Latest Developments, April 26

In the latest news and analysis…

Into Africa
Stars and Stripes reports that the US is sending 550 marines to Spain to serve as an Africa-focused “crisis reaction force”:

“[Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos] said the unit, which will serve the needs of U.S. Africa Command boss Gen. David Rodriguez, also could eventually be repositioned on the African continent if U.S. diplomatic officials make such an arrangement.
‘Right now, they’re temporarily going to Morón, Spain, as a placeholder,’ Amos said during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee. ‘I think they are going to move sometime. It wouldn’t surprise me to find them moving around the African continent.’ ”

Calling a spade a spade
The CBC reports that former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin has said that the country’s residential schools made “use of education for cultural genocide”:

“The residential school system existed from the 1870s until the 1990s and saw about 150,000 native youth taken from their families and sent to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of ‘civilizing’ First Nations.
Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide or died fleeing their schools. Mortality rates reached 50 per cent at some schools.”

Phantom companies
Global Financial Integrity’s Clark Gascoigne welcomes the German, French and UK governments’ calls for the disclosure of the “true owners of companies and trusts”:

“GFI studies estimate that anonymous shell companies and tax haven secrecy facilitate the illegal outflow of roughly $1 trillion from developing countries every year, exacerbating poverty and instability.

‘It’s fantastic to see the three largest economies in Europe endorse eliminating anonymous shell companies,’ [GFI Director Raymond] Baker remarked. ‘France, Germany, and the UK are demonstrating real leadership. The rest of Europe should join them to put an end to these terrible phantom firms.’ ”

New mission
Reuters reports that the UN Security Council has approved the establishment of a peacekeeping mission for Mali called MINUSMA, comprising a force of 12,600 with backup from the French military:

“French forces would be able to intervene to support MINUSMA when peacekeepers are ‘under imminent and serious threat and upon the request of the secretary-general,’ according to the resolution.
Russia said on Thursday it was alarmed that there was a growing shift towards a ‘force aspect’ within U.N. peacekeeping operations after the council last month created a special combat force within its peacekeeping mission in Congo to carry out ‘targeted offensive operations’ to neutralize armed groups.
‘There must be a clear division between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This is why we believe that the mandate of MINUSMA does not provide for offensive operations,’ Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council after the vote.”

Old mission
The Associated Press reports that the UN security council voted to maintain MINURSO, the 22 year-old peacekeeping force in Western Sahara, after the US dropped its proposal that a new mandate include human rights monitoring:

“In a report to the Security Council last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for “independent, impartial, comprehensive and sustained monitoring of the human rights situations in both Western Sahara and the camps” for Saharan refugees because of continuing reports of rights violations.
The United States, following up on the report, proposed having the UN monitor human rights in the resolution it drafted to extend the mandate of UN peacekeepers.

Diplomats said that when the U.S. presented its draft resolution to the Friends of Western Sahara group, which includes Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Spain and Switzerland, there were strong objections from France so the U.S. dropped the human rights monitoring provision.”

American stain
A New York Times editorial calls Guantanamo Bay “essentially a political prison” that should never have been opened:

“It was nothing more than Mr. Bush’s attempt to evade accountability by placing prisoners in another country. The courts rejected that ploy, but Mr. Bush never bothered to fix the problem. Now, shockingly, the Pentagon is actually considering spending $200 million for improvements and expansions clearly aimed at a permanent operation.

Just as hunger strikes at the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland indelibly stained Britain’s human rights record, so Guantánamo stains America’s.”

Plundering Africa
EurActiv reports on a new study revealing the complicity of European Banks and tax havens in the “plundering” of Angola in the 1990s:

“Millions of dollars were transferred through banks based in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Cyprus, the Netherlands, the British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man to the benefit of powerful Angolan and Russian figures, the report shows.

[Corruption Watch UK’s Andrew Feinstein] added that it was because of the facilitating role of banks, tax havens and the veil provided by front companies that national resources were stolen from the poorest citizens with impunity.
Feinstein’s report makes several recommendations to Angola, Switzerland, the EU and its member states, and the financial sector to initiate investigations and take legal measures to prevent wrongdoing. In particular, he recommends that the EU’s accounting directive, which will require reporting of payments to governments in the extractive and forestry sector, be extended to include the banking sector.”

Fair trade fashion
In the wake of the building collapse that killed hundreds of workers making clothes for Western brands in Bangladesh, the Guardian’s Susanna Rustin expresses frustration that “applying even the most modest ethical criteria is ridiculously hard” for consumers:

“The Rana Plaza collapse is all the more distressing because it seems to have been avoidable. Consumers can’t prevent such tragedies. Governments and NGOs must apply pressure, both to the retailers responsible for the people who make their clothes, and to those in charge of regulating them. But until we can be more confident that workers’ lives are not being endangered, we must start to be more curious about where our clothes come from. Some of us are wearing clothes sewn by those killed this week in Dhaka.”

Keeping the status quo in Western Sahara

On Thursday, the UN Security Council voted to maintain MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission established in Western Sahara in 1991, after the US backed down from a proposal that human rights monitoring be included in any new mandate. The following is an unpublished piece written in Laayoune, Western Sahara in December 2006 about human rights monitoring, or the lack thereof, in the disputed territory. Some of the specific details may have changed in the intervening years but, depressingly, the essence of the problem remains the same…

In Laayoune, a small city more than 1,000 km south of Casablanca, things are not always exactly as they may seem.

Last month, Moroccan identity was proudly on display all over town. On building after building, lone green stars danced on red backgrounds, driven by a desert wind. An even 40 flags on the local waterworks building alone.

