Western Sahara

– in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 27th January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr Vara.)

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire 6:14 pm, 27th January 2011

I must first declare my interests, which are entered in the overseas visits section of the Register of Members' Financial Interests. I am also chair of the all-party group on Morocco and the parliamentary link for the British Moroccan Association. I have been in touch with Western Sahara Campaign UK and Polisario and am grateful for their insights. I should make plain at the outset my admiration for Morocco, its history and people, and I am proud to represent the largest Moroccan expatriate community outside London.

I will spare the House the history and background of the Western Sahara dispute, which should be taken as read. I know that my hon. Friend David T. C. Davies and Jeremy Corbyn wish to speak in the debate, and my hon. Friend Mr Offord would have liked to contribute, as he attended the recent visit to Morocco and Western Sahara, but unfortunately he is unwell.

It seems to me that there are broadly three options for Western Sahara: the status quo, which has been described as "untenable" by the current UN special envoy, Christopher Ross; independence, which is unrealistic, according to Peter Van Walsum, the previous UN special envoy; and autonomy, which is the option we are left with. I will go through those options one by one.

I agree with Christopher Ross that the status quo is not an option. It is not an option for the inhabitants of the Tindouf camps or of the wider Maghreb, who continue to pay the price economically and socially. Violence in and around Laayoune in November, apparently whipped up by grievances over Sahrawi social conditions, left 11 officials and two civilians dead. We are told that the fingerprints of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are not on that, just as there is no confirmed evidence of its complicity in the unrest in Tunisia and Algeria. Nevertheless, the status quo in Western Sahara offers an opportunity for fundamentalist terror groups to move out of their operating bases in the vast, barely-governed spaces of Mali, Niger and southern Algeria.

There is no firm evidence of links between the Polisario and AQIM. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Algeria would be keen to support an organisation with formal links to AQIM. Nevertheless, the potential for fundamentalist terrorists to feed off poverty and grievance is clear. We simply cannot be complacent. In December, an arms cache attributed to AQIM was discovered by the Moroccan authorities in Western Sahara. It is vital that we shrink the space available to insurgents. We must always be vigilant for the sorts of opportunities that have been offered elsewhere.

I agree with Peter Van Walsum that independence is no option at all. We understand that the American and French Governments are at least sympathetic to Van Walsum's position, and the UK considers Western Sahara's status to be undetermined and disputed and has lined up behind the official UN position. Van Walsum was apparently replaced as UN special envoy because he said that independence was not realistic, which rendered him unacceptable to Polisario. Even if we agreed hypothetically with the principle of independence, we must consider whether it is practical or achievable. It would mean a country the size of Britain with a population smaller than that of Bristol. How could its Government guarantee internal and external security in a highly challenging environment without relying indefinitely on benign or malign foreign agencies? Would we be comfortable with such an entity becoming the client state of the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria, which many human rights campaigners see as militaristic, closed and repressive? We must be careful about supporting the creation of states that are inherently unstable. We must also be cautious because of the security threat highlighted by the terrorism and insurgency centre run by Jane's. Although it ranks Morocco's counter-terrorism measures as "moderately effective", it remains concerned about frontier security and unregulated migration.

In Europe, we are not disinterested bystanders. We have a stake in getting this right. Since the UK's treaty obligations have rendered our borders porous, for practical purposes the southern Mediterranean coastline is our frontier. The recent trouble in Tunis and Algeria does not read across directly to Morocco, but in the Maghreb and in Egypt we have seen significant civil unrest in recent days, which is a reminder of the fragility of countries with young populations, high youth unemployment and poor living standards.

The third option is autonomy. In April 2007, Morocco unveiled its autonomy plan for Western Sahara. In part, it represented a compromise and, in part, it reflected wider governance changes involving the greater devolution of powers within Morocco itself. The UN Security Council, in its resolution of 30 April 2010, noted the proposal and commended the

"serious and credible Moroccan efforts to move the process forward towards resolution."

In 2009, that was backed by the majority of US Congressmen and, in 2010, by the majority of the Senate.

