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With his controversial past statements on the United Nations now being used as munition against his candidacy to be the United States Ambassador at the UN, President George W. Bush’s nominee John Bolton has an uphill battle in proving himself as anything but an enemy of the global body.
But at his raucous confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Bolton pointed to his pro-bono work on a little-known area of the world as evidence that he respects the work of the UN: Africa’s last colony, the Western Sahara. Bolton assisted former Secretary of State James Baker when his then-boss was appointed UN Special Envoy to the Western Sahara and given the task of organizing a referendum for self-determination in the territory, which has been occupied by Morocco for the past 30 years. For just a minute, Bolton put this tiny territory on the Senate’s map.
Many of the Senators attending the hearings might have never heard of the Western Sahara, a stretch of land that lies between Morocco and Mauritania. In 1975, Morocco invaded the Western Sahara following the withdrawal of Spain, its former colonial ruler. The invasion had the support of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and was facilitated by Spain with the signing of an agreement that allowed Morocco and Mauritania to take possession of the land. Mauritania later withdrew.
The brutal military invasion was followed by a repopulation campaign known as the Green March, with hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens moving to the area with the promise of financial aid and a better life. At the same time, almost 200,000 Sahrawis, as the natives of the land are known, were forced into exile, settling in camps in Algeria, whose government has supported them financially and militarily. Others too frail to make the long trip by foot through the Sahara Desert stayed behind in the occupied lands, creating traumatic family separations that have lasted to this day. Thousands of others were killed, disappeared or jailed, while many young men and some women joined the newly-formed Polisario Front in a war against Morocco that lasted until 1991, and that produced thousands of deaths on both sides. With US aid, Morocco built a wall more like an interminable sand trench lined with over a million landmines stretching for over one thousand kilometers between the occupied lands and a small part of the Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario Front, known as the “liberated zone.” Morocco refers to it as the “protective wall”; Sahrawis call it the “wall of shame.”
Despite several UN resolutions calling for a referendum on self-determination and a ruling by the World Court denying Morocco sovereignty over the territory, the issue has languished at the Security Council since the 1991 cease-fire, its members reluctant to annoy their close ally Morocco. The United Nations peacekeeping mission to the territory, known as MINURSO, is to expire at the end of this month. The Council will once again vote to prolong it by a few months and will thus continue to postpone a final resolution on the issue, unable to agree on a final plan and unwilling to force Morocco to abide by its international obligations to allow a referendum. As Morocco’s closest ally, France supports a solution that ultimately adjudicates the land to Rabat, while the US wavers between its ties with Morocco Washington just signed a bilateral free trade agreement with Rabat that specifically excludes the Western Sahara and its resources and its newfound, post-September 11 interest in Algeria, which is becoming a strategic US ally on the war against terrorism. As the world’s only superpower, the United States is key to resolving the issue.
Meanwhile, the socialist government of Spain seems to be moving away from its historic support of a referendum on independence for the Sahrawis, and towards a solution more accommodating to Morocco. This is part of an all-out effort by Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to repair his country’s damaged relationship with its southern neighbor, which suffered under the presidency of Jose Maria Aznar. Polisario Front representatives in Madrid have expressed deep concern over Spain’s shift, saying that as a former colonial ruler with legal administrative powers in the territory, Spain has much to say about the conflict, just as Portugal’s position was key to the organization of a referendum in East Timor. Spanish citizens, the large majority strongly supportive of an independent Western Sahara, are asking the Zapatero government to reconsider its position.
Baker, who presented two different peace plans during his seven-year mandate, left last June after Morocco pulled out of the last agreement, which the Polisario had accepted. Along with Bolton, current Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick served on Baker’s team. The agreement they drafted, known as the Baker Plan II, called for an initial vote on autonomy, followed by a second vote five years later on independence. The negotiations were continuously mired in disputes over who would have the right to vote in either referendum whether it would just involve the indigenous Sahrawis listed in a 1974 census conducted by Spain just before its withdrawal, or also include the Moroccan settlers of the Green March. The Baker Plan would have allowed only the pre-invasion Sahrawis to vote on autonomy, and would have permitted Moroccan settlers to vote on independence, an arrangement clearly favorable to Morocco. But Morocco pulled out, unwilling to take even a minimal risk at the polls.
