Tuesday 24 April 2018

President Higgins offers condolences to Western Sahara after 'untimely loss' of disputed territory’s leader-in-exile

Graham Clifford

President Higgins sent his condolences to the people of Western Sahara this week following the death of the disputed territory’s leader-in-exile risking a souring of relations between Ireland and Morocco.

Revolutionary leader Mohammed Abdelaziz was the leader of the Polisario Front and the partially recognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) which has its base in the harsh Tindouf refugee camps in the desert sands of Algeria.

The Polisario Front is a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement aiming to end Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara.

In October 2012 the Moroccan Ambassador to Ireland was temporarily withdrawn after President Higgins became the first European Head of State to meet with Mr. Abdelaziz.

Officials from the Department for Foreign Affairs were keen to the point out that the meeting was not an official recognition of the SADR state but rather that Mr. Abdelaziz represented the native people of Western Sahara. 

It was a major coup for the Western Saharan Independence Movement.

Morocco, which fought a 16-year-war against the Polisario Front for effective control of the desert nation, do not recognise Western Sahara as a country in its own right and claim it’s their ‘Southern Province.’

Read more: Waba: child of the desert

In his message to the people of Western Sahara, most of whom are nomadic or decedents of nomads, President Higgins said: “I met the late Secretary General (Mr Abdelaziz) both in Africa and in Ireland. Ireland has been among those countries which have provided personnel to the United Nations peace-keeping forces in Western Sahara. On behalf of the people of Ireland, I offer my condolences to Mr. Abdelaziz's family, to the Polisario Front and the people of Western Sahara, as they mourn his untimely loss. I remain supportive of all those who are seeking to achieve peace in the region.”

In 1991 a UN-brokered ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front was reached on condition that a referendum be held to allow Western Saharans self-determination. But that vote has never taken place despite President Abdelaziz pleading with the United Nations to stay true to its promise.

MINURSO – A U.N Pease-keeping force has been deployed since 1991 and currently includes three Irish Defence forces personnel.

In March Morocco expelled UN staff after Ban Ki-Moon used the word “Occupation” to describe their actions in Western Sahara. 

And now tensions in the region are high as the Polisario Front prepare to elect a successor to Abdelaziz who ruled for 40-years. While his policies brought a partial peace to the region frustrated youths among the 90,000 refugees in the Tindouf camps believe a return to war might be the only way to progress their cause.

Read more: UN asked to block Irish firm's Africa oil drilling

Irish oil and gas exploration company San Leon Energy, of which Oisin Fanning is Executive Chairman and former government Minister Conor Lenihan a board member, has been the target of a campaign by the Saharawi people in recent years. They believe San Leon, which has been drilling in Western Sahara, are exploiting the natural resources of their occupied country.

But Fanning told the Irish Independent last year: “San Leon refutes any implication that the company is somehow acting as a rogue actor. We are not the first western company to operate in the Southern Provinces (of Morocco)…. San Leon is proud to act in unison with other major oil and gas companies in the region.”

By Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said: “Any exploration and exploitation activities that proceed in disregard of the interests of the people of Western Sahara would be in violation of the principles of international law.”

A small number of Western Saharans live in Ireland today. This week they too called for a referendum on self-determination for their fellow countrymen and women as they mourn the passing of their former leader. 

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