Recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan — [Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 9:30, 8 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government policy on the recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. The debate is on pressing the British Government finally to recognise the sovereignty of Western Sahara as part of the Kingdom of Morocco. Morocco, of course, is our second oldest ally, a reliable partner and one that seeks our support in recognising Western Sahara as a part of the kingdom. The United States of America and Israel, two of our most important allies, have recognised the sovereignty of Western Sahara as Moroccan, and some of our other allies, Spain—the former colonial power in Western Sahara—France, the Netherlands, Germany and others, all recognise that the autonomy proposals that the Moroccan Government are putting forward for Western Sahara are the best option going forward, and yet we in the United Kingdom sit on the fence.

During the course of the debate, I intend to analyse why Morocco is such an important strategic partner for the United Kingdom. Ultimately, I will urge my own Government to get off the fence finally and to recognise the sovereignty of Western Sahara as being Moroccan, or run the risk of a major miscalculation in our geopolitical strategic approach, not only to Morocco but to the whole of north Africa.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

I am listening with interest to the case that my hon. Friend is making. In essence, he seems to be saying that, because Morocco is important to us, we should recognise that Western Sahara should be part of Morocco. Is it not better to say that Morocco is important to us, but so are the people of Western Sahara, and they should be allowed the self-determination that many other people are allowed?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I gave way to my hon. Friend out of deference to the fact that he is Father of the House, but I will not give way to many interventions, because I have an awful lot to say in the limited time I have. Later in my speech, I will come on to the point that he so eloquently made.

The Arab League has 22 members, and I have visited 18 of them during the course of being a Member of Parliament and when I was in commerce, in exports, previously. When one travels across members of the Arab League, one comes across vast differences between those countries, whether it is Mauritania on the one hand, which I have visited on three occasions, or the United Arab Emirates on the other. There are huge differences between those Arab nations, many of them our neighbours. Over the past three years, however, I have been writing a book on emotional intelligence in politics—

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

As the hon. Lady will know, a key strand that runs through the whole concept of emotional intelligence is interdependence. That is a word that keeps coming back when one studies the concept of emotional intelligence. During the course of this debate, I intend to highlight our interdependence with the Kingdom of Morocco. Out of the 22, this is arguably the best Arab country to engage with. It has the most progressive society and one, most importantly, that shares our values. It is a reliable strategic partner, which pursues all the attributes of a modern democracy. We can and must build strong commercial, political and security links with this nation.

But we are in the process of jeopardising our potential with Rabat and falling behind our competitors—the United States of America, Germany, Spain and others—as a result of our refusal to understand from an emotionally intelligent perspective the huge importance that Morocco attaches to this issue. In the first part of my speech, I will examine why I feel so strongly about Morocco.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

No, I will not give way at the moment; I am going to talk about women’s rights, religious rights and the rule of law—protection for citizens under the constitution.

When I visited Morocco, I saw at first hand its extraordinary protection of religious minorities. I have been visiting the country for many years, and I have seen a multi-faith, multicultural, inclusive society. I have visited many mosques, synagogues and churches during my visits. John Paul II visited Morocco in August 1985, when he was hosted by King Hassan; that was the Polish Pope’s first visit to any Muslim nation. Pope Francis visited in 2019, and during that visit he praised King Mohammed VI’s interfaith dialogue. I pay tribute to His Majesty Mohammed VI for his leadership and vision, and the way he pursues interfaith dialogue throughout his whole nation. It is not just interfaith dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims in Morocco; even more importantly, King Mohammed VI does important work in sub-Saharan Africa, supporting the nations bordering Morocco in trying to deal with the ethnic and religious tensions that have so blighted sub-Saharan Africa and caused so much instability in the region.

During the second world war, Mohammed V was pressurised by Vichy France and Nazi Germany to expel all the Jews from Morocco. I know there are hon. Members of this House with family links to Morocco. Mohammed V came under huge pressure by Vichy to do what some European countries did: shepherd their Jewish population into the clutches of the Vichy regime or Germany. Ultimately, we all know what happened to those Jewish people who were sent to Auschwitz.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Labour, Leeds North East

The hon. Gentleman mentions Members of this House who have family connections to Morrocco. Does he agree that the fact that my late great-uncle was the Jewish major of Tangier during the second world war proves the point he is making?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I am very aware, through our discussions, of the hon. Gentleman’s family connections with Tangier. I pay tribute to him and his ancestors and relatives, who played such a critical role in Morocco at a particularly difficult time.

Mohammed V, in response to Vichy and Adolf Hitler, said, “There are no Jews. There are no Muslims. There are only Moroccans.” He refused to comply with the diktat of Pétain and Hitler and did not cave in to those demands. I think that is testimony to the way in which the royal family of the Kingdom of Morocco protects all religious minorities. I heard from one journalist that the late Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, said that when he had difficulties with the Moroccan Jewish population, he sought the advice and support of the late King Hassan, who had such close links with that diaspora in his own kingdom.

Secondly, I want to talk about women’s rights. During my many visits to Morocco I have met women who are far more empowered in Morocco than in many other Arab nations. Having met many female journalists, civil engineers, women who work in construction, female politicians and female diplomats, one gets the impression that Morocco, out of all of the Arab League members, understands and recognises that it will become a true modern society only if women are empowered and supported, not only through the education system but by being able to reach the very top of all sectors in society and the economy, including those that have historically been dominated by males.

Finally, I turn to democracy. On my many visits to Morocco I have witnessed and experienced what I perceive to be a greater freedom of the press than I have come across in any other Arab nation. There is greater protection of citizens under the constitution, a genuine Parliament, a genuine system of checks and balances, and genuine power of the opposition. Having spoken to many opposition MPs in Morocco, one gets the sense that it is a genuine thriving democracy where the rule of law is protected and people can debate and challenge one another in the most robust way without fear of retribution.

The key issue facing Britain today is the growing spread of the malign Iranian influence across the middle east and north Africa. That evil, despotic regime, which came about after the fall of the Shah in 1979, with the mullahs that control Iran—I visited Tehran when I was on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee—is one of the most dangerous, violent, authoritarian regimes in the region. It suppresses and abuses its own people and throws gay people off buildings. It is a very dangerous country and its malign influence is spreading across the region.