America, which prides itself on being Morocco's oldest ally, has been understandably supportive. It knows very well the benefits of a federal model and has in its history incorporated, annexed and otherwise acquired territory on a grand scale. The plan that remains on the table would establish a Sahara autonomous region within the Kingdom of Morocco. It would have considerable autonomy and certainly move in the direction of the UN's support for what it calls

"self-determination of the people of the Western Sahara."

Some have even said that the powers over matters excluding foreign affairs, defence and the national judiciary exceed those devolved to Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth might wish to comment on that in due course.

There are, however, problems. Enumerating the Sahrawis, the Sahrawi diaspora and the resident Moroccan population is a challenge that seems almost overwhelming. It failed completely in 2000, but the job has to be done under both the independence and autonomy options. The only way we get out of it is if we are prepared to accept the status quo.

The Moroccan Government have said that they will not entertain a referendum with independence as an option, but unless we exclude those people who have migrated since 1975, with the presumption that if we do so they will not enjoy the citizenship of any Western Saharan state, it seems unlikely that such a referendum will result in support for independence. That suggests that for Morocco the question of independence as an option is one mainly of principle, rather than avoidance.

Another sticking point is the extension of the UN mandate to include human rights. I think my Moroccan constituents would concur with the sentiments of two enjoinders in that respect, one secular, the other divine: "be sure you've sorted the beam in your own eye before the mote in your brother's"; and "don't make the perfect the enemy of the good."

There was outrage here when the US tried to suggest that there should be UN human rights monitoring in Northern Ireland, so we can begin to see how Morocco, a proud country, should also resist, particularly when it perceives that its eastern neighbour with a more questionable record is left alone. The major human rights movements have a presence in Western Sahara, and both Malcolm Smart of Amnesty and Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch say that they have not been restricted in investigating the November violence. Morocco has come a long way, but perhaps the time has come in the interests of facilitating a lasting settlement for it to swallow hard and allow human rights monitors, thus defusing the claims of its opponents.

Morocco has earned much respect for its autonomy plan, and Rabat might do well to accept an extension of the mandate of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, but it would be ludicrous if that happened without including the Tindouf camps in southern Algeria, where light desperately needs to be shone on darkness. The UK has a money interest, as it has contributed to the €165 million in humanitarian aid through the European Community humanitarian aid office, with the promise of more to come. We should worry, in the context of reported hardship in the camps, about aid money that might not end up where it is supposed to, because aid falls into disrepute when that happens-whether it is bilateral or through the fingers of Brussels.

We have a duty to ensure that we know much more about the camps, and who and how many people are in them, if that money is to continue to be spent safely and effectively. The King of Morocco has issued reassurances to the refugees of the camps and undertaken to treat them well, and we understand that there has been a significant trickle back to Western Sahara, a process that is likely to develop as confidence is built up on all sides.

Can the Minister say what actions the UK has taken to ensure the safety of the high-ranking Polisario official, Mustapha Salma? We have only unconfirmed reports that he has taken refuge in Mauritania, and his family are allegedly unable to be united with him, as they are confined to Tindouf. What are we doing to clarify the position with Algeria? Whatever our position on the autonomy plan, we must recognise that Mustapha Salma's bravery, in defying Mohammed Abdel Aziz in order to support proposals that he believes are in the interests of his people, is admirable. His witness is a substantial contribution to what I believe to be gathering support for the autonomy plan.

So far, the UN special envoy process has presided over the status quo. Christopher Ross convened a meeting in December in New York and another last weekend, the outcome of which was another fixture for Geneva in February. We understand that that will focus on how family visits from the camps can more readily be achieved. What is the Minister's view on monitoring in the camps? How can the UK help to facilitate the safe passage of refugees who wish to visit family members in Western Sahara?

What have Baroness Ashton and her EU External Action Service been doing to move matters on? If we have to have it, it might as well do something useful. Given that Morocco counts as Europe's near abroad and that it has an association agreement with the EU, what progress has been made on security, migration and welfare?

Given that MINURSO's mandate is up for reaffirmation in April, what discussions have the UK Government had with the permanent members of the UN Security Council on the Moroccan Government's autonomy plan? What is the Minister's attitude to that plan? I hope that the UK Government can join France and the US in being sympathetic.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 6:26 pm, 27th January 2011

I thank Dr Murrison for allowing me three minutes to speak, given that this is a time-limited Adjournment debate.

