Co-opting the peacekeepers?

September 16, 2011

Is the United Nations suppressing information to support an illegal occupation?

In September 1991, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Morocco and the Frente Polisario, the two claimants to the disputed Non-Self Governing Territory of Western Sahara. Morocco and the Polisario had been fighting a war for control over the territory since 1975, when Morocco sent troops and civilians into Western Sahara during its “Green March”, the aim of which was to establish the former Spanish colony as part of a greater Morocco.

As part of the ceasefire, the UN established the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (known by its French acronym, MINURSO), a peacekeeping force mandated with monitoring the ceasefire and overseeing a referendum on self-determination for Western Sahara. Some 20 years on, the referendum has still not been held, and there seems little prospect that the ongoing political conflict between Morocco and the Polisario over the status of Western Sahara will be resolved in the foreseeable future.

Currently, Western Sahara is effectively partitioned, with Morocco controlling the bulk (some three quarters) of Western Sahara, and the Polisario controlling the remainder. The Moroccan and Polisario controlled areas are separated by a series of earthworks (variously referred to as the “wall”, “sand wall” or “berm”), constructed by Morocco to secure the territory it has gained through military means during the course of its occupation of Western Sahara.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, a number of zones or areas were defined, and permitted activities inside each area were specified. And this is the crux of this particular blog post.

The various areas defined under the ceasefire, and the activities permitted in each area, were detailed in Military Agreement No. 1 (MA#1) and on Map No: A4-010 (deployment of MINURSO). The text of MA#1, and Map No: A4-010, used to be available via MINURSO’s mission website and local website, located easily by clicking on the links on the latter site’s side bar.

And so back to that crux.

You may have noted the use of the past tense in the above text – these key ceasefire documents “used to be available” via the MINURSO websites. Since at least as early as December 2010, MA#1 and Map No: A4-010 have disappeared from the MINURSO local website (and are not available via the mission website). Given that MINURSO’s principal task (the long-delayed referendum notwithstanding) is to monitor the ceasefire, it seems somewhat bizarre that their website does not include the information on the different ceasefire zones and the permitted activity in each of these zones. This is obviously not simply due to sloppy website maintenance – the MINURSO website has been given a pretty comprehensive overhaul in the past year or so, and now contains lots of information and links to relevant documentation, mostly UN resolutions and letters from the UN Secretary General and the Security Council.

Back in 2010 I contacted MINURSO by email (minursoinformationofficer@un.org) to ask why the detailed information on the ceasefire arrangements had been removed, and where it could be found. This was followed by emails to other public information personnel at the UN who were concerned with Western Sahara. However, I never received a reply to these emails. When I followed this up informally with a UN source, their response was this. “Somehow I doubt, in present circumstances, that you will get a reply from the mission, or at least a reply that will be of any use.” When I asked my source whether they were able to elaborate on why a reply was unlikely “in the present circumstances”, and what these circumstances were, they replied “Not really”. This correspondence took place in early December 2010.

So, why the removal of important information relating to the nature of the ceasefire, and why the lack of response to an inquiry about its removal? And why the secrecy? I’m certainly prepared to speculate – here goes.

There currently seems to be no resolution in sight to the Western Sahara conflict. This has frustrated key players within the UN and internationally. As detailed in Stephen Zunes’ and Jacob Mundy’s recent, and excellent, book, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism and Conflict Irresolution, key members of the UN security council (France and the United States) have long been enthusiastic (to say the least) in their support of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. In the amoral world of realpolitik, these countries in particular view the integration of Western Sahara into a greater Morocco as a practical solution to the conflict. Accordingly, they support Morocco’s “Autonomy Plan”, which would make Western Sahara part of Morocco and give it some token limited autonomy under a partially devolved administration rubber stamped or appointed by the Moroccan monarchy. I’ve written elsewhere about why this “solution” is dubious at best (also here).

So what has this got to do with the information on MINURSO’s website? Well, first we need to recognise that the UN and its various agencies are not independent bodies, but are expressions of the will of the UN’s member states. Particular UN agencies will be of particular interest to certain countries (e.g. those that provide their funding), and these countries will have an influence over their behaviour. Powerful voices within the UN lobby for their own interests and those of their friends, making the UN a forum in which key players compete with each other for dominance and advantage according to their own agendas. In short, UN agencies are subject to influence from powerful interests, and there is no reason to believe that MINURSO is any different.

