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Rights groups call for investigation into violence in Western Sahara

Rights groups call for international probe into violence in Western Sahara. Cholera reaches Port-au-Prince, confirming health workers’ worst fears. Iraqi politicians finally negotiate government after months of deadlock. Former Navy admirals slam decision to scrap Harriers, claiming the move will jeopardise the Falklands. All this and much more in today's Security Briefing...
Josephine Whitaker
11 November 2010

Human rights activists have called for an independent inquiry into a raid by Moroccan security forces on a protest camp in the disputed Western Sahara region, which killed at least eight people on Monday.

Moroccan troops entered the Gadaym Izik camp outside Laayoune, Western Sahara’s main city, at dawn, where they reportedly used tear gas and high temperature water cannons to dismantle it. The camp, which had attracted 12,000 people, had been set up by Sahrawi groups protesting against the social and economic exclusion they face and the economic exploitation of their homeland.

The government claims that eleven security force members were killed in the violence, when residents of the camp resisted efforts to dismantle it. The Laayoune governor, Mohamed Guelmous, told reporters that troops were attacked with incendiary devices when they attempted to arrest “troublemakers” in the camp. The Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s pro-independence organisation, claims that eleven civilians were killed, 700 wounded and many more missing after being arrested by security forces. The raid produced unrest in Laayoune, where many Sahrawis reportedly took to the streets to protest the government’s action.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and renowned campaigner Aminatou Haider have condemned the raid. Haider today told the BBC that the Moroccan government raided the camp in order to deliberately sabotage ongoing talks. She described the raid as “well-studied, planned and calculated because the protest camp was there for already a month.” These events came just one day before high-level talks were due to take place New York on Tuesday.

The openSecurity verdict: Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony, annexed by Morocco when the Spanish withdrew in 1975. Now treated by Morocco as its ‘Southern Provinces’, Western Sahara is home to the indigenous Sahrawi people, a Berber ethnic group which wants self-rule of the region. The Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed movement demanding independence for the Western Sahara waged a guerrilla war against the Moroccan state until a 1991 ceasefire, since which a United Nations peacekeeping force, Minurso, has been monitoring the ceasefire agreement.

The Moroccan government retains a strong interest in Western Sahara because of its rich natural resources. With extensive phosphate and iron-ore deposits, several exploratory missions suggest that there may also be large oil fields in the region. Rich fishing off the coast of Western Sahara is another draw for a government keen to maximise revenues.

Despite these extensive natural resources, the region remains one of the least economically developed in the region. Official unemployment is around 25%, much higher than the Moroccan national average. However, activists claim that unemployment is far higher amongst Sahrawis, who are denied access to government jobs. Furthermore, a state-sponsored influx of Moroccan settlers since the 1990s has contributed to a process of ‘Moroccanisation’, which, according to Sahrawi rights groups, is endangering the traditional Sahrawi way of life.

The dispute has displaced unknown thousands of Sahrawis, many of whom now live Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria and Mauritania. In 2005, UNHCR estimated there to be 94,000 Sahrawi refugees ‘of concern’ in Algeria, while the Polisario Front puts the figure at closer to 165,000.

Talks on the ‘Western Sahara question,’ as it has become known, have long been deadlocked, with neither side willing to budge on its position. Rabat has repeatedly offered the Sahrawis a degree of self rule, but the Polisario Front will not be moved on its demand for a referendum on full independence.

The Moroccan government has been quick to paint Monday’s unrest as symptomatic of the Sahrawis reluctance to enter talks about the future of Western Sahara. Khalid Naciri, a government spokesman, said in a statement to the press that security forces resorted to using force in the Gadaym Izik camp only when “troublemakers” prevented Sahrawis from abandoning their shelters. The Moroccan foreign minister, Taieb Fassi Fihrim, also accused  the Polisario Front of seeking to “exploit anything to avoid a deep and continuous negotiation,” making clear the government view that the sole aim of the protests was to disrupt Tuesday’s talks on Manhasset, New York.

In response, many Sahrawi and sympathetic organisations, from the Polisario Front to international human rights groups, have also claimed in recent days that the government responded violently to what was a peaceful protest in order to engineer a pretext for cancelling talks.  

Counterclaims make a judgement on who is to blame for Monday's violence difficult. What is clear, however, is that this is not an unusual event for Western Sahara. Since the UN-brokered ceasefire of 1991, there have been sporadic flare-ups that have increased tensions in the region and periodically drawn international media attention. Efforts by the international community to support a peaceful resolution of the dispute have, however, been tentative at best.

The talks in Manhasset earlier this week were perhaps typical of discussions on Western Sahara. Although mediator Christopher Ross said that opposing parties met in “an atmosphere of mutual respect” the outcome was little more than a limited commitment to confidence-building measures and a slight increase in the pace of future talks, with another round scheduled for later this month.  

Unfortunately, without more concerted intervention from the international community, it is unlikely that future talks will be any more productive. Until a third party (one at a greater remove from the situation than, say, Algeria) involves itself in talks, it is likely that only a crisis-situation in Western Sahara will force either or both sides to make concessions.

