Speech by Adv Z. L. Madasa from the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs on occasion of the Conference on Multilateralism and International Law with Western Sahara as a Case Study, 05 December 2008.

‘Geopolitics and Realpolitik as impediments to the Saharawi’s Right to Self-determination’

Excellencies of the Diplomatic Corps,
Distinguished Participants

The story of the Western Sahara is an epic tale of Africa’s last remaining colony that has confounded and divided the international community.   With no bombs and an appalling lack of diplomatic action, the story, though rich in tragedy, lacks the immediate drama required to propel it to the front pages.  The world is familiar with the suffering of the Palestinians living in refugee camps for over 50 years but less familiar with the plight of another Arab people also languishing forgotten in refugee camps behind a sand wall.  In the more than three decades since the declaration of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) the cause of the Saharawi people has dwindled into all but a non-issue as far as most of the international community is concerned.   In a world where the probability of outcomes is often predicted with some certainty, no one, neither expert nor diplomat, would have anticipated that after more than three decades Saharawi refugees would still be in their tented towns in the Algerian desert separated from their kin living under occupation without freedom and dignity. 

The story of the people of Western Sahara has been tainted by the stigma of realpolitik for some time.   The geopolitical backdrop that spans the more than thirty years of the Saharawi struggle saw the shifting international context of the region from the realpolitik of the ‘Cold War’ to the realpolitik of the ‘War on Terrorism’.    The Western Saharan narrative is essentially about the evolving relationship of Morocco and Algeria to the United States, France and Spain and through it to the African continent and the world.   Day by day Saharawis are confronted with decisions based on considerations of power rather than ideals, morals, justice or principles.   And still the Saharawi liberation struggle simmers on and each phase is accompanied by its own diplomatic furore as political practitioners ply their trade and direct the course of a people. 

The story of Western Sahara is littered with the words of so many discarded resolutions. While the International Community continues to adopt carefully crafted resolutions at the United Nations in the interest of balance and compromise, the Saharawi refugees in their desert refugee camps endure yet another day in collective anticipation waiting for the promised day that they can go back home. 

If you talk to experts and diplomats covering Western Sahara, almost all will admit that legal right is on the Saharawis' side. Even the former United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Western Sahara recently told the Security Council that the law clearly favours the Saharawis.  At the same time he also morally indicted the so-called power players as being in Morocco’s camp.   

More and more Saharawis are faced with “realities of power” based on hard, practical and even sometimes coercive and amoral considerations.   Saharawis are coerced to face the world as it is, rather than how it ought to be.  Should this be the ultimate and depressing lesson of the Western Sahara?  Should we agree that the world is being run by the dismal calculus of "interests" and realpolitik?  Should the only constants in the shifting political sands be the all but forgotten plight of thousands of people patiently awaiting their promised right to decide their own fate?  Can there be a compromise between international legality and political reality?   Is international law simply a tool in the diplomatic kitbag that can be utilised to justify politically motivated actions?  The outcome of the Western Sahara dispute is clearly of great importance to thousands of indigenous Saharawis and their kin but should their fate only concern the international community inasmuch as the interests of the major powers are affected?  Does might make right? 

Political reality is subjective.  Therefore a rules based international order through multilateralism and the rule of law remains the essential prerequisite for the resolution of conflict between nations.

We all waited, some of us glass in hand, for the clock to strike midnight on New Year's Eve 1999.  What did we anticipate? Some welcomed the new millennium with the sense of confidence that the spectre of nuclear obliteration had been averted with the end of a bi-polar world divided into an East and a West. Others felt the trepidations of a dominant world order centred on the nations of the West.  The seismic power shift as the last millennium drew to a close was in the eyes of the victors the beginning of a new age where the rivalry over politics, economics and culture was finally settled - history was concluded decisively and finally. The nations of the West had won and the United States of America was the defining power of the triumphant West.

Now imagine that that at the same party as you toast in the new millennium you had a chance meeting with a African traditional fortune teller that claimed to be able to divine the future by throwing the bones that would tell what the future would bring. The incantations are pronounced and the bones are spilled and they foresee the collapse of the Twin Towers and attack of the Pentagon, they show two wars that cannot be won and North Korea exploding a nuclear bomb. You hear of oil prices that reach $147 a barrel and fall back to less than $50 a barrel, a war in Lebanon that goes badly for the Israelis. Will you expect that that Gaza will be won by Hamas and banks and major industries will be nationalised in capitalist strongholds?  Or that in the not too distant future a black man will be elected to the highest office in America?   The world is not static and history does not end! 

Where to from here? The question remains as the fate of Saharawis is being determined by regional and global forces that follow the dictates of particular interests and which unfortunately do not always hold the Saharawi people, or the merits of their cause, central to a solution.   The legal, moral and political responsibility of the UN is clear. The mandate of the UN and its mission is to help achieve the decolonisation process of the last colony in Africa.  The UN mandate is not to reward the aggressor that violates international legality and refuses to abide by UN resolutions. To attempt to do so is to betray not only the Saharawi people but also the international community at large. It is indeed an affront to ask the Saharawi people who have suffered immensely from Morocco’s occupation of their homeland and been denied their basic human rights, to accept an imposed ‘political reality’ and negotiate a compromise on international legality. The UN cannot wash its hands of the Western Sahara conflict and abandon its responsibility – if it does, the UN’s credibility will suffer and its integrity will be buried in the Saharan sands.

One can but imagine the blow to the collective patience of a people waiting to go home for more than thirty years sustained by the belief that one day their homecoming will happen because the world cares enough to ensure that they can exercise their legal right in an act of self-determination through a vote. For those of us that want to believe that the world is fundamentally just, that wrongs are eventually righted, and that in our policies dealing with other countries and people we are inherently fair and righteous, the endless denial of justice of the Saharawi people should shame us.  For here is a people with right wholly on their side, international law emphatically in support of their cause, an agenda item of the U.N. Security Council for decades, that are still ignored. 

 There is also something frightening about the possible reaction of a people that has invested so much trust in the legal prescripts of a process even though that trust has been betrayed so many times before.   The reality is that the Saharawis are waiting and the threat of violent regional conflagration if their waiting ends in the appropriation of the Western Sahara by Morocco outside of any legal process should not be downplayed.   There is indeed a line in the sand that the Saharawis cannot cross unless they accept being Moroccans. 

The international community and South Africa can never be silent if accepted international law principles are flagrantly breached. Former President Nelson Mandela said “There is no such thing as part freedom.”  And Africa cannot be free until Western Sahara is free.  Denying the Saharawi people the right to self-determination is an injustice that will forever haunt world conscience.

Issued by the Department of Foreign
Private Bag X 152
Pretoria, 0002

08 December 2008

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