Second, the ready availability of information on the terms of the ceasefire is an embarrassment to Morocco and, by extension, to those countries who support Morocco in its continuing (and illegal) occupation of Western Sahara. Morocco likes to give the impression that it controls all of Western Sahara, and that all that needs to be done to resolve the conflict is for the international community to accept Morocco’s claim to the territory. The Moroccan line is that Morocco has already achieved de facto integration of Western Sahara, making its control over the territory a done deal – if only the international community would accept this “fact on the ground” the problem would go away.

The Moroccan line is disingenuous, and its Autonomy Plan does nothing to address the partition of Western Sahara or the issue of the Sahrawi refugees displaced by the conflict and living in camps near the Algerian town of Tindouf. The airing of these issues makes the Autonomy Plan look rather flaky and inadequate, and exposes the Plan as a PR exercise to legitimise the occupation rather than a serious, sincere and workable way of resolving the conflict. Under the Autonomy Plan the territory would remain partitioned (or be subject to further fighting as Morocco sought to control all of Western Sahara), and the refugees would remain in exile (Morocco constantly underplays the number of refugees and is unlikely to welcome them as new subjects). The Plan would also fail to uphold the right of self determination enshrined in so many UN resolutions relating to Western Sahara.

Consequently, it is in Morocco’s interests to manipulate information relating to the conflict in order to marginalise the refugee issue and cloud the issue of partition. Morocco’s propagandists have a habit of telling people that the Polisario does not control any territory in Western Sahara, and that what the Polisario and the exiled Sahrawi refer to as the (Polisario controlled) “Free Zone” is in fact a “buffer zone” set up with the tacit approval of the UN to keep the Polisario out of “Moroccan” territory. This is nonsense. There is a “Buffer Strip” under the ceasefire, but this extends only 5 km east and south of the Berm or sand wall into the Polisario controlled areas. On either side of the Berm, a “Restricted Area” extends for 30 km. On both sides of the Berm, the remaining areas are defined as “Areas with Limited Restrictions”. With the exception of the Buffer Strip, which is present only on the Polisario side of the Berm, there is parity in terms of what the Moroccan armed forces and the Polisario are permitted to do on their respective sides of the Berm.

The above is all set out in MA#1, a reading of which reveals that Morocco’s claims (i) to control all of Western Sahara, (ii) that the Polisario has no active or legitimate presence in the territory, and (iii) that the areas in which Polisario might operate are in fact a buffer zone set up for Morocco’s benefit, are all nonsense. Unfortunately, now that MINURSO has removed MA#1 and Map No:A4-010, it is much less straightforward to challenge Rabat’s nonsense using authoritative sources. Well, I say unfortunately, but this is, of course, rather fortunate for Morocco and its friends.

And this is what is really suspicious. The most likely explanation for the removal of this basic, vital and (to the Moroccan camp) embarrassing information seems to be that Morocco and its friends have leaned on MINURSO to remove this information, in order to eliminate a counter to a key pillar of Morocco’s propaganda campaign. If there is a more innocent explanation, why has MINURSO been so reluctant to provide it. Unless they can allay fears that they have been co-opted by Morocco’s propaganda machine, perhaps we should be renaming them the MINUPOSO – United Nations Mission for the Perpetuation of the Occupation in Western Sahara.

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Liberté, egalité, fraternité, génocide

November 18, 2010

News that the UN Security Council “deplores” the recent violence in the Moroccan-occupied territories of Western Sahara will be small comfort to the Sahrawi who are suffering death, beatings and disappearances in the disputed territory. While some members of the Security Council have proposed sending a UN investigative team to Western Sahara to assess the situation and the claims and counter-claims, the Council as a whole has decided to do nothing. It is likely to the point of certainty that France, Morocco’s long-time ally, played a key role in ensuring that Morocco was left to get on with its oppression. The United States is also apparently not keen on any action to address the violence. The UK, which currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, doesn’t come out looking good either.

The accounts coming out of Western Sahara talk of mass graves, thousands of people “disappeared”, bodies thrown out of helicopters, Moroccan settlers being armed and set on indigenous Sahrawi, and Moroccan forces stationed at hospitals beating Sahrawi seeking medical attention, and Moroccan taxi drivers taking them for treatment (apparently not all Moroccans are allowing themselves to be whipped up into a frenzy of bloody imperialism). These accounts will remain “officially” unsubstantiated as long as the lock-down in the occupied territories continues and journalists and other investigators are denied access to the areas concerned. Of course this it presumably the idea in the heads of the French and the US representatives on the Security Council – if nothing can be proved then nothing can be done, and their friends in Rabat can get away with perpetrating the worst violence seen in Western Sahara since the ceasefire in 1991.