Now, approaching the 30th anniversary of the invasion, hundreds of thousands of natives of the Western Sahara continue to languish in the harshest of conditions in refugee camps in Western Algeria or under Morocco’s brutal occupation, all but forgotten by the rest of the world. The Western Sahara is Africa’s last remaining colony.
But shareholders at the Oklahoma-based energy company Kerr-McGee are probably more than familiar by now with the issue. Kerr-McGee is the sole remaining oil company conducting offshore oil explorations in the disputed territory. Its investors are currently the target of a campaign launched by NGO’s in 20 different countries asking them to force the company to abandon its agreements with the Moroccan government by not renewing its contract, due to expire on May 1st. Organized through the US-based Western Sahara Resource Watch, the campaign asks investors to sell their shares if the company does not heed their demands.
In 2001, Kerr-McGee and the French oil company TotalFinElf signed contracts with Morocco to explore possible oil reserves off the coast of the Western Sahara. Total ended its activities after a Danish company conducting its pre-exploration seismic studies decided to leave due to public pressure from NGO’s.
Kerr-McGee thus far refuses to abandon its activities, despite an opinion issued by the UN Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs in 2002 that while the status of the Western Sahara remains unresolved, further exploration of oil and mineral resources are “in violation of international law.” Other divestment campaigns have been successful: one major Kerr-McGee investor, the Norwegian Skagenfondene, sold its shares rather than risk negative publicity, taking a two million dollar loss. Another Norwegian investor in Kerr-McGee, the government-owned Norwegian Petroleum Fund, is also considering selling its shares, valued at around $7 million.
Oil is not the only valuable resource in the Western Sahara. The land is rich in phosphates, and its coasts are estimated to offer the most plentiful fishing in the Atlantic. These past few days, tensions have escalated in the occupied area between the local Sahrawi people and tens of thousands of Moroccans who have established fishing settlements along the coast with the encouragement of their government, and whom the Sahrawis accuse of depleting the ocean of its fishing resources.
Oddly, despite its traditionally socialist outlook, the Polisario Front’s strongest backers in Washington are mostly composed of conservatives, most of them tied to think tanks such as the Defense Forum Foundation, the American Conservative Union and the American Enterprise Institute, which houses Bolton, Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick and Newt Gingrich. Those who know Bolton say he is strongly in favor of a referendum for the Sahrawis, having visited the refugee camps. On its website, the Defense Forum Foundation, which has financed numerous trips by US members of Congress and their staff to the refugee camps, describes the Sahrawis as a “pro-Western” population that is fighting against occupation. Perhaps these groups are attracted to the cause because the Polisario Front is a profoundly secular political organization, and is thus seen by American conservatives as a counterbalance for other, more Islamic-leaning governments in the region. Much of this may also be the work of a lone activist in Washington, DC, Polisario Front representative Mouloud Said, whose work making the Sahrawi cause known in Washington is so effective that Morocco has had to pay millions of dollars to PR firms to counter Said’s effect.
So paradoxically, a progressive group of people see Bolton’s nomination to the UN as a ray of hope for their cause. This speaks to the utter failure of the international community to resolve the problem, and points to a lack of political courage by large nations to defend a people that ask only to be given the opportunity to decide on their own fate. Long forgotten and often betrayed by leftist political parties, the Sahrawis welcome any attention to the issue. The younger generations of refugees, who have never seen their land, are restless to see the issue resolved. Most have had the opportunity to travel beyond their barren homes, thanks to a program that sends schoolchildren to Spain over the summer, and later to university in Spain, Algeria, Cuba or Russia. Many come home with degrees such as ocean engineering or architecture, inapplicable in the camps but crucial for a future life elsewhere. It is they who will rebuild their homeland, if given a chance.
MARIA CARRIÓN, a freelance journalist living in Madrid, is a former producer for Democracy Now! She can be reached at: MARIACARRION@cs.com