Although no other country has recognised Morocco’s right to Western Sahara, Minurso is embarrassingly toothless, even by UN standards. As Amnesty International pointed out in its call for a probe into Monday’s violence, “the absence of a specific human rights monitoring component has undermined Minurso’s effectiveness and allowed human rights abuses to pass without adequate investigation.” The United States and many Western European countries are said to be frustrated by the ongoing conflict, which pits Rabat against neighbouring Algiers, thereby hampering attempts to bolster counter-terrorism efforts in the Maghreb.

At present, Morocco has little incentive to offer the Sahrawis more than self-rule. The gains from Western Sahara, even limited as they are by the present conflict environment, are too big a prize to give up easily. Conversely, the Sahrawis are committed to a referendum on independence because they know that self-rule is unlikely to be meaningful so long as Morocco has a strong interest in extracting the region’s minerals.

What is needed is a concerted international effort, preferably UN-led, to broker a compromise that will guarantee a meaningful degree of autonomy in Western Sahara, protecting the region’s people and natural resources by raising the costs of Moroccan predation. Until this effort is made, Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute will remain just that.   

Cholera reaches Port-au-Prince, confirming health workers’ worst fears

A cholera epidemic that has claimed 644 lives in recent weeks has reached Haiti’s over-populated capital, Port-au-Prince, alarming doctors with the speed of its spread. The arrival of this highly contagious disease in the capital, home to some 1.3 million earthquake survivors, has been labelled “a matter of national security” by Gabriel Thimote, head of Haiti’s health ministry.

The epidemic, which was first discovered in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley, to the north of the capital, began in mid-October. Approximately 10,000 people are thought to be receiving treatment for this water-borne disease in hospitals around the country. Around 170 patients are receiving treatment in hospitals in the capital.

Although cholera had previously been identified in Port-au-Prince, all the sufferers were believed to have recently travelled from the affected area. However, on Tuesday this week, Haiti’s health ministry confirmed that the first case of cholera in a patient who had not left the city in several months, suggesting that cholera may have entered water supplies in the capital.

Public health experts believe that Hurricane Tomas, which battered the island last week and caused widespread flooding, may have expedited the spread of cholera in Port-au-Prince. Much of Haiti lacks basic infrastructure and sanitation, with thousands of people still living in temporary shelters around Port-au-Prince. Experts at the Pan American Health Organisation predict that up to 270 000 people may become infected with the disease in the next six months to a year. The priority now, they say, is to educate the public about basic preventative measures to stop the spread of the disease.

Iraqi politicians finally negotiate government after months of deadlock

Iraqi politicians finally negotiated the formation of a new government after seven hours of talks yesterday, resolving an eight-month political deadlock since inconclusive elections in March. The new unity government will be headed by Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister, but will also, crucially, include a power-sharing arrangement involving Shia, Sunni and Kurdish parties, designed to prevent sectarian tensions. Jalal Talabani of the Kurdish alliance will remain president, and Iyad Allawi, of the Iraqiya coalition, will head a newly-formed security council. The parliamentary speaker will also be a Sunni member of Allawi’s bloc. Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani last night described the deal as a “national partnership” and gave thanks to God that “last night we made a big achievement, which is considered a victory for all Iraqis.”

In national elections on 7 March, Iraqiya secured 2 more seats than al-Maliki’s coalition, and since then the Sunni-majority bloc has repeatedly demanded the right to form a government. However, the inconclusive result gave no party an overall majority, forcing all sides into months of tense negotiations. Ongoing uncertainty has ratcheted up tensions as American forces prepare to withdraw from Iraq next year.  A judicial ruling last month ordered the Iraqi parliament to resume business, which is thought to have pressured politicians into making a deal.

Former admirals slam decision to scrap Harriers, claiming the move will jeopardise the Falklands

A group of former Royal Navy admirals have slammed the UK government’s decision to scrap the UK’s Harrier jet force and HMS Ark Royal, describing it as “strategically and financially perverse.” The admirals suggest that the move, which will mean a near-total reliance on Tornado jets, will cost the government “seven times as much” and put the Falkland Islands at risk of an Argentine invasion.

This strident condemnation of the government’s decision to make savings in the defence budget came in a letter sent to The Times newspaper, in which a number of officers, including Lord West of Spithead and Sir Julian Oswald, Admiral of the Fleet, urged David Cameron to rescind cuts announced in last month’s defence spending review.

The letter argues that the Harrier jets are a cheaper and more effective defence asset in comparison to the alternative Tornado jets. More significantly, the letter claims that “the newly valuable Falklands and their oilfields, because of these and other cuts, for the next ten years at least, Argentina is practically invited to attempt to inflict on us a national humiliation on the scale of the loss of Singapore.”

This criticism of government policy comes amidst mounting concern within the defence establishment about cuts to budgets and lucrative contracts. The decision to scrap Nimrod aircraft, an ocean surveillance plane that monitors threats to Britain’s nuclear submarines. Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord, told a defence industry conference in London that he is “very uncomfortable” about the decision to scrap Nimrod.

However, In response to questions about the Falkland’s security, the island’s government has said it is “satisfied” with its protection. Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey has also been quick to insist that the Falklands can still be protected without an aircraft carrier, underlining improvements to the islands’ defences since the 1982 Argentine invasion. Harvey also said that the Tornado was the right aircraft for the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and would suffice for the next ten years.  

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