Lesotho condemns military operation in Western Sahara

KANANELO BOLOETSE

MASERU – Lesotho has deeply condemned the November 2020 attacks in a United Nations (UN)–patrolled buffer strip in Western Sahara that subjected civilian protesters to injuries, arrests, torture, and death.

Morocco said its forces moved into the buffer strip, at the Guerguerat zone, a contested territory in Western Sahara, following weeks of “provocations” from members of the Polisario Front – a pro-independence movement.

Since October 21, 2020, the Polisario Front had blocked the movement of goods and people along the key road in the area connecting Morocco and Mauritania, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The ministry accused the group of carrying out “acts of banditry” and “harassing” UN peacekeeping forces operating in the region.

The road lies at the junction of the part of the disputed territory controlled by Morocco and cuts across the buffer strip towards the borders between Western Sahara and Mauritania. The Polisario Front considers the road illegal since they say it was built in violation of the 1991 truce.

In November, Moroccan security forces announced that they had set up a “security cordon” to secure the flow of goods and people through the buffer zone and later said its troops had fully secured the crossing.

Polisario Front officials then accused Moroccan security forces of shooting at civilians who they said had been “demonstrating peacefully” against what they consider Morocco’s plundering of resources and the UN’s silence on human rights violations.

“Lesotho is deeply concerned about the contravention of the commitments under the OAU (Organisation of African Unity, now African Union) Settlement Plan that both parties welcomed three decades ago,” the Permanent Representative of Lesotho to the UN, Nkopane Monyane, said on Monday this week.

Monyane added: “This situation sadly undermines the integrity of our valued organisation. We deeply condemn the November 2020 attacks into the Buffer Strip in Guerguerat that subjected civilian protesters to injury, groundless arrests, torture, and death.”

He said while it was the obligation of all UN member states to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all peoples, it was disturbing that the Sahrawi people still endured the “inhumane treatment meted by the armed Moroccan forces”.

Monyane was making a statement to the UN during the C-24 substantive session on the question of Western Sahara.

“We condemn all forms of attacks to the civilian population and urge both parties to cease hostilities and engage in talks genuinely aimed at achieving a long-lasting solution and promoting human rights of the Sahrawi people,” he said.

Tensions in the region date to 1975 when Morocco annexed Western Sahara, a former Spanish protectorate that was also briefly occupied by Mauritania.

For years, the Polisario fought for the independence from Morocco in an armed resistance that lasted until 1991 when the UN negotiated an armistice between the two parties.

Despite multiple peace initiatives through the 1990s and early 2000s, the conflict reemerged in 2005 in the Moroccan-held portions of Western Sahara, and lasted until November of that same year.

In late 2010, the protests re-erupted in the Gdeim Izik refugee camp in Western Sahara. While the protests were initially peaceful, they were later marked by clashes between civilians and security forces, resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides.

Another series of protests began on 26 February 2011, as a reaction to the failure of police to prevent anti-Sahrawi looting in the city of Dakhla, Western Sahara; protests soon spread throughout the territory.

To date, large parts of Western Sahara are controlled by the Moroccan government and known as the Southern Provinces, whereas some 20 percent of the Western Sahara territory remains controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario state.

“The question of Western Sahara has been on the Agenda of the UN for decades. Despite the UN General Assembly resolutions that have over the years called for the decolonisation of Western Sahara and enabling its people to exercise their inalienable right to self- determination, the situation regrettably remains unresolved,” Monyane said on Monday.

“It is now three decades since the Security Council approved the Settlement Plan and subsequently established the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). It is however, deplorable that the self-determination referendum has not been held,” he added.

He further told the UN that in furtherance of this impasse, the appointment of a Special Representative has been, “for all too obvious reasons,” been blocked while the community of nations watches.

“We therefore reiterate our call to the Security Council to urgently facilitate a free and fair referendum on self-determination of the Sahrawi people in line with the General Assembly resolution 1514 (XV) of 1960 comprehending the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to colonial countries and Peoples,” he said.

While the current situation in Western Sahara was dire, Monyane said it was appalling that the last visiting mission of the Special Committee on Decolonisation was in 1975, thirty-one years ago. He urged the committee to ensure its presence on the ground, “as this will be vital to finding first-hand information regarding the circumstances on the ground”.

Further, he urged the special committee to show commitment through intense outcome based intense support to efforts of the UN Secretary-General in the relaunch of the peace process negotiations between the Frente POLISARIO and Morocco.

“In conclusion Mr President, Lesotho wishes to reiterate its call upon parties involved in the conflict on Western Sahara, to refrain from all destructive attempts intended to divert even the little progress that has been achieved thus far.

“It is regrettable that Western Sahara remains the only colony on the Continent of Africa in deliberate contravention of the principles of the United Nations Charter and the relevant United Nations resolutions. It is even more regrettable that the deplorable treatment is meted out to the People of Western Sahara an African neighbor,” he said.

In October 2019, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lesego Makgothi, ignited controversy after he wrote to Morocco on October 4, saying Lesotho had decided to adopt what he called “constructive neutrality” on the issue of Western Sahara.

Makgothi was accused locally of unilaterally changing Lesotho’s long held foreign policy position in support of Western Sahara’s independence.

In May last year, the current Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister, ’Matšepo Ramakoae, reiterated Lesotho’s support for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.

“With regard to the October 2019 diplomatic note, there was no cabinet decision to change Lesotho’s foreign policy or position on Western Sahara. As a matter of fact, the issue was never submitted for consideration by the cabinet. Therefore, any pronouncements made purporting to change Lesotho’s position on this issue are of no force and effect,” Ramakoae said in a statement.

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