Subject: GU: JRH on Western Sahara

Comment & Debate: The dignity of the ballot:

A 30-year anniversary marks independence in East Timor, but continued misery in Western Sahara

10/31/2005 05:35:21 PM EST


Today is a sad anniversary for the people of the Western Sahara. It marks 30 years of exile, occupation and denial of identity, 30 years since Morocco seized the territory in the face of a ruling by the international court of justice.

Why do I, as a citizen of East Timor, write this? Because this anniversary is also a sad one for me. In 1975, my country was also abandoned by a crumbling Iberian empire - Portugal, rather than Spain - permitting its invasion by an ambitious neighbour, followed by long years of suffering and indifference on the part of the powerful nations.

In those years, an affinity grew between the Timorese and the Saharawis. I myself have visited the Saharawi refugee camps, a guest of the liberation movement the Polisario Front. In 1999, as the Timorese achieved their quest for a referendum of self-determination, protesters in the towns of the Western Sahara celebrated the release of a clutch of political prisoners with the slogan "Sahara gharbiya, Timor sharqiya" ("Western Sahara, East Timor").

The year of East Timor's referendum was to have been the year of the Western Sahara's much delayed vote on self-determination, but here our histories diverged. My people embarked on nation building, reclaiming our resources as a sovereign nation. In the Western Sahara, Morocco was busy settling its people in the territory, exploiting fisheries and phosphates and preparing to lure foreign oil companies. The view that Rabat would lose the referendum on self-determination gained currency, and Morocco scuppered the settlement plan it signed up to in 1991.

However, although the fighters of the Polisario Front remained true to a ceasefire, Saharawis in the occupied territories have increasingly taken it upon themselves to assert their civil rights and their right to determine their future. This summer witnessed a series of Saharawi demonstrations in Western Sahara, in southern Morocco and even on university campuses in the heart of Morocco. A long hunger strike by political detainees has just ended, and protesters and civil rights activists have been held without trial or condemned to long years of imprisonment. Meanwhile, in the terrible environment of the Algerian desert, the refugee community continues to watch and wait.

There is a message here for the powerful nations of the world. It is one they have heard before, not just from Timorese and Saharawis but from every people that has asserted its right to self-determination. The message is that "self-determination" is not a legalistic term to be inserted or deleted from the algebra of diplomatic formulas, nor can its value be altered to achieve a pre-agreed result. Men and women, over generations, will stubbornly suffer for the dignity of freely putting their cross on a paper in a ballot, the outcome of which is not known until the counting is completed.

The settlement plan offered this possibility but was rejected by Morocco. An alternative devised by the former US secretary of state James Baker was agreed by the security council and by the Polisario Front. Morocco rejects this too, its position bolstered by some European powers in the misguided belief that stability in the southern Mediterranean can be bought with policies that will increase instability in the Sahara.

There is a danger that, in the corridors of power, the chance to press forward towards a settlement in Western Sahara will be lost through attempts to dilute a people's right. Those attempts will prove to be a cul-de-sac, because they cannot deliver the Saharawi people's acquiescence. Thirty years of suffering is too long. The Saharawis demand more than another dead end.

Jose Ramos-Horta is the foreign minister of East Timor 

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