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Published: March 19, 2016 Last modified: March 18, 2016
The paths of two much mis-underestimated, highly ethical individuals crossed recently. A year before he became leader of the Labour Party, I saw Jeremy Corbyn at the House of Commons report back from a visit to Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. It was an impressive performance. Invoking Western Sahara is no way for a politician to win votes, nor even for a writer to win commissions! Second, the audience was loaded with Moroccans whipped in by their government to support its claims to the territory.
He dealt with them impressively, listening respectfully while calmly stating facts and restating principles in a way that averted provocation and conflict. I did not know it then, but he was foreshadowing his remarkable self control in the face of fanatical New Labour types who cannot believe they lost with all the certainty of Moroccans who cannot believe that anyone could question their right to rule the Sahara.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went to Western Sahara earlier this month and stated a few home truths about the continuing occupation there and compounded his sins by visiting the headquarters of Polisario, the Saharwi independence front. Morocco went into paroxysms of counterfactual denunciation and claims that the UN and the international community accept its annexation. In a breath-taking abuse of language it accused the UN Secretary General of “semantic slippage”, for using the term “occupation” and expressed, among even more incoherent indignation noted with “utter dismay the verbal slippages, faits accomplis and unjustified complacency” of Ban.
In reality, away from whatever they smoke in offices of Morocco’s highly paid Public relations company, the International Court of Justice has ruled that the people of Western Sahara are entitled to self-determination. The UN Security Council has ruled that Morocco should withdraw from the territory and allow an act of self-determination. For more than 20 years, there has been a UN mission there to conduct a referendum – and Morocco has officially accepted those terms – even though in international law they do not really have any option. The world’s maps all show the territory separate from Morocco.
The Security Council resolution in 1975 called for Morocco to withdraw from the territory, and it has been defying it ever since. However, underlying their indignation, which highlights Ban’s courage, is that Morocco and its friends have thoroughly compromised the UN system. Successive UN officials have been bribed, suborned and browbeaten not to challenge the Moroccan version with anything as upsetting as the truth. Interestingly, MINURSO’s own website begins its list of UN resolutions in 1991, when it was set up, not in 1975, when the Security Council asked Morocco to get out.
Morocco has had outright support from France, and it benefits from good relations with Israel. In the words of then US ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan about Sahara and East Timor in 1975: “The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.” Since then, it has tried to tidy things up but not enough to annoy the Moroccans, and one supposes that the issue was clinched by the $5 million-plus paid to the Clinton Foundation by the Moroccan-owned phosphate company that is looting Western Sahara’s phosphates.
Hillary Clinton, as US Secretary of State, tried to push Barack Obama’s administration to accept the dubious “autonomy” plan promoted by King Mohammed that excluded the option of independence for Western Sahara from the terms of the referendum. One should add that Polisario is about as compromised as any other “liberation movement” of the seventies in terms of its adherence to human rights. But the most convincing element of the Sahrawi claim is the Moroccan refusal to allow a referendum. The King knows he would lose it.
History should provide a pre-emptively answer to anyone who asks why we should worry about “a quarrel, in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council of the UN, pledged to uphold the UN Charter, and with a few notable exceptions has been fairly good at it. The UK delegation has been reluctantly supportive of what Robin Cook would have called the ethical dimension of foreign policy over the Sahara, but is palpably discomforted by all the sordid reasons it should go along with others who would happily sell the Sahrawis down the sand dunes.
Both Ban and Corbyn see that an injustice perpetuated like this attacks the basic principles of the United Nations. In the face of the frantic Moroccan assault on Ban Ki-moon, Britain, and indeed Jeremy Corbyn, should be signalling support for the Secretary General’s brave initiative, aimed as it is at rescuinghundreds of thousands of people from life in exile of under occupation.