Sunday, June 05, 2016

Tales of Decolonization #8: Serenity and Calm

Today is the first day of the United Nations Committee of 24 Regional Seminar in Managua, Nicaragua.  Although the seminar started 90 minutes late, once we began things seemed to be fine, although the seminar chair Rafael Ramirez from Venezuela called upon people to help create a serene and calm atmosphere today. Speakers who followed him also requested that our discussions today be filled with serenity and calm. These comments struck me as strange at first, although I soon learned what was compelling this emphasis on comity.

The first time I attended a United Nations regional seminar it was for the most part uneventful. After I presented, there were no questions for me. My presentation didn't come up again for the rest of the seminar and so formally, my contribution boiled down to seven minutes of talking, the electricity to run the mics and translation devices, and the paper and ink on which each attendee was given a copy of my remarks. The second time I attended a regional seminar there was much more going on. The Chairman at that time Lasso Mendoza instituted a more open form of discussion and encouraged participants to ask questions and as such I received several questions after I was finished. Although my visits to both seminars was quiet serene, there were portions of the discussion which grew heated.

There are two main points in the discussions of Non-Self-Governing Territories that cause fireworks at these regional seminar and in the United Nations infrastructure in general, the first is Western Sahara, the second is the Malvinas (the Falkland Islands). The rest of the Non-Self-Governing Territories either don't attend the regional seminars or their administering powers refuse to recognize their obligation to decolonize anything. So when people from Guam or the Virgin Islands or American Samoa testify no one really challenges us, in truth they use our statements to poke diplomatic fun at the United States for claiming to be about democracy and freedom, while refusing to support such things in their own possessions.

But for Malvinas and Western Sahara, there are countries involved who are clear interests and seek to use the Committee of 24 and other diplomatic means to secure or protect it. I'll write about the Malvinas in another post, but the United Kingdom and Argentina fight regularly over that, all the way down to the name. In all United Nations documents both Malvinas and Falkland Islands appear with a footnote indicating that there is a dispute over that territory. As such, when Argentina and the United Kingdom (with their allies) battle over it during the seminar, it leads many to whisper that this isn't really a decolonization issue, but a territorial one that should really be handled elsewhere.

The Western Sahara is different. Technically it has no administering power, but Morocco has occupied parts of it and is very invested in denying that there is any form of colonialism present.
Usually the debate over whether or not Morocco is colonizing the Sawari people comes about in the middle of the seminar when we move from the Pacific, which is relatively quiet, to the Atlantic, but this seminar was different.

As soon as we began, something was amiss. In addition to being late, there was no agenda. The initial introductions were made, but soon after a number of member states asked to speak, the first being Morocco. There had been whispers as we waited that Morocco and their allies on the Committee of 24 were holding up the start of the seminar because of the representative who was speaking for the Western Sahara in the agenda.

Spain colonized the Western Sahara region in the 19th century, by that time their time as a global power was already waning. After World War II, Spain joined other imperial powers in giving up (willingly or after being forced to) their colonial possessions. It negotiated to give up control over Western Sahara to the neighboring nations of Morocco and Mauritania, but did not acknowledge the will of the people in the region, who the United Nations identified as having the right to self-determination. A political group POLISARIO Front formed at the time proclaiming the Western Saharan to be an independent republic. Fighting ensued and Mauritania withdrew, but Morocco did not. They invaded Western Sahara in 1975 and continue to occupy much of it up until this day. The Human Rights record of Morocco in Western Sahara has been atrocious as Amnesty International recently rated Morocco as one of the worst five nations in the world for torture.

Since 1975, there have been a number of attempts to broker a peace and get Morocco to withdraw as much of the world disagrees with their claims to be the legitimate rulers of the territory. But the government of Morocco stands firm in their unwillingness to relinquish control, as the King of Morocco said more than a decade ago "We shall not give up one inch of our beloved Sahara, not a grain of sand." There have been attempts by Morocco to erase the realities or their occupation of Western Sahara and enhance and authorize their claims to being there. They have created programs to negotiate or offer "autonomy" to the region, although always under their circumstances and with the condition that their claim to the land we recognized. This leads to a complicated set of conditions, as former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annon noted in 2002.
The Security Council would not be able to invite parties to negotiate about Western Saharan autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, for such wording would imply recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which was out of the question as long as no States Member of the United Nations had recognized that sovereignty." Spain is still considered as the administrative power, but Morocco however is the de facto administrating power since it controls most of the territory.
Morocco has some allies, but countries stop short of recognizing their claim outright. Instead a group of more then three dozen nations have declared their support for the Polisario Front and for the Sawahari Republic. Since 1979, the UN has recognized the Polisario Front as the representatives of the Non-Self-Governing-Territory of Western Sahara. As a result of this, when the regional seminar is held each year, representatives from the Polisario are the invitees, who get to speak on behalf of the people of the Non-Self-Governing Territory. At the larger meeting of the Fourth Committee, which is open to anyone to attend, the government of Morocco sometimes sends dozens of people each year to testify in support of their occupation.

The delay at the start of this year's seminar was due to Morocco and its allies trying to protest and prevent the invited representative from Western Sahara, Ahmed Boukhari (Polisario Front) from testifying. In their minds, a puppet government that they have set up are the real representatives and so they should be the ones to come and talk about what the people of Western Sahara want and what is best for their future. Morocco holds elections in the parts of Western Sahara that they control, and argued to the regional seminar that these are the true representatives of the people of Western Sahara and that they should be sitting at the table talking about the state of affairs.

A representative of Morocco spoke very forcefully at the start of the seminar, precluding quite quickly any notion of serenity and calm. But as Morocco is not a member of the Committee of 24, but rather just an observer at the proceedings his voice, however loud, couldn't travel very far. But a number of country, primarily small Caribbean island states spoke up in favor of Morocco's position, calling on the chair of the session, to be sure to respect the voices of everyone and work to form a consensus. I asked some of the other experts why it was that all these small nations from across the Atlantic seemed to in favor of the position of Morocco, even though it is at odds with what most of the diplomatic community might argue. No one wanted to state explicitly what was going on, although several of them whispered the word "money" as they hedged, indicating that Morocco might be providing aid to small island nations in exchange for their support with their Western Sahara policies.

All in all this debate pushed the start of the seminar back several hours, until eventually the chair of the session had the rules of procedure read to those gathered, making clear that the invitations to the regional seminar were at the discretion of the chair. Even though it was considered best practice to listen to the feedback of other countries, the ultimate decision was the chair of the session. There was more debate over this, before eventually the matter was set aside. Serenity and calm reigned over the session for a day, until the issue of Western Sahara came up again later.

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