I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Western Sahara. I first raised what I believe to be the plight of the Sahrawi refugees in the House in 1984, and have raised the matter consistently ever since. This is possibly one of the longest-running sores in the world, although the Palestine situation is even longer running. For a moment, we should spare a thought for the people who have been living in refugee camps in Algeria for this whole time-we are now on the third or fourth generation of such families. We must recognise that they have a functioning elected Government in exile, a functioning parliamentary system, and effective representatives in this country and around the world through their political party, Polisario. Indeed, Lamine Baali is a very effective representative of the Polisario in this country.

When I last raised this matter in the House, I sought a meeting with the Minister. I am grateful to him for replying. I received a letter from him today in which he made one or two important points that I will refer to quickly. First, he said that MINURSO needs to continue. I think I am right in saying that that is the only remaining UN-mandated organisation that does not have a human rights requirement. I think that it must have a human rights agenda that it observes, so that the issues of human rights abuse, at least, can be dealt with.

Secondly, the Minister visited Morocco recently and I believe that he is due to go there again-I am sure he will tell me if I am wrong about that. What is his perception and that of our ambassador on the current position in el-Aaiun, where unfortunately there was a great deal of violence last year? I understand that a number of parliamentarians from Europe and elsewhere were refused access to the city, as were a number of media people. I sought and obtained a meeting with the Moroccan ambassador to discuss those issues, and I was assured that in future, parliamentarians would not be prevented from visiting el-Aaiun.

Thirdly, the EU fisheries agreement with Morocco expires on 27 January. I do not have a problem with the EU having a fisheries agreement with Morocco; I do have a problem with the idea that fish in the waters of Western Sahara should be taken by international fishing vessels, with the money being paid to Morocco and none of the benefits going to the Sahrawi people. That is an untenable position, which is of very questionable legality. I hope that this time, Britain will be prepared to block the EU fisheries agreement until it is recognised that without a resolution to the Western Sahara issue, the international community should not be making arrangements to take away the natural resources of Western Sahara any more than Morocco should be encouraging international companies to take away the mineral-rich resources in Western Sahara.

This is a post-colonial issue. It is the last remaining unresolved issue in Africa. The Government of Western Sahara are supported by Western Sahara Campaign UK and the African Union. By law, there has to be a resolution of the conflict in agreement with the wishes of the people of Western Sahara. There have been delays, obstructions and obfuscation about getting a referendum of the people of Western Sahara to bring about a solution, and I hope that the Minister will say that Britain is going to stand up for the rights of those people so that there can be a resolution based on international law, respect for the rights of the Sahrawi people and a free-standing referendum.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Chair, Welsh Affairs Committee 6:30 pm, 27th January 2011

I will, of course, be extremely brief, because I know that the Minister wants to respond.

I should like to declare that I was in Laayoune about two weeks ago as a guest of the Moroccan Government, along with several other parliamentarians. There were no problems at all with getting access and moving around, and in our discussions with MINURSO, it made it clear that at no time had it had any problems in that regard. It made it pretty clear to us that it felt the Moroccan Government had behaved well on human rights issues in the area. That came from a completely independent body, and we should take it seriously.

The dispute is long running, and it is important for all of us that it is settled. I may not be an expert on north Africa, but I know a thing or two about devolution and the need to compromise sometimes. That is why it is important that we look very favourably at the autonomy agreement, which would provide far more autonomy than has been granted to Wales or Scotland. In fact, I would definitely have opposed it had it been offered in Wales or Scotland, because it is a big step on the route to independence. If that is what is required to settle the problems of the region, and to allow the Sahrawi people the access to human rights and growing wealth that we have seen around the rest of Morocco, we should view it favourably.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 6:31 pm, 27th January 2011

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Murrison on securing the debate and on allowing the contributions of Jeremy Corbyn and my hon. Friend David T. C. Davies. All three contributions indicated the seriousness with which the issue is taken on both sides of the House and the long-standing commitment to it of a number of Members. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, the problem is long running and difficult, and it exercises us all. I appreciate the way in which the House is dealing with it tonight.