This apathy, or rather protection of Morocco to ensure it can occupy, oppress and kill with impunity, is short sighted. If the above reports are correct, what is currently occurring in the occupied territories of Western Sahara could easily spill over into genocide. The G-word is often used liberally and emotionally, in a way that devalues its meaning. However, what we are seeing (or rather not seeing, and only hearing about via reports that remain unverified by independent sources because of the lack of journalists and observers on the ground) appears to be the orchestrated and bloody persecution of a particular ethnic group by an occupying power and its settlers. If the reports coming out of the occupied territories are accurate, the orchestrated persecution has progressed to mass murder. This certainly looks like the early stages of a genocide, and if the situation continues or escalates then use of the term will be fully justified.

France for one really should know better, after its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As a result of its support for the Hutu government, and by extension for the pro-government Interahamwe militias, France has effectively been kicked out of Rwanda, which has transformed iteslt from a Francophone country into an Anglophone one. By supporting a murderous regime in the name of retaining its post-colonial (some would say neo-colonial) influence in Africa, France became a pariah in Rwanda and ended up being excluded. France might always be able to count on Moroccan support, but it will not do itself any favours in the wider region by supporting a second African genocide in as many decades.

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Note 1: Apparently it’s not just me that sees the hallmarks of genocide here. More authoritative foreign voices on the ground think so too.


Foreign friends

February 18, 2009

History demonstrates that unpleasant regimes bent on suppressing dissent and menacing their neighbours can always find foreign apologists who are ready to scurry to their defence without bothering to understand precisely what it is they are defending. It seems that Morocco is no exception in having an army of foreign sycophants ready to fight for its right to expand its territory through force and stamp on anyone who might object to its imperial designs. A growing chorus of appeasement can be heard from lobbyists, politicians and certain elements of the media by anyone who tunes into the news on Western Sahara.

The Francophone world has always been keen on Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara (with some noble exceptions), and this phenomenon shows no sign of abating. The latest bare-faced brown-nosing comes from the mayor for Woippy (no, I’d never heard of it either), François Grosdidier, who also happens to be vice-president of the French-Moroccan friendship group in the French parliament. In a article in Religious Intelligence (no jokes please) he is quoted regurgitating the Moroccan line. Here are a couple of choice quotes:

“Given Morocco’s legitimacy on the Sahara, this autonomy initiative, under the kingdom’s sovereignty, is wise and generous, and provides an honourable way out for all the parties.”

“[The Polisario] approach is useless, there is no point (for them) in continuing and they are no longer in the sense of history.”

It seems that French politicians love to talk about being part of history – Sarkozy has claimed that one of the problems with Africa is that “the African man has never really entered history“. Oh dear – despite the benefits of colonialism and the heroic attempts of Europe to civilise the benighted continent, not to mention all those fantastically well-conceived post-colonial development initiatives, those ungrateful Africans haven’t grasped the nettle of historical progress and lifted themselves “up” to the same level as Europe. What a pity Sarkozy doesn’t realise that ideas of historical progress are based on perversions of Darwinian evolutionary theory that have more to do with justifying racism and colonialism than they do with rational scientific enquiry. Unfortunately the dogma of historical progress is still used to justify aggression dressed up as the promotion and extension of civilisation – something else I’ve noticed in the arguments of those that support Rabat’s military push into the Sahara. But I digress.

Grosdidier also claims that the Western Sahara conflict is impairing international relations, and uses this as an argument for supporting the autonomy initiative. As I’ve argued on several previous occasions (e.g. here), this is indicative of a poor understanding of the the situation, as the autonomy plan does not address the reality of partition or the issue of the refugees around Tindouf – as if Morocco would welcome tens of thousands of independence-minded Sahrawi and make any real attempt to come to an agreement with the Polisario. Grosdidier says that “pluralism does not exist” in the camps, but I don’t see too much evidence of it in occupied Western Sahara either.

I sometimes wonder what drives certain European politicians (and I include the UK here) who seem so eager to offer their services to foreign governments, effectively acting as agents of foreign powers with little or no regard to the interests of the people whom they have been elected to serve. After Blair’s stint as Bush’s enforcer/poodle (delete according to your preference), which served only to support ill-conceived foreign policy adventures and increase risks to British citizens, some of us are a little annoyed with this sort of behaviour. Well, maybe it’s just the money, the power, the foreign junkets, or a simple messiah complex.

