floor of the House. It is therefore my pleasure to respond to the debate, particularly because, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) alluded to with great foresight, both of us went to Western Sahara while on the Back Benches in order to be better briefed for this very occasion. We specifically visited the UN headquarters in Laayoune to see its work for ourselves first hand.

The Government’s position on Western Sahara is consistent and long-standing. The Government consider the final status of Western Sahara as undetermined, and we support the UN-led efforts to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. In line with the debate, I will first speak about the underlying principles of self-determination and our support for those, then move on to the situation in Western Sahara and how it applies to the broader issue of self-determination.

In his statement of principles for world peace nearly a hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson said:

“Self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

I am not sure he had the hon. Member for Leeds North West and me in mind when he said that, but nevertheless, I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we hear that principle. Wilson was unsuccessful in his attempts to include the principle in the covenant of the League of Nations.

More than two decades later, in the midst of world war two, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt came up with a set of principles that defined the Allies’ goals for the post-war world, which included

“the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”.

Their Atlantic charter is widely recognised as a precursor to the 1942declaration of United Nations, which was the foundation of the charter of the United Nations. This charter, and many other treaties and agreements to which the United Kingdom is signatory, set out clearly the right to self-determination.

The principle of self-determination is about freedom to make one’s own choices. This country demonstrated its commitment to that principle in 2013, when the Government gave residents of the Falkland Islands the freedom to choose whether they wanted to remain a British overseas territory. Self-determination has allowed, and continues to allow, countries and territories around the world to determine their own fate and chart their own course.

Turning to Western Sahara, the UK supports UN-led efforts to reach a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to this long-standing dispute that provides, crucially, for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front both claim sovereignty over Western Sahara. An International Court of Justice ruling on the issue in 1975 means that the territory is “non-self-governing” under chapter XI of the UN charter, and that its people therefore have the right to self-determination. Following Spanish withdrawal in 1975, most of the territory has been under Moroccan administration.

In 1991, after more than 15 years of hostilities between Morocco and the Polisario Front, a ceasefire was brokered by the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations. It was agreed that both sides would stop fighting and the UN would monitor the ceasefire. The UN would also prepare for a referendum in which the Sahrawi people would exercise their right to self-determination, choosing either to be an autonomous region within Morocco or an independent state. That was the mandate for the UN MINURSO, which we have discussed, and which I visited with the hon. Member for Leeds North West in 2014. That body has succeeded in monitoring a ceasefire. The UN has persisted, through rounds of discussion, negotiations and renegotiations, in trying to find a political solution to the conflict. However, despite engagement and credible efforts over the years from both sides, little real progress has been made on the political track.

On 11 April 2007, Morocco put forward a proposal for advanced autonomy for the region. I think that is what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun was referring to when he asked about the Government’s views on the proposal. UN Security Council resolution 1754 of 30 April 2007 took note of the proposal and welcomed the serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution. It also took note of the Polisario Front’s proposal presented on 10 April 2007. However, neither proposal was accepted by the other party and no further proposals have been put on the table. The solution has to be UN-led. The UN has to move things forward.

In March this year, the UN Secretary-General made comments, which a number of Members have referred to, during a visit to the region. That led to disagreement around the UN troops and to withdrawal of the 84 civilian members of the UN deployment. While the Secretary-General has since clarified his statement and expressed regret for the misunderstanding caused, the civilian staff still have not returned. The UK Government are concerned about the lack of a civilian component in the force. Without that vital support, the UN mission is unable to fulfil its existing mandate, let alone an extended one. It is unable to assist the UN and thus the UK’s interest in finding a political solution, but it is still maintaining peace and security in the region.

We have urged the UN secretariat and Morocco to engage in dialogue that will allow the individuals to return as quickly as possible to enable the full functionality of the mission, allowing it to carry forward the full scope of its existing mission. We are hopeful that a way forward can be found. The situation is not totally gridlocked, but more effort is needed.

Turning to some of the additional points made during the debate, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and a number of other Members talked about Daesh. We are concerned about the presence of Daesh throughout the broader region, although the Moroccan authorities have disputed the assertion that cells have been encountered. On the other hand, the Secretary-General’s personal envoy, Christopher Ross, has told the permanent under-secretary for the middle east and north Africa that about 15 individuals have travelled to fight with extremist groups in north Africa. I do not think 15 can be described as endemic, but we are aware of some people travelling from the region.

A lot of points were made about human rights. Although it is primarily a UN process, the UK, through its position on the Security Council, stresses the importance of humanitarian rights on an ongoing basis in Western Sahara and the camps. That was clear in the UN Security Council resolution of April 2015. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Western Sahara in 2015 and the findings of that report will be reflected in the Secretary-General’s report, which we believe will be published later today. As I stand before the Chamber, I have not seen that it has been published. That is only one way that the UN looks at human rights in the area.

There was a specific case that the all-party group would like me to look into. If it writes to me with details, I am more than happy to look into that and circulate a letter that can be sent around to the rest of the group.

There has been progress on human rights. The Moroccan authorities recently took steps to improve human rights, including ratifying the protocol to the convention against torture and ending the practice of trying civilians in military courts. That is good progress, but I still hear calls to do a lot more. We are considering our position on the mandate renewal but, as I have said, actually getting the existing mandate delivered is troublesome without extending it further. I was asked by the hon. Member for Leeds North East about commercial activity. We do not consider commercial activity in Western Sahara to be illegal, as long as it respects the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara and benefits them. The UK does not prohibit companies from engaging in commercial activity, but they should take legal advice before doing so.

The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs supports refugees in the camps in Algeria through all the UN agencies, most notably UNICEF, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme. This is a situation that we are very much aware of and very keen to engage in, and I look forward to progress being made through the UN and through working with the all-party parliamentary group.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Western Sahara and self-determination.

Sitting adjourned.