The disputed territory of Western Sahara seems, in many ways, an intractable problem. However, the fact that it is difficult does not mean that we should not try to make progress. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about the unresolved status of Western Sahara, because the absence of a settlement prevents regional integration and co-operation on a range of important issues. The Government are committed to the United Nations Security Council position, calling for a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

Sovereignty over Western Sahara has been contested between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the Sahrawi movement for independence, since 1975. The UN brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and set up MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, as a peacekeeping operation with the intention of facilitating a public vote on the future of the territory within six months. Some 20 years later, that referendum is yet to be held and MINURSO's mandate continues to be renewed on an annual basis by the UN Security Council.

The UK fully supports the right of the Sahrawi people to exercise their right to self-determination and applauds the efforts of the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, Ambassador Christopher Ross, to encourage the parties to enter dialogue without preconditions. I have followed closely the progress of the negotiations convened by Ambassador Ross and am heartened that the atmosphere between the parties is one of cordiality and respect. However, the fact remains that as yet, neither party is prepared to countenance the proposal of the other as the single basis for any future negotiations. For Morocco, the solution is autonomy; for the Polisario, it is a referendum with independence as a possible outcome.

Where Ambassador Ross has succeeded is in delivering results in the important area of confidence-building measures. We are pleased that on 7 January, the programme of family visits by air between Moroccan-administered Western Sahara and the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Western Sahara was able to resume after a 10-month hiatus.

I would also like to congratulate the parties on their agreement to meet officials from the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva from 9 to 10 February to discuss further confidence-building measures, such as the construction of a land bridge to facilitate visits by road. We wish these talks, which have the potential significantly to improve the lives of ordinary Sahrawis, every success.

However, those meetings alone are not sufficient to address the myriad voices that are gravely concerned about the accusations of human rights abuses made by both sides. The United Kingdom Government support the idea of independent verification of the human rights situation. The UN currently has no role on the ground in monitoring human rights, nor is human rights monitoring built into the MINURSO mandate. Without an independent monitor, it is rarely possible to follow up allegations of human rights violations.

While remaining neutral on the political outcome of the disputed territory, the UK has played an active role in bringing the humanitarian aspects of the conflict to the forefront of the debate. To that end, we have considered a range of monitoring options, which we have circulated to the parties and the members of the Group of Friends, with the full support of Ambassador Christopher Ross. We have also held detailed talks with other members of the Group of Friends and Morocco on the substance of those proposals. I shall briefly summarise the components, which, we believe, a human rights monitoring mechanism requires to operate effectively and credibly. I note the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire was good enough to make about the human rights mechanism.

It is essential that any human rights monitoring should apply in equal measure to the Moroccan-administered territory of Western Sahara and the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria. The mechanism must be, and be seen to be, independent. Its aims and objectives should be clearly set out and measurable to ensure that monitoring activities are effective and accountable. It would also be strongly preferable for the monitoring body to report to a body able to act on its findings. That is closely linked to the issue of the mandate, since MINURSO, Ambassador Ross, or the Security Council would be well placed to respond.

We are aware that the human rights situation cannot be discussed in isolation from the political sensitivities of the conflict, and I am genuinely grateful to Morocco for the spirit of engagement in which it has responded to the non-paper, which circulated the proposals. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for his comments. It is sometimes difficult to accept an independent human rights monitoring aspect to any national state's work, but it can make a significant difference in confidence building, particularly in an area of disputed territory. The United Kingdom will continue to ensure that human rights and the human dimension of the conflict remain at the forefront of the debate, including during discussions on the MINURSO resolution at the UN in April.

That is all the more pressing in the light of recent developments in the disputed territory. As I am sure hon. Members know-it has already been mentioned-in early October, a large number of Sahrawis set up a protest camp just outside Laayoune. Their mass protests appear to have focused on socio-economic problems rather than on the question of Western Sahara's status. On 8 November, following failed negotiations and warnings to the protestors to disperse, the Moroccan royal gendarmerie and auxiliary forces carried out an operation to dismantle the camps. That resulted in the deaths of 12 security personnel at the camps and two civilians in the subsequent unrest in Laayoune.