Not to be outdone, pictures of King Mohammed VI fuelled the patriotic fervour. Instead of just hanging discreetly behind store counters, His Majesty’s likeness was now plastered on billboards all along the main streets and squares: looking dapper in a three-piece suit, sitting magisterially on his golden throne or striking a fine balance between Saddam menace and Top Gun glamour.

It was a time to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from France and Laayoune looked more than happy to join in the party.

Except that this place was never French and is not necessarily Moroccan.

At least, not according to most maps, it is not. Not according to the African Union or close to 50 of the world’s countries either. And most emphatically not, according to the rebel Polisario Front which has fought for independence against Spain, Mauritania and Morocco at various times since its formation in 1973. By their reckoning, Laayoune is actually the main city and would-be capital of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), a.k.a. Western Sahara. And Morocco is the illegal occupier of Africa’s last colony, eager to exploit the territory’s wealth of phosphates, offshore fishing and possibly oil.

Ridiculous, responds Morocco. This sandy strip of land the size of Great Britain is an integral part of the kingdom, only separated from the whole by the wheeling and dealing of imperialist Europe. It was 31 Novembers ago, as Morocco prepared to celebrate two decades of independence, that 350,000 unarmed civilians crossed the border into Spanish Sahara and righted an historical wrong by reclaiming the territory for the motherland. The Green March, as it was called, not only earned its own national holiday but is depicted today on the 100-dirham bill, complete with the green star of the national flag Escher-morphing into a dove: Morocco is peace.

This difference of opinion is why Western Sahara is home to Africa’s oldest UN peacekeeping mission. It is why, more than three decades into the dispute, 160,000 refugees are still waiting in camps across the border in southwestern Algeria. It is why a 2,000 km landmined sand wall, dividing Moroccan-controlled and rebel-held areas, keeps the people in those camps from seeing their families in towns like Laayoune, Smara and Dakhla. And it is why allegations of torture, police brutality, and a general lack of freedoms abound.

A number of international delegations, including one by the UN human rights agency (OHCHR), visited Western Sahara and the camps in the wake of a series of violent protests which took place in Laayoune and elsewhere in the territory in 2005. When the dust had settled, one man was dead and many more wounded and arrested. Some of the perceived ringleaders were sentenced to prison terms before benefiting from royal pardons. But other activists remain behind bars and there has been serious criticism of police action and the functioning of the justice system by both Moroccan and international NGOs as well as the authors of the confidential but leaked OHCHR report.

Morocco, in turn, accuses its critics of ignoring human rights violations committed by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front. Based in the refugee camps, the group functions as the government in exile of the SADR, the state which it proclaimed three months after the Green March. Morocco contends that the Polisario is mistreating refugees and holding them in the camps against their wil, a view supported by the somewhat controversial European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center.

While the OHCHR report’s authors direct most of their criticism at Morocco, they do point out that the Polisario enjoys a political monopoly in spite of the multiparty democracy enshrined in the SADR’s constitution. Moreover, civil society organizations are invariably affiliated with this single party and work in the camps is compulsory and unpaid. All of which is justified by the Polisario as the unfortunate but unavoidable result of life in exile. The report’s authors avoid judging the merits of this argument and simply call for further study of the situation in the camps where, according to a recent World Food Programme appeal, two-thirds of women are anaemic and one-third of children under five are chronically malnourished.

The main message of the OHCHR report is the need to respect the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination, which the UN General Assembly has recognized since the days of Spanish occupation. This concern underlay the establishment of MINURSO, the UN peacekeeping mission’s French acronym in which the ‘R’ stands for the referendum on the territory’s status that was supposed to be held in 1992. Fracesco Bastagli, the mission’s former head, recently blamed Morocco for blocking the peace process by refusing to risk a vote in favour of independence. He further denounced France’s unconditional support of Morocco and American ambivalence on the issue.

But in the world of realpolitik, Morocco is a precious gem as a moderate Arab nation occupying prime real estate along both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. And in a national address on the most recent anniversary of the Green March, the king argued that tampering with current borders could destabilize the region and create a weak microstate unable to control terrorists and traffickers. Given the disaster that was neighbouring Algeria in the 1990s and the belief of some experts that Africa will be al-Qaeda’s next stronghold, this line is likely not a hard sell in some very significant circles.

In the end, the UN Security Council voted unanimously at the end of October in favor of yet another mandate extension for a peacekeeping mission that has succeeded in upholding a ceasefire but failed to move the parties closer to dispute resolution. What is more, the latest resolution makes no mention of concerns over human rights abuses in the territory, a blow to those who ask that the monitoring of such rights be included in MINURSO’s mandate.

The king is currently reviewing a new proposal that would grant autonomy to the south within the framework of Moroccan sovereignty. For now the details remain shrouded in secrecy but the document should be presented to the UN Security Council within the next few months. What such autonomy will actually entail, in a country where virtually all power rests with the king, is not clear. But in any event, the Polisario wants outright independence. Period.

And so, another November has passed, marking one more year that Morocco has enjoyed independence and Western Sahara has not. In Laayoune, most of the flags have come down and the billboards of the king are gone, replaced by a Superman impersonator peddling financial services. But the thousands of Moroccan security forces, dressed in green or blue or plain clothes, have not gone anywhere. A handful of well-intentioned UN workers continue to drive about in shiny white Toyota 4Runners and Land Cruisers, unable to do anything about reports of disappearances and police brutality. The sand wall still stands. And on the other side, 160,000 undernourished refugees are left to wonder why nothing ever changes.