Statement of Congressman Joseph R. Pitts
United Nations Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly
October 6, 2004
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honor to be here before the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly and have the opportunity to again express concerns about the unresolved conflict over Western Sahara and the continued suffering of the Sahrawi people as a result of the lack of implementation of the UN Settlement Plan, the Houston Accords, and now the Baker plan.
It would have been a great pleasure to be here today commending all parties involved in the process for the exceptional progress made on the issue of Western Sahara. Tragically, the people of Western Sahara still have not had the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination and they still languish in refugee camps the harsh Sahara Desert.
Why does the situation remain unresolved? Unfortunately, there is one party who has clearly obstructed progress. And, even more unfortunate is the fact that the international community has allowed this party to continue to impede any and all progress in administering a free, fair and transparent referendum for the people of Western Sahara.
Yet, it is not only the referendum and the right to self-determination that is at stake here. In October of 2002, I shared that I and other officials had received disturbing reports that the Moroccan Government signed contracts with foreign companies for the exploration of resources in the territory of Western Sahara. Reports detail agreements made between various business interests and the government of Morocco to exploit resources in an area of land under international dispute.
Once again, I must share that the these reports and exploration activities continue in blatant violation of the January 29, 2002, UN legal opinion on these economic actions in Western Sahara. The legal opinion given to the UN Security Council states that Morocco has neither sovereignty over Western Sahara nor rights of legal administration.
Further, the opinion confirms that any exploitation of the resources of this land without the consent of the Sahrawi people is in violation of international law: if "exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories."
This summer the U.S. government completed a free trade agreement with the country of Morocco. I voted in support of this agreement because it is mutually beneficial to the people of the U.S. and Morocco. However, I voted in favor of the agreement with the caveat that the U.S. Administration make it clear that the agreement covers only the internationally recognized borders of Morocco.
In a letter from U.S Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, the U.S. position is stated as follows, "The Administration's position on Western Sahara is clear: sovereignty of Western Sahara is in dispute The United States and many other countries do not recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara The FTA [Free Trade Agreement] will cover trade and investment in the territory of Morocco as recognized internationally, and will not include Western Sahara."
Unlike many others in many parts of the world, the Sahrawis have chosen a peaceful path to democracy. I strongly welcome the confidence-building measures taken by the Polisario Front which has released over 700 Moroccan POWs since July 2003; the number of POWs the Polisario has liberated since 1991 now totals 2,000.
However, it is with regret that I share that the government of King Mohammed VI has not reciprocated in a commensurate way; the fate of over 565 disappeared Sahrawis in Morocco and over 160 disappeared Polisario military troops remains unknown.
We owe the democratic people of Western Sahara no less than the support we have given others in their fight for independence-the right to have a say in their own future. The fact that the Sahrawis have opted for non-violence in the affirmation of their identity and have respected the terms of the cease-fire signed in 1991 between their representatives and Moroccan officials is telling in terms of who is committed to actually settling the conflict. Unfortunately, the continued delay of this referendum has brought disunity among countries in Africa. If the conflict between these two parties is left unresolved, it has the potential to further disrupt peace and stability in the Maghreb region, thus threatening the interests of the entire world.
UN officials must use their unique influence in that region to press the parties to adhere to their agreements in the Peace Plan and to implement it under the supervision of the United Nations. A peaceful, successful resolution of the conflict over Western Sahara will provide a signal to the broader Middle East and North African region that in the 21st century there are successful alternatives to violence in the pursuit of national aspirations.
The international community, including the U.S., must recognize that the time has come to abandon empty promises and hollow rhetoric in favor of a free, fair, and transparent referendum for the Sahrawis. This is the only way to build a peaceful, democratic future for Western Sahara and the entire region.
What will it take to get the UN to follow up on its commitment and the various resolutions passed in the Security Council? Self-determination is at the core of the existence of the nations of our world. Since 1975, the Sahrawi people have been promised a referendum. Yet, because the government of Morocco does not want a democratic solution, the UN is not implementing the referendum.
One report I received even said the UN could not enforce the results of the referendum if Moroccan officials did not like what happened. This is tragic. The very foundation of the UN is at stake when one party holds the world community hostage by creating obstacles that lead to inaction and impotence.
This obstructionism is exemplified by reports that some MINURSO offices apparently operate under a veil of secrecy, thus individuals on the ground can undermine MINURSO's mandate and effectiveness. One of my staff members experienced the obstructionism firsthand this summer when he traveled to the liberated zone of of Western Sahara in order to view the wall that the Moroccan government built to keep the Sahrawis out of their homeland.
During their travels in the area, my staff and others on the delegation had hoped to meet with MINURSO officials in Tifariti. When their guide phoned MINURSO to request that officials meet with the delegation, the response was, and I quote, "We will not receive them."
Interestingly, the MINURSO officials then immediately communicated with the US Embassy in Morocco that congressional staff were on the ground. My office received a phone call from the Embassy inquiring as to the whereabouts of my staff - there does not seem to be a lack of ability to communicate, if MINURSO really desires to do so.
Again I must ask, what will it take to resolve this conflict? Does the UN mean what it says? It said that a referendum would happen, it has not been held. It said it would implement the peace plan, yet it has not. The UN must act now in order to restore its credibility. The needed action is clear - both parties signed a number of agreements upholding a referendum for self-determination. The voting lists are established. What's next? Implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1541, adopted April 29, 2004, which reaffirmed support for the Peace Plan for Self-Determination of the People of Western Sahara. Let the voting proceed.
Mr. Chairman, the Sahrawis voluntarily laid down their arms to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict because the international community committed to resolving that conflict. Yet, as of today, the international community has not assisted in the holding of a referendum, has not assisted in breaking down the wall that keeps them from returning home - we have not kept our word. Instead, we have allowed one country to dictate its own will.
In 1993, His Majesty King Hassan II stated, "I have always said that, in this country, the rights of man stopped at the country of the Sahara. Anyone who said that the Sahara was not Moroccan could not benefit from the rights of man." What have the Sahrawi people done in the face of such blatant disregard for their rights by the leadership of Morocco and by the international community? They have continued to respond with dignity and compromise and they have wholeheartedly pursued the establishment of democracy. The Sahrawis deserve better.
Those who use violence to achieve their ends should not be promoted. Instead we must unreservedly support and assist those who model peaceful change. The Sahrawis deserve our support. A free, fair, and transparent referendum for self-determination must go forward.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, thank you again for the opportunity to be here and share these concerns with you.