We were deeply saddened to hear of those violent events and regret the loss of life. As the hon. Member for Islington North pointed out, we were also concerned to learn that, following those events, Morocco restricted access to the territory to several international observers. However, we were encouraged to learn that a confidence-building meeting between all parties, which was due to be held shortly afterwards in New York, went ahead, despite the difficulties.

It is our hope that the regrettable event-the incident at Laayoune-will underline to the international community the importance of taking a proactive approach to this year's Security Council negotiations on the renewal of MINURSO's mandate. Neither party must assume that the mandate will roll over as a matter of course. The UK has been active in calling for greater transparency, and we will continue to pursue this approach.

In answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire about our activity in relation to that, we used our November presidency of the UN Security Council to chair a Council meeting to gather evidence about the events in Western Sahara from Ambassador Ross and the assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations. We were disappointed to learn that, in the immediate aftermath, Morocco denied access to a number of international observers, including journalists, parliamentarians and NGOs, on security grounds. However, having visited Morocco shortly afterwards, I understand why the Moroccans felt that some elements of the international press markedly misrepresented the facts of the situation.

Our understanding now is that there are no restrictions on access to Western Sahara, and that members of civil society and international observers have been able to visit. An official from the British embassy in Rabat visited the territory in December 2010 and met a range of Moroccan officials, international bodies, UN agencies and local non-governmental organisations. I understand that the all-party parliamentary group was granted a similar level of access on its recent visit.

As hon. Members are rightly aware, I too have had the opportunity to travel to the region. During my visit to Morocco in December, I made clear to my interlocutors the benefits of a monitoring presence on the ground as the best way to ensure a balanced picture of events. I appreciate the serious, proper and open manner of our conversation, and that there was much concern about recent events. I also raised the matter during my visit to Algeria in November, where I communicated the UK's interest in a secure and prosperous region working well together. Again, I appreciated the Algerian Minister's response and understanding of the seriousness of the situation. As the world is showing us, such long-standing disputes have a habit of popping up at the least expected times, and it as well to continue to pay serious attention to them and try to get things moving.

Until the question of Western Sahara can be resolved, there is little chance of a significant improvement in Morocco-Algeria relations. The Maghreb is an emerging market and of growing strategic importance to the UK. We are also interested in encouraging greater political openness throughout the region, but perhaps that is happening of its own accord.

On the worrying hypothesis put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, he rightly conjects that Western Sahara is potentially vulnerable to exploitation from extremists. The discovery earlier this month of a significant al-Qaeda in the Maghreb arms cache at Amghaha, 220 km from Laayoune, is of particular concern. We share the Moroccan Government's concerns that AQIM is increasingly becoming involved in criminal activity throughout the region, although we must stress, as my hon. Friend said, that we have no evidence to suggest a link between AQIM and the Polisario. We are carefully monitoring the activities of AQIM and its links with other organisations. As in the case of other terrorist groups, the issue of Western Sahara continues to prevent meaningful co-operation across the Maghreb on combating the shared threat from extremist groups.

The hon. Member for Islington North referred to the fishing agreement. We believe that the EU-Morocco fisheries partnership agreement is consistent with international law, but we are aware of concerns about how the agreement is implemented, particularly in relation to its impact on the people of Western Sahara. The FPA is due to expire in February 2011, and we expect the negotiations on a new agreement to take into account any changes in the situation since it was first agreed.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire mentioned the EU External Action Service. The EU's partnership with Morocco is based on a commitment by the latter to uphold our common values. Respect for democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms form the cornerstone of relations between the EU and Morocco. The consequences of the Western Sahara situation are discussed at all meetings between the two. The EU has emphasised to Morocco the importance that we attach to improving the human rights situation in the territory of Western Sahara. The matter was discussed at the latest meeting of the EU-Moroccan association committee in Rabat in October 2010, and Baroness Ashton is well sighted on it.

My hon. Friend referred to Mr Mustapha Salma. Officials from the British embassy in Rabat have met his family, and officials in London raised his case with the Polisario representative to the UK, so we are sighted on the issue. This matter will run-

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).