It’s not only politicians that are busy appeasing Moroccan aggression, and not only in Europe. I keep receiving news alerts from the African Press Agency (with the byline “Unity is in Truth”), based in Dakar, Senegal, which could have been written by the Moroccan interior ministry. A common theme is how so-and-so supports the autonomy initiative or hails Morocco’s commitment to solve the conflict. The border between Western Sahara and Morocco is conspicuous by its absence on the the maps on the APA website. Hell, they could even use a dashed line rather than a solid one if they wanted to reflect its unresolved status, but I suppose even that would be too much for their Moroccan friends.

Another unedifying spectacle is this love-in between the author and the outgoing Moroccan ambassador. Reading it is like watching two extremely ugly people make out in public – a nauseating experience which makes you think “is that really necessary?” (No offence intended to the extremely ugly by the way.)

The Lebanese Dar al-Hayat has also been at it, or at least one Mohammed el-Ashab has, writing in its pages. el-Ashab talks about the Sahrawi’s “popular reluctance to unite under one umbrella”, which he claims is the biggest obstacle to solving the conflict. So not the partition or the blocking of the referendum then? To cast the problem as one of divisions between the Sahrawi rather than one of invasion, occupation, displacement and partition is disingenuous to say the least. He also talks about “the cease-fire which classified the areas outside the security fence as buffer zones in which no military or civilian movement is allowed.” Well, actually, it didn’t. The buffer zone, into which neither side is allowed, extends for only 5km east and south of the berm, i.e. in the Polisario controlled areas. Restricted areas extend for 30km either side of the berm, and no arms are to be carried in these areas. Outside of the restricted areas are two vast “areas with limited restrictions” in which normal military activity is allowed with the exception of anything that would constitute a concentration of firepower. As I’ve pointed out before, these conditions of the ceasfire are set out on the MINURSO website, which Mohammed el-Ashab evidently has not bothered to examine before putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Not that he’s unusual in such uninformed pontificating (or is it deliberate misinformation?). Using elections as his theme, el-Ashab strives to convince us that everyone (the UN, the EU) is happy to see Morocco “practicing sovereignty in all its forms – including holding elections in all parts of the country since 1978”. I assume the country he is referring to is a putative greater Morocco which incorporates all of Western Sahara, although he doesn’t make it clear how Morocco has been or will be holding elections in the parts of Western Sahara that it doesn’t control. From his statement about “the frequent announcement of the “Polisario Front” that it operates in regions described as “liberated lands”” it seems that he might believe Morocco’s propaganda line that the Polisario doesn’t control any territory in Western Sahara, but this is not clear. I like the placing of “Polisario Front” in inverted commas – usually a sign of hostility.

There’s much more where all the above came from, and I’ll perodically highlight it. Of course if you want a real giggle you can always go to any number of websites whose purpose is to promote Moroccan interests and push pro-Morocco propaganda, such as that of the Morocco Board, the Moroccan-American Center for Policy, Maghreb Arabe Presse, CORCAS, or the dedicated anti-Polisario (and personal defamation) sites such as Polisario Confidential, Polisario Think Twice, Polisario Cannibals and Polisario Human Sacrifice. OK, I made the last two up, but those are about the only allegations that Morocco has not leveled at the Polisario.

All of this propaganda is designed to give the impression that the conflict is effectively over and that Moroccan control over Western Sahara is all but a done deal. The point of all the misinformation dissemminated by Morocco and its foreign toadies is to persuade people that all they have to do is endorse the situation on the ground and the issue of Western Sahara will go away, userhing in a new era of regional cooperation, development and progress. But of course it won’t, as long as Western Sahara remains partitioned and between 100,000 and 200,000 disaffected Sahrawi remain in camps in the inhospitable Algerian desert. Even if Morocco’s autonomy plan is officially endorsed by the likes of the EU, the USA and the UN, the reality on the ground will still poison the politics of the region. And the African Union still stands behind the Polisario and the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination. Morocco may be planning to further entrench its position by invading the Polisario controlled areas once its autonomy plan gets the green light from the world’s major political powers, but this is hardly likely to achieve the stated aims of all those foreign politicians and pundits who are so keen to promote autonomy in the name of progress.

Related link: http://w-sahara.blogspot.com/2008/09/polisario-confidential-goes-to.html (Western Sahara Info)