I will briefly mention the allegations of Iranian influence in the disturbances and difficulties that Bahrain faced in 2011. Iran filled the void in Iraq, which Mr Blair helped to create in the second invasion of Iraq, and its malign influence is growing there. Our miscalculations over Syria have given the Iranians the ability to enter the country. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Its influence is extending to north Africa, Libya and Algeria through its support of the Polisario movement.

In contrast, Morocco is a thriving democracy. When I went to Morocco, I saw the massive effort to stem the flow of illegal migration to Europe. I met many officials and heard how they have managed to prevent over 300,000 illegal crossings into the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and the Canary Islands. Bearing in mind how we are getting increasingly agitated and frustrated about the illegal migration operating in the English channel, we have to pay tribute to the extraordinary support and vision that Morocco has in policing its own borders and making sure that illegal migration does not end up in Europe and ultimately through Europe to the United Kingdom.

With the restrictions in the Red sea and ultimately the Suez canal as a result of the conduct of the Houthi rebels, the waterway around the Moroccan coastline will be even more important for our security and defence capability.

There are of course huge commercial opportunities. Between 700,000 and 1 million British tourists visit Morocco every year. We also have a company, Xlinks—its chief executive officer is Sir Dave Lewis—that seeks to export green energy by funnelling solar and wind power from Morocco through an undersea cable to Britain. That aspiration could ultimately lead to 8% of British energy requirements being provided by Morocco through green energy.

Earlier this year I visited Western Sahara, including Laayoune and Dakhla, with General Sir Simon Mayall. We spent a week together in Dakhla and the wider area. The highlight of our visit was our meeting the Foreign Minister of Morocco, Nasser Bourita, with whom we spent an hour and a half. Instinctively, when we started to talk to him, although, of course, I am not going to reveal the intricate discussions we had—[Interruption.] Does Patrick Grady wish to say something?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The hon. Gentleman does not need to go into the details, because we can read them in the press release that the Moroccan Government released after his meeting with the Foreign Minister, which I have just found online. I am not sure whether I caught what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech; his trip was paid for by the Moroccan embassy to the United Kingdom, was it not? And it is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, is it not?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Yes. That is why I just stated that I visited the Kingdom of Morocco on an official visit, and that is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. That is correct.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please stick to the motion?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Yes, I will. I was trying to explain why I feel so strongly that Morocco is a reliable partner for the United Kingdom. I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. Yes, we do go overseas on visits where we try to increase our understanding of other nations. We do not have a budget in the House of Commons to pay for those visits; we are guests of the foreign country, which is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

During our visit to Morocco, we had a very unsatisfactory discussion with the British ambassador on the telephone. As on many other occasions, the British ambassador tried to indicate that we cannot recognise Western Sahara because somehow it will impinge on or affect our relationship with our overseas territories, particularly the Falkland Islands. Yet, when I pressed the British ambassador to explain why and how that could be the case, no satisfactory response was forthcoming.

I seek clarification from the Minister on this point. Is it the fact that we cannot recognise Western Sahara as being Moroccan because there is some legal, constitutional or technical difficulty that might affect our relationship with our overseas territories? I cannot see that, given that France, which is in the process of recognising this issue, also has overseas territories. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain that point. We need to recognise Western Sahara, as Israel and America have done. At the very least, we should follow Spain, the former colonial power, along with Germany and France in recognising that the autonomy proposals are the only way forward.

I have mentioned women’s rights; during my visit to Dakhla we had the opportunity to visit the new port that is being constructed in Western Sahara, and I was able to speak to Mrs Nisrine Iouzzi, who is the lady who runs the 1,600 engineers and construction workers at the port. It is going to be an extremely important link, not just for Morocco but for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, including Niger, Chad, Mali and many other countries.

One way to deal with illegal immigration in Europe and to support Morocco is through a programme of support for illegal migrants, which I saw at first hand in Dakhla. The Moroccan Government are helping illegal migrants to settle there, training them and giving them opportunities.

Only four Arab nations have signed the Abraham accords, of course. The first contact between the Egyptians and the Israelis in the 1970s was brokered by Rabat, leading to Sadat’s visit to Israel and, ultimately, the peace accord. In 1994 the late King Hassan hosted a World Economic Forum, inviting Israelis and Palestinians to Casablanca for their first joint session at an international conference.

Professor Marc Weller, chair of international law and international constitutional studies at the University of Cambridge, has submitted a report to the Foreign Office. He was commissioned to evaluate the concept of why the United Kingdom may find it difficult to recognise Western Sahara, bearing in mind the intricate relationship we have with our overseas territories. I have met Professor Marc Weller here in the House of Commons on two separate occasions over the past few weeks. He submitted his report to the Foreign Office three weeks ago; I would be grateful if the Minister could recognise whether it has been received and say whether his officials will brief him on it.

Let us not forget that Professor Marc Weller, chair of international law and international constitutional studies at Cambridge, is one of this country’s leading academics on international law and works in the sphere on which I am pressing the Minister directly. He says that when he took on the commission he found it a potentially daunting prospect, yet after the research he has done he has come to the conclusion that recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and indeed recognising the autonomy proposals, would actually strengthen our relationship with our overseas territories and with the Falkland Islands. Professor Marc Weller from the University of Cambridge says the direct opposite of what we hear from our own ambassador in Morocco.

During my visit to Western Sahara, we came across representatives of 30 countries that have set up consulates in Dakhla, and more than 90 countries around the world have recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

The hon. Member has obviously done detailed research; did he have a chance to meet the Polisario, and has he visited the refugee camps in Algeria?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I rather suspected that the right hon. Gentleman would ask that question. I will come to that later in my speech. I have not been, as yet, to the Tindouf camp in Algeria where the Polisario are, but I have received very serious allegations from various friends in the Moroccan Parliament. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman referred to the Tindouf camp, because we have received very serious allegations about the promotion of terrorism within it. We have received transcripts of audio discussions from the Tindouf camp in which various members of the Polisario Front urge young female fighters to plant bombs in Dakhla and to try to murder their way back to the Western Sahara. That is a great concern if it is true, and I strongly urge the Minister to take up the matter with his Algerian counterpart to seek the veracity of the situation.

We here in the United Kingdom have had to deal with terrorism ourselves during the course of our lifetime, have we not? We have experienced bombings in this country by the IRA. We have experienced innocent men, women and children being murdered and bombed in Manchester, London and other places. Indeed, there was an attempt to assassinate the leader of my party in the Brighton hotel bombing. So we, of all countries, should recognise the difficulties that Morocco is facing, if the allegations are correct and it is true that the Tindouf camps are still being used by the Polisario as a hotbed to promote terrorist activities across the border in Morocco.

Finally, there are allegations from organisations, even including Amnesty International, which I am sure Jeremy Corbyn respects and recognises, of human rights abuses in the Tindouf camps. I will put those allegations into the House of Commons Library. Will the Minister take that issue on board?

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for talking about Morocco rather than just Western Sahara. When we discuss Western Sahara, I do not think we can discount why and how certain parliamentarians have so much confidence in Morocco, because of the strategic bilateral relationship we are creating with the country. I pay tribute to the Moroccan ambassador, who works tirelessly and very effectively on behalf of his nation in trying to educate us parliamentarians about the Moroccan perspective.

I recognise and understand that there are hon. Members with views different from my own, and I am sure we will hear those views later in the debate. From my perspective, I want the Minister to realise and recognise that in the remaining time we have in government, however short or long that is, this issue will not go away. We are falling behind our main competitors, such as Spain, France, Germany and America, and unless the issue is resolved satisfactorily for the Moroccans and unless we recognise Western Sahara, we will be jeopardising our relationship with them.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South

I expect to move to the winding-up speeches at 10.28 am. I remind Members to refer to their entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests at the start of their contribution.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North 9:57, 8 May 2024

I thank Daniel Kawczynski for securing the debate. We should also put on the record our thanks to the Library for a very good briefing on the situation of the Western Sahara. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham had to say. It is unfortunate that the first 21 minutes of his speech were taken up by talking about Morocco and he barely mentioned the issue of the legality of Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara. That is the subject of the debate and the area we should be talking about.

I first raised the issue of the occupation of the Western Sahara in this House in 1984. I have had the good fortune to visit the refugee camps in Algeria on two occasions and to visit the part of Western Sahara that is controlled by the Sahrawi people—a small part of it—near the border with Mauritania. I have also visited the occupied territories and Morocco, and met many shades of opinion, both within the Polisario and within Morocco itself. I have done my best to take a view on the situation based on its history.

Western Sahara was occupied by Spain; it was a Spanish colony. On the return of democracy to Spain in the 1970s, Spain withdrew from Western Sahara. The United Nations General Assembly requested that, as part of a process of decolonisation, the people of Western Sahara—the Sahrawi people—should have the opportunity to decide their own future; they should have a choice they could make. The choice has now come down to the three options that have been put, which I will come back to in a moment: independence, autonomy or incorporation within Morocco.

We must recognise that if we just say, as the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham appears to be saying, that Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara should now be confirmed and condoned and we should trade with Morocco absolutely normally, as though nothing had happened in Western Sahara, we are failing in our duties under international law. The issue was taken to the International Court of Justice in the 1970s, and an advisory opinion was issued requiring a referendum for the people of Western Sahara. That referendum has never taken place.

The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara was established to ensure that there was a peaceful future for the people of Western Sahara. There has been conflict in the past, and there is a danger that it will return. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham referred in his speech to issues surrounding Northern Ireland and to other issues. Surely, the way to avoid a conflict in the future is to look at the heart of the issue and to deal with it in a peaceful way, which is where the referendum comes in. The referendum has not happened.

UN representatives have tried hard over many years to get agreement on what an electoral roll would look like and who can vote on the future of Western Sahara—for example, the people in the refugee camps in Tindouf and the Western Sahara diaspora, as well as the Sahrawi people in Western Sahara itself. I hope that the UK Government will recognise the importance of international law in that respect and recognise the right of the people of Western Sahara to decide their own future. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham effectively is, effectively, denying the Sahrawi people any rights whatever. He is saying that the occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco on the departure of Spain should just be accepted as a done deal.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

In the right hon. Gentleman’s logic, the United States of America, Israel, Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands are all wrong that the autonomy proposals from the Kingdom of Morocco are the correct solution going forward. Is he saying that all those NATO allies of ours are wrong?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

What I am saying is that international law should come first, so the decision by Donald Trump, when he was President of the United States, to recognise Moroccan occupation, which few other countries have done, is a backward step for international law. It will obviously make a lot of people—particularly Sahrawi people—extremely angry, because they see in it no right of representation for themselves.

My argument is that the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion was in terms of a process of decolonisation. The issue has been taken to the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in New York, and I was there myself on that occasion, speaking about exactly this issue. Surely, the position we should adopt as a member of the United Nations and the Security Council is to support the General Assembly decision, the Security Council’s continued appointment of MINURSO, and the Secretary-General’s appointee to try to bring about a process for the future.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham seems to be using the Morocco’s huge economic advances as a reason for overriding international law in respect of Western Sahara. I respectfully say to him that the two things are not connected. Morocco’s trade with Europe, its developing solar economy, the proposal for building an underground train tunnel to Spain and all those sorts of things are great and very welcome—many things in Morocco are extremely welcome and very good—but that does not take away the fundamental point that the occupation of Western Sahara on the departure of Spain remains illegal, and we should not be trading in goods produced in illegally occupied territories. That argument goes on all around the world.

What I hope comes out of this debate is a statement by our Government that we will continue to respect international law, engage with Morocco and Polisario and engage assertively with the United Nations to ensure that this long-running conflict can be brought to a conclusion by giving the Sahrawi people a fundamental right to decide their own future. That right can be supressed and wished away, but the desire for recognition and self-determination of the Sahrawi people, as with peoples all around the world, will not go away.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The right hon. Gentleman is making very positive points. Is he aware that, on 7 December 2022, Daniel Kawczynski secured a debate in Westminster Hall in which he called for the Chagos islanders to be given a referendum so that they could exercise their right to self-determination over their future autonomy?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

I have listened to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham speak on many occasions in the Chagos islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) all-party parliamentary group about the need for the Chagossian people to have a right to decide their own future. That issue is not for debate today but, in law, the Chagos islands are part of Mauritius that is decolonisation law that has been enacted. Let us be consistent about this issue and ensure that we, as a Parliament representing a country that was one of the founding members of the United Nations and that set up many of these international institutions, stand by them and abide by them, and give the Sahrawi people the chance to decide their own future.

The camps in Algeria have been there for a very long time. I have visited those camps on three occasions, and I have met many people there who are sad that they have been driven out of their own homes and cannot return. They are doing their best to make a life there, but people stuck in a refugee camp for decades and decades—generations of them—get very angry. Look at the Palestinian people in refugee camps in countries around Israel; they get very angry. The way to deal with their anger is to look at the issue of the justice that has been denied.

It is in the interests of Morrocco to ensure that there is a proper settlement and not to allow the commercial interests of phosphate mining, the agricultural sector or those who wish to occupy Western Sahara at the expense of the Sahrawi people to take centre stage in policymaking, when our policymaking should be decided by the issues of decolonisation and law.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 10:07, 8 May 2024

It is a real pleasure to speak in the debate, Ms Vaz, I thank my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski for securing it. By way of declaration, I am a former Foreign Office Minister and the Prime Minister’s former envoy on freedom of religion or belief, based in the Foreign Office, and I have a keen interest in foreign affairs. Let me say at the outset that I have never been to Morrocco or that part of the world, and what I will say is based on what I have read.

The subject of the debate is Government policy on the recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan, and my first question to the Minister is this: when was the Government position on Western Sahara last reviewed? I ask that because it is important to look at different challenges around the world with the latest available information. Therefore, there must be a process to say, “We have reviewed this, and this is the United Kingdom’s position. It is in line with what we said in the foreign policy, defence and security review of 2021.” For transparency purposes, the question then is, how do we make those decisions? What criteria do we take into account?

I am not going to get involved in the political arguments we have heard from Members on both sides. I respect colleagues across the board on the issue of international law, and I resigned from the Government as the envoy on religious freedom or belief over the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 because I did not agree with breeching international law. So I have huge respect—and I am a stickler—for a rules-based system.

The Prime Minister said in the Mansion House speech that the United Kingdom will lead the world and not be led. That means addressing some of the big issues around the world, rather than simply allowing them to be frozen conflicts. We will lead. The United Kingdom and France chair the UN Trusteeship Council, which looks at transitional governance and arrangements around the world, so we have a key role to play in this regard.

For today’s purposes, I have a question for the Minister. Last week, along with the ambassador for Morocco, I attended a seminar on Morocco in Parliament, which was chaired by my right hon. Friend Sir Liam Fox. Professor Marc Weller, who has been referenced before, gave a presentation on the similarities in the international legal status of Western Sahara and the Falkland Islands. Professor Weller is chair of international law and international constitutional studies at Cambridge University, as well as a former senior mediation expert, and he has advised the United Nations in that regard.

My question for the Minister is this: has he seen the executive summary? It is about six pages long, but I will reference just a couple of points. The first part says:

“This study reviews the similarities and differences in the respective legal positions of Argentina and the UK in relation to the Falkland Islands on the one hand, and Morocco and in relation to the Western Sahara on the other.

More specifically, the study investigates whether UK support for the position of Morocco on the Western Sahara, and in particular, the autonomy settlement proposal put forward by Morocco in 2007, would negatively affect HMGs position vis-a-vis the Falkland Malvinas.

Towards this end, the study investigates the two principal branches of the claims advanced by the sides in both cases. These are underlying territorial claims to sovereignty and claims or arguments based on decolonization and self-determination.

It could be thought that the positions of Argentina and Morocco are quite similar. Both oppose what they claim to be the forcible acquisition of territory by a colonial power—Britain in the one case, and Spain in the other—during the period of high imperialism of the 19th century. Both seemingly demand restoration of this territory, now that the colonial period has concluded. Hence, it might be thought, supporting the Moroccan position or settlement proposal would automatically undermine the UK arguments concerning the Falkland Islands.

In fact, the positions relative to Western Sahara and the Falklands Islands are significantly different in several key respects. Endorsing the one does not distract from the other. Moreover, and perhaps surprisingly, it emerges that the UK actually shares a number of interests and positions with Morocco.”

There are 32 different paragraphs, but I will go to the final two, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. Paragraph 31 says:

“While the UK has already achieved full self-governance for the people of the Falkland Islands, Morocco’s autonomy proposal is rapidly gaining broad international acceptance as the means of realizing that prospect for the people of Western Sahara. This is also reflected in the increasing demand of the United Nations Security Council, General Assembly and UN Secretary-General that the sides in the Western Sahara dispute must now engage in a dialogue without preconditions, with a view to concluding a realistic, serious, credible and enduring settlement.”

The final paragraph says:

“Supporting the adoption and implementation of the proposal is very much in line with the position of the UK, which emphasizes the application of self-determination also outside of the traditional colonial context. Much like the Moroccan autonomy proposal, HMG is asserting that full self-government, freely endorsed by the affected people, is the ultimate aim of self- determination in such circumstances.”

The last three lines are:

“This is precisely what Morocco is offering for further discussion to the population of Western Sahara, along with option of a free and fair endorsement of the plan through a referendum among the original, indigenous population of the territory.”

I say to the Minister that that is one thing; Jeremy Corbyn has put forward another. Will the Minister put forward the United Kingdom’s position on this matter, so that everyone can see the evidence available? If the Prime Minister’s vision is to be enacted, Ministers must take steps to find solutions and lead, rather than being led, on these events. If the Minister has not read that report by Professor Weller, will he read it and other pieces of evidence and highlight when this matter was last reviewed? If it has not been reviewed for a number of years, it may need to be put on the Foreign Secretary’s desk.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:15, 8 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. It is a privilege to speak in the debate, and I thank Daniel Kawczynski for securing it. The importance of this topic cannot be overstated. I see others in the room who are advocates on human rights issues, and that is what I wish to speak about. I have been an advocate of human rights for every individual in the world for quite some time, for I believe it is an obligation that I carry—indeed, it is an obligation that others in this Chamber carry too, as those who have spoken so far have indicated.

During conflict, human rights violations abound, and the conflict in Western Sahara is no exception. I wish to speak to that and, as I always do, to seek the Minister’s response. The Minister and I share a similar faith and obligation, and he has the power to respond to all our requests, so I look forward very much to his contribution. I am pleased to see the two shadow Ministers in their place. Ms Brown, who will speak for the Labour party, and I share the same platform on nearly every issue in this Chamber, and I look forward to her contribution.

The situation in Western Sahara has been deemed a frozen conflict due to decades of war and failed peacemaking between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Four years ago, the Front declared an end to the ceasefire that had previously kept tensions at bay since 1991, and the conflict has since escalated. That means the reality on the ground is very different, but the question of the status of Western Sahara remains at the centre of the conflict. I want to take the time to address the human rights violations in the Western Sahara conflict, which unfortunately have not received the warranted awareness and action. Again, I look to the Minister to take my comments and those of others on board and to respond. I know that he will, but I urge him to recognise the problems on the ground.

I am grateful that the debate allows me and others the opportunity to speak about the human rights violations. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland must be clear on the need for advocacy and effective action towards mitigating the human rights crisis in Western Sahara. The ongoing fighting has resulted in the displacement and refugee status of more than 165,000 Sahrawis. Most of them reside in refugee camps on the border between Morocco and Algeria, according to the Algerian Government. The UN provides assistance to some 90,000 refugees. The conditions of those refugees are deplorable; others have made that comment, and it is only right that I do the same.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Labour, Leeds North East

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most essential things for the resolution of any conflict is economic development and the reduction of inequalities between the richest and the poorest? Does he agree that what the Moroccan Government have done so far in taking $1 in tax and returning $7 back to the people of the region will actually help in that regard, and that the autonomy proposals should be clearly considered within the context of the economic development? I am one of few MPs in this place who have been to Laayoune—I know that others who have spoken today have too—and I saw for myself the effects of that economic development on the Sahrawi people and how it can benefit them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in order to end conflict, we need more economic development and that the Moroccan Government are providing just that?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will refer to some of what he said shortly. Idle hands, by their very nature, create problems. People need a focus, an economic opportunity and investment—and they need the human rights violations stopped.

Over 80% of Sahrawi refugees are food-insecure, or at least face the risk of food insecurity—the issue Fabian Hamilton referred to. Some 60% are economically inactive, and one third have no income whatsoever. That is the magnitude of the issue, and it has to be addressed at its very core. If we want to solve problems, we have to address the key issues.

As my party’s health spokesperson, I must remark on the health situation in the refugee camps, where acute malnutrition rose from 7% to 11% between 2019 and 2022, and many women and children suffer from anaemia. Those are key issues, and if they are not recognised as part of the solution, then we have a serious problem. I will give an example to illustrate that. Bouna Mohamed, a refugee and the mother of two children residing with her family in one of the refugee camps, remarked:

“Life is tough here. We are very poor and everything is expensive...we spend the day drinking tea and dreaming of better times”.

In essence, these refugees reside in conditions that do not provide them with promising opportunities and the dignity they deserve. Instead, they wait with little optimism for a political solution to the conflict, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned.

For those who remain in Moroccan and Polisario-controlled territories, the human rights situation is also cause for grave concern. The Freedom House index gave Western Sahara four out of 100 for freedom in the territory. My goodness—it could hardly be much worse, could it? That really is the bottom of the pile. That illustrates the issues that need to be addressed. Political and civil liberties are severely restricted by both Morocco and the Polisario Front. It is worth noting that restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom are the most prominent ongoing human rights violations.

In 2021, UN experts called on Morocco to stop targeting human rights defenders and journalists raising awareness of human rights issues in Western Sahara. Many of those human rights activists face long sentences in Moroccan prisons and even degrading treatment and torture. Jeremy Corbyn referred to that, and it cannot be ignored. The Polisario Front is also known—no one is above blame here—for regularly cracking down on dissent and imprisoning opponents. Our concern is that the human rights situation in Western Sahara will continue to worsen if the United Kingdom and its allies do not take concrete action. I look to the Minister for a response on that.

The UK continues to support UN-led efforts to seek conflict resolution and stability in Western Sahara. In 2023, the UK ratified a UN Security Council resolution calling for co-operation and the achievement of

“a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution”.

The solution has to be one that all sides can buy into, and one that gives hope, promise and confidence for the future. The resolution also requested that the Secretary-General and his personal envoy facilitate negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front. Can the Minister indicate whether there has been any opportunity for that, and how it went?

I believe in my heart that any political solution must address the humanitarian conditions I mentioned previously, especially those of the refugees. I am grateful to the Minister and the Government for encouraging the efforts of the envoy and regularly engaging in discussions with the Government of Morocco. It is now vital for those efforts to be broadened and deepened, and for human rights to take a central role. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has cemented its position as a leader in human rights advocacy worldwide. We recognise that the need to guarantee human dignity for every individual extends beyond our borders. It is my conviction that we must do more to promote human rights in Western Sahara by calling out abuses and working for change constructively and positively, and I call on the Minister and the Government to be strong voices in addressing the human rights crisis.

Our world is increasingly marked by international crisis, but the situation in Western Sahara has up to now been a low priority, given our preoccupation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza. The ongoing conflict in Western Sahara has been forgotten by the international community, but we in this House must not forget those whose most basic rights are being restricted. Let us reinvigorate our efforts; we must not only support a permanent and peaceful political solution but be a leader in advocating for human rights in Western Sahara. This debate achieves that; we can be the voice for the voiceless and improve the lives of people we may never meet.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 10:25, 8 May 2024

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz.

I congratulate Daniel Kawczynski on securing the debate. I am not the most proficient user of the Hansard search facility, but the results it has shown me suggest that it is nearly eight years since he last had cause to speak about either Morocco or Western Sahara on the parliamentary record, and I could not find any parliamentary questions that he had tabled about the Government’s relationship with those countries or their position on issues affecting them before November last year, but happily he has come to speak about the experiences he has recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The hon. Member is right that it is not uncommon for Members to lead or contribute to debates on issues affecting other countries when they have returned from visits. I have done so myself for Malawi and Colombia, but I think my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests will show that the organisations that supported those visits were charitable organisations working for the advancement of human rights, rather than the Governments of those countries pursuing their own national interests.

Whatever the motivation, this has been a useful opportunity to reflect on the situation in what is sometimes referred to as the last colony in Africa. As the turnout demonstrates, a number of Members take an interest in the area. I know that the chair of the Western Sahara all-party parliamentary group, Ben Lake, regrets that duties in Committee prevent him from taking part today.

We have heard about some of the historical background—in fact, we have had a first-hand account of some of it from Jeremy Corbyn. Many parts of Africa continue to experience hangovers from the colonial era, although they are not manifested as physically as the berm, which runs across Western Sahara and demarcates the areas administered by Morocco and those controlled by Polisario.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

The hon. Member will be aware, I am sure, that the African Union has always taken the position that Western Sahara is an issue of decolonisation, and it was on that basis that Morocco left the African Union.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is a long-standing issue that continues to be unresolved and has, to some extent, been frozen. At least in some respect, this debate is welcome, because it perhaps helps to move the wider debate along, but the obligations on Morocco and the other countries that are party to all this date to the Geneva conventions and that postcolonial legacy.

More recently, the Security Council has continued to adopt resolutions, and last year it called for a resumption of negotiations and movement towards

“a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution…which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

That is very important because, as Jim Shannon said, a failure to settle these disputes can lead only to more suffering, grievance, frustration, regional political and military tensions and conflict, and a spiral thereafter.

It is clear that, whether the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and the Government who paid for his visit like it or not, Morocco is an occupying power in Western Sahara, which means it has obligations under the Geneva conventions to foster an environment that sustains human rights for all Sahrawi people, regardless of their political persuasion. That right to self-determination is fundamental. The Sahrawis are a distinct population group with their own heritage and history, and they deserve equal rights to peacefully determine their own future, as would any other similar people. Of course, the Scottish National party has a proud tradition of advocating self-determination. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has himself used the opportunity in Westminster Hall to argue for the right of self-determination for the people of the Chagos islands, and that they should be allowed to determine their future in a referendum.

Various different solutions have been proposed. The autonomy plan published by Morocco in 2007 has been seen in some quarters as the basis for a way forward, but a settlement under the auspices of the United Nations and its representatives would surely have more success and legitimacy, particularly as, ultimately, any solution needs to be endorsed in a referendum.

At a bare minimum, international standards suggest that an autonomous region must have a locally elected Government that cannot be abolished by the central state, so an autonomous Western Sahara would have to be free to manage its own affairs without interference from the Moroccan state. Proposals for a system where the Executive of such a body were appointed by and responsible to the King of Morocco would not meet that standard.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

One of the effects of the lack of autonomous self-governance in Western Sahara is that, despite being one of the most climate-stressed places in the world, it cannot access international climate finance. Some 200,000 Sahrawis have been driven into the interior of the desert, which is basically unliveable, and even more are in Algeria, in refugee camps that are constantly flooded and in completely unliveable conditions, such as in tents in the summer. Should not the Western Saharan—Sahrawi—Government be able to access that international climate finance and become part of the international community, as they have a climate-adaptation plan?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and climate change is causing displacement around the world. Indeed, if the UK Government do not want people to make their way here by irregular means, then it is in their interests to help people who are displaced and oppressed to tackle the climate crisis and be able to live fulfilling lives in their countries of origin—and to ensure that that happens through peaceful, democratically legitimate ways.

In some respects, it is remarkable that the UK Government have not simply followed the United States in recognising Morocco’s claim to sovereignty, and presumably the Minister will not be announcing a change to that policy in response to today’s debate. That clearly does disappoint some Members on the Conservative Back Benches. There are some Conservative Members who give the impression that they would happily outsource the UK’s entire foreign and defence policies to the United States, irrespective of who makes up the Government of the USA at any given time, just as, at the same time, they would happily withdraw from the global conventions, treaties and charters that have maintained stability and defended human rights for the past 80 years or so.

I appreciate that that sometimes makes it difficult for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Ministers to call for the observation of international law and respect for the decisions of the global bodies that uphold and interpret that law, while many of their colleagues in other Departments are running around insulting international tribunals and dismissing them as foreign courts that the UK does not need to heed. Indeed, sometimes, the FCDO itself decides that it does not like the findings of such tribunals, such as the opinion of the International Court of Justice on the status of the Chagos islands. All that said, in this instance, the UK is wise to support the UN Security Council’s resolutions relating to Morocco and Western Sahara, and the calls for self-determination and for freedom of expression and association in Western Sahara.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

The hon. Gentleman is repeatedly referring to the United Nations and other organisations. Bearing in mind that there are about 195 countries in the world, will he recognise that more than 100 countries affiliated with United Nations recognise and support the Moroccan autonomy plans for Western Sahara? Does he recognise that figure at least?

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

The hon. Gentleman made that point in his contribution, but I think that the point is that the people of Western Sahara—the Sahrawi people—have to endorse whatever the ultimate autonomy arrangement is, so the UK Government are right to use not just the opinions of countries that are members of the United Nations and expressing their views, but the processes of the United Nations to reach determined conclusions. They also have to back up those words with action and, in particular, they need to be careful about the consequences of trade or other commercial arrangements that they enter into, or which they allow others to enter into. They will be aware of the decisions by the European Court of Justice to annul trade deals between the EU and Morocco that did not have consent from people in Western Sahara.

The Minister will have seen my recent written parliamentary questions, not least about the UK-Morocco strategic framework for co-operation on climate action, clean energy and green growth. It is important that that framework, and any other bilateral agreements, do not infringe the rights to self-determination of people in Western Sahara, or are seen tacitly or otherwise to endorse any unilateral claim or declaration of sovereignty made by Morocco. The UK Government’s position must be for a peaceful, democratic and negotiated settlement, agreed in a referendum. That could be a form of autonomy, or it could be full independence, which would by definition include obligations on any new nation state in Western Sahara to abide by the highest standards of democracy and peaceful international relations. Many of us in the SNP often say that independence is defined by our interdependence, a word that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham used—our peaceful coexistence and co-operation with other countries on the global stage, respecting the framework of the rules-based international order.

At the end of the day, it must be for the people there to decide, as has been said. It is not for the Government of Morocco or the United Kingdom Government—and certainly not in the commercial or economic interests of any individual Government, mining company or multi- national conglomerate—to determine future sovereignty. As we often say in the SNP, that must lie with the people. That is the principle that the UK Government should seek to uphold, even perhaps against their instincts and their interests, not just in Western Sahara but around the world.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 10:35, 8 May 2024

It is a genuine honour to serve under you as Chair, Ms Vaz. I think it is my first time—if not, it has been a long time. May I thank Daniel Kawczynski for bringing forward this debate? We have not had a proper debate in this place on the situation in Western Sahara since 2016, so I am glad that we can rectify that today at least.

I want to start by emphasising the importance of UK partnerships in north-west Africa. The Opposition strongly value our relationships with Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. My right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, the shadow Foreign Secretary, was in Morocco only last month, and when I was 18, I spent a wonderful month travelling around that beautiful land. If we are elected, Labour will commit to deepening our relationships across the economic and security spectrum. Sadly, the current Government have deprioritised these relationships, with no UK Foreign Secretary visiting Morocco since William Hague did so over 10 years ago.

The economic potential of the entire region could offer much greater mutual benefits, based on strengthening trade and investment ties, building institutional capacity and developing new partnerships. One example is the prospect of reliable long-term clean power imports. Another is the rare overlap between the potential for green hydrogen production and the potash minerals that are common in the region. In the near future, this could allow for fertilisers to be made with lower carbon emissions, and could provide secure supplies of green hydrogen for export to the UK too. These are areas of huge potential, in which our economic and climate ambitions align.

Sadly, as we have heard, much of this mutually beneficial engagement is frustrated by the continued conflict in Western Sahara, which impacts on hundreds of thousands of lives. As we know, the status of Western Sahara has remained unclear for almost 50 years, and it is more than 30 years since the Security Council resolution that established the promise of a referendum on the permanent future status. As we know, almost no material progress has been made towards that referendum. The people of Western Sahara have been let down, and the damage to peace, development and prosperity across the region is significant.

In 2020, sadly, the ceasefire broke down, resulting in renewed attacks across the line of control. While the violence has mostly remained sporadic and low level, we have to be clear that the damage done by the status quo is real. There have been civilian casualties, including one death and three injuries resulting from a Polisario Front mortar attack on the city of Smara in the Morocco-controlled area last October. There are also reports of human rights abuses in both Morocco-controlled areas and the Polisario-controlled Tindouf camps in Algeria. These include allegations of restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence in Morocco-controlled territory, and extrajudicial killings in the Polisario-controlled camps. Sadly, on both sides of the line of control, access for journalists and UN officials is restricted, which makes it all the harder for those abuses to be investigated properly and prevented. What steps are the Government taking to support access to the entire territory of Western Sahara and to the camps for UN human rights monitors?

The impact of continued ambiguity about the status of the territory has dire costs for the people of Western Sahara. About 190,000 people are growing up displaced, sad and angry, mostly in Tindouf.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

On that specific point, that everything must be done to find a solution to the Western Sahara issue, may I ask a question? In 10 months’ time, if the hon. Lady is not in Opposition, but is sitting on the Government Benches, what would be her Government’s position with regards to finding a permanent solution in Western Sahara? Everyone wants to know this Government’s position is and what that Government would do in that regard?

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs)

Should I be in the amazing position of being a Minister in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my current brief does not have Western Sahara under its belt, but who knows what the future may bring? We would look at the issue clearly because, as I said, the status quo is damaging—I think it damages British interests, as well as the interests of north Africa.

Generation after generation lives with precious little opportunity, almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid, and they are understandably angry at how badly they have been let down. We need to recognise the potential for terrorist groups to exploit the situation. The security of Mauritania and Algeria is threatened by the worsening instability and violence that continue to plague the Sahel, and the constant tensions and distrust caused by Western Sahara make it harder for our partners to work together against the increasingly common threat of terrorism and jihadist insurgency. I ask the Minister to update us. Is the Department working towards an updated assessment of the risk of terrorism generated by the situation in Western Sahara?

While the state of limbo continues, people living in Western Sahara are denied opportunities to develop their skills and economic resources that could turn poverty into prosperity, drawing on the region’s vast resources from minerals and fish to renewable energy. As the Minister knows, the potential legality of trade and investment by UK companies raises many questions that cut across the disputed territory. I hope the Minister will be able to set out what work is being done to address such ambiguities.

Given the scale of the risks and the opportunities, the UK should play a stronger role in supporting the return to the ceasefire and progress towards a permanent peace. I fully appreciate the range of views that exists within the House about how that should happen. Our international partners, too, have differing views, and there is not yet consensus on the right way forward. All that makes it more important than ever for us to take our lead from international law and to stand up for multilateralism at a time when it is even more contested and undermined. That is why the Labour party continues to support the UN-led efforts to achieve a lasting and mutually acceptable political solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.

That is the starting point, but it is not the end, because we all need to recognise that creative solutions and compromises will be necessary to move the dispute forward after many years. Diligent diplomacy by United Nations envoys, including the Secretary-General’s current personal envoy, has generated compromises that have been sadly rejected, often at the last minute, and this senseless conflict has persisted. In that context we need to be wary of those, like Russia and potentially Iran, who look at the continuing insecurity and instability and see opportunities to deepen the chaos and frustrate good-faith diplomacy. We call on our partners to engage constructively in discussions. We need to play our part in supporting creative ideas and building trust between interested parties towards a resolution within international law. I think we can agree across the House that we would like to see that resolution as quickly as possible.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:45, 8 May 2024

As always, it is an honour to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski on securing this debate. I am grateful to have heard the wide-ranging and quite different opinions that have been expressed today on a complex issue. I will seek to respond to the debate as best I can.

As hon. Members are aware—it has been well set out today—the history of Western Sahara is long and complex, marked by instability and conflict. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it is important to note that the UK’s partnership with the Kingdom of Morocco also has a long history, stretching back over 800 years, and continues to go from strength to strength, with deepening collaboration across new and existing areas. The relationship is structured on four pillars: diplomatic, security, economic, and education and culture. The fifth iteration of the strategic dialogue in London will take place shortly.

The UK and Morocco are like-minded partners on several foreign policy matters, given the continued unrest in the middle east following the events on 7 October. The Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad, the Minister with responsibility for north Africa and the middle east, have discussed our shared concerns and avenues for co-operation with Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita. King Mohammed VI has played an influential role in providing humanitarian support for Gaza—for example, in March, Morocco sent 40 tonnes of food by the Kerem Shalom crossing at His Majesty’s instruction.

The UK and Morocco also co-operate multilaterally—for example, at the United Nations, which has an important role to play in this context. We work together in many other areas. For example, there are over 40 planned defence activities over the year, including this year’s iteration of Exercise Jebel Sahara, a long-running joint military exercise first held in 1989. On security we have enjoyed diverse engagement in many fields, supporting our shared interests through training and the exchange of best practices.

Our economic partnership gets stronger by the day. Trade has increased significantly since our association agreement came into force in 2021, bringing total trade to £3.5 billion a year. The recent appointment of my hon. Friend Rob Butler as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Morocco will deliver a further boost. Our partnerships on language and education are increasingly significant aspects of our broader partnership. Others have highlighted the importance of the Xlinks power project. We are very interested in that and pleased to see that it has now moved to develop an outline business case.

On the status of the territory of Western Sahara and the focus of this debate—

Photo of Liam Fox Liam Fox Conservative, North Somerset

Before my hon. Friend the Minister goes on to his next point, may I question him on the issue of security? Clearly, stability in the region is in Britain’s national interest in terms of our security. Morocco is a key partner in the interdiction of people smuggling, the prevention of illegal migration, and stopping Iranian or Islamic State influence in the region, which would lead to further instability. Many of us therefore find it inexplicable that the Government do not follow our partners and allies in other countries such as Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States in recognising that the autonomy plan is the only game in town, and the only way that we can create progress for those who live in the region and wish to see not only security and stability, but economic development and eventually democratic progress.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his points, and I recognise his interest and experience in this subject, but as I said, we have a really strong partnership with Morocco. It is built on several pillars, and as I have already highlighted, the fifth iteration of our strategic dialogue in London will happen very shortly. It is a very important partnership to us.

Hon. Members will be aware that the history of Western Sahara is long and complex, tragically marred by instability and conflict. Since 1963, it has been defined by the UN as a non-self-governing territory, without a defined administering power. Resolution of its status, in keeping with the UN Security Council’s commitment, which I will come to shortly, has yet to be achieved. We have long supported efforts to find a solution, including the initiation of a ceasefire brokered in 1991 by the then newly established UN peacekeeping mission for Western Sahara, MINURSO, bringing to an end decades of violent conflict.

As is repeatedly enshrined in the United Nations resolutions, the UN Security Council retains a

“commitment to assist the parties to achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.”

The UK has consistently supported UN efforts to realise this commitment, approving UN Security Council resolutions, renewing MINURSO’s mandate, and supporting the current and previous personal envoys to the Secretary-General. The UK’s position is therefore aligned with our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which informs our desire to see such a solution achieved under the auspices of the UN’s political process. The UK believes that this is the best and probably the only way to secure a long-lasting and just settlement that all sides could accept.

As hon. Members are aware, in 2021, the UN appointed Mr Staffan de Mistura as the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy to Western Sahara, whose mandate derives from the Security Council’s commitment to Western Sahara. We welcome his recent visits to the region, and indeed, Lord Ahmad met the personal envoy in March to support these UN-led efforts. The UK also supports the work of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission to the Western Sahara, and in particular, its vital and ongoing work on de-mining.

The UK’s position is balanced across several core national and political interests, and based on our political judgment on how best to protect these interests. It is critical that we support the principle of self-determination; we are strongly committed to this principle and the right for people to decide their own future, as enshrined in the UN Security Council resolutions on Western Sahara.

Hon. Members have referred to the Moroccan autonomy plan. The UK has not commented publicly on this plan, but that is not a judgment on its merits or otherwise. I can assure this House, however, that the UK would, of course, warmly welcome any solution that can secure the support of all parties to resolve this dispute.

Other colleagues have mentioned Professor Weller’s legal study and asked whether we have reviewed our position. I can confirm to Members that our position on Western Sahara is constantly reviewed. I have not personally reviewed the study by Professor Weller, but I understand that officials in FCDO are aware of it and will review it in due course. It is in regard to the UK’s position on Western Sahara that officials would examine and consider the report and its analysis.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Noting the considerable interest in this matter, the line that the matter is “constantly reviewed” does not say anything. If the Minister does not have the answer to my question now, it would be helpful if he went back to the Foreign Office and put the response in the Library. When was the position reviewed last on the issue of Western Sahara? Will the Foreign Office review that position again after this debate in Parliament and in line with all the evidence submitted, including Professor Weller’s? The position to say that it is constantly reviewed does not answer the point for Members of Parliament.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

It may not answer it to My hon. Friend’s satisfaction, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this position is constantly reviewed. I have also highlighted our stance on other proposals that have been put forward. I am conscious of time, given what I would like to say on—

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I will give way, but the reason I want to move on quickly is that I want to talk about humanitarian issues.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The hon. Gentleman is committed to human rights and freedom of religion or belief. I am also very clear that we want to help promote and protect human rights worldwide, including in Western Sahara and in the Tindouf refugee camps. Human rights form part of our regular bilateral dialogue with Morocco and we raise concerns with the Moroccan authorities as appropriate. The UK provides humanitarian assistance to the Tindouf refugee camps via our contributions to UN bodies such as the World Food Programme.

Our relationship with Morocco is important and growing. Morocco is a stable, friendly and important country in the region that is undergoing positive economic and socioeconomic reforms, guided by His Majesty King Mohammed VI. We look forward to developing our relationship further. We are convinced that finding a solution to the issue of Western Sahara would unlock enormous potential, not just for Morocco but for the whole region, as has been said on both sides of the House.

We strongly believe that the UN process is the best and perhaps the only way to solve the long-standing dispute over Western Sahara in a manner that is acceptable to all sides. We urge all those who have a genuine interest in seeking a resolution to the dispute to lend their support. That remains the best way to deliver a sustainable, just and prosperous future for the people of Western Sahara.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 10:56, 8 May 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to have had this debate, which has encompassed some rather different views and objectives from various colleagues and parliamentarians.

I speak as one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys. For me, exports are one of the most important things because they are about hard currency coming into the United Kingdom. We have just become the world’s fourth largest exporter and I am extremely concerned, as can be seen in my written parliamentary questions to Ministers, that there is no UK Export Finance facility for Western Sahara because of the ongoing conflict. During my visit to Dakhla and Laayoune, I met many British companies working in tourism, construction, engineering and many other sectors that want to invest in Western Sahara. That is not possible because UK Export Finance is prevented from affording credit facilities for Western Sahara. That is why it is so important for us to resolve this issue and I am grateful for the opportunity of lobbying the Minister today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered Government policy on the recognition of Western Sahara